As Mayor Martin J. Walsh and his new team at City Hall prepare to overhaul Boston’s transportation policies, one car service popular among Boston’s tech set isn’t likely to face any changes: Uber.
Available in Boston since 2011, Uber lets passengers hire private livery drivers by using an app on their smartphones. But as it gains users, Uber has also become a target of the taxicab industry, as well as local officials and lawmakers who are struggling with how to treat the transportation upstart.
Many critics have said that the only way to ensure Uber is truly safe, and its drivers are properly trained, is to subject it to the same regulations that cabs have endured for years.
“People should feel safe when they are traveling in Boston,” the mayor said Friday. “We cannot turn a blind eye to public safety concerns around unregulated modes of transportation, but we also cannot condemn a popular, effective service like Uber that takes responsible steps to ensure the safety of their users. There is a balance.”
Walsh said he is taking a comprehensive look at the city’s transportation services — from taxis to buses to smartphone car services — and is working with the new police commissioner, William Evans, to come up with new policies.
Walsh’s statements followed comments from Evans on Monday to WBZ radio in which the commissioner likened Uber to “gypsy” cab operations, which are unlicensed taxis that pick up fares on the street, and questioned whether the lack of oversight by his department meant “there could be Level 3 sex offenders driving.”
Because Uber operates outside the bounds of the taxi system, and uses smartphone technology to link drivers with passengers, it is not overseen by the Hackney Carriage Unit that regulates cabs and performs background checks on drivers.
Uber typically uses professional drivers who have obtained commercial livery licenses from a Massachusetts municipality. But those types of drivers typically do not undergo criminal background checks, as do taxi drivers, before being able to operate their liveries.
After a woman reported being raped last year by the driver of a livery car operating in Boston, a local taxi drivers association called for more oversight of private cars and drivers. And this week, a national taxi and limo association launched a campaign called “Who’s Driving You?” to pressure regulators to increase oversight of Uber and similar services such as Lyft and Sidecar.
Uber said it goes to great lengths to perform background checks and that it does not allow anyone convicted of sex offenses to become an Uber driver. It said it also has a zero-tolerance policy regarding previous alcohol and drug offenses, so that drivers convicted of driving under the influence aren’t eligible.
“We are proud that our checks are the strictest in the city and the strictest in the industry,” said Meghan Verena Joyce, general manager of Uber’s Boston office. “Every driver that wants to use Uber’s technology platform must pass a background check.”
Even though Uber has support from Walsh, the company is undergoing some growing pains. It is facing a wrongful death lawsuit in San Francisco after an Uber driver hit and killed a 6-year-old pedestrian; several of its drivers are suing it over a payment dispute; and once-loyal users have been complaining loudly about price gouging.
Michael B. Farrell can be reached at email@example.com.