Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday that such ride-hailing services as Uber and Lyft can continue to operate in Massachusetts just as they currently do. For the moment.
But new regulations could be coming in six months, by which time Baker plans to have developed a framework for issuing state licenses to companies that connect people in need of a ride with private motorists willing to shuttle them around for a fee.
In a statement, Baker gave advocates and opponents little indication about how restrictive the oversight measures might be, leaving the ride-hailing industry’s future in Massachusetts uncertain, at a time when at least 17 major cities and four states have passed laws governing such transportation network companies.
“Emerging transportation options such as Uber and Lyft present a real opportunity for our evolving transportation ecosystem to more efficiently serve residents and visitors to Massachusetts alike,” Baker said. “We also have a responsibility to step up to ensure consumer choice and public safety prevail.”
Services such as Uber, which debuted in Boston in 2011, have been operating in a legal gray area. They assert taxi rules don’t apply because the companies do not employ drivers or own cars. Instead, their apps for smartphones and other mobile devices connect users to networks of independent drivers who use their own vehicles to take paying customers from point A to point B.
Uber’s strategy has sometimes met fierce opposition, even in places known as bastions of high technology. In December, Portland, Ore., hit Uber with a cease-and- desist order. A day later, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles sued the company for allegedly misleading customers about its driver-screening process.
Taxi owners, who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for medallions that permit them to operate in Boston, contend that ride-hailing companies should be subject to the same regulations they face. In January, the Boston Taxi Owners Association sued the City of Boston for allowing Uber and similar services to operate.
Meanwhile, recent accusations of sexual assaults by Uber drivers have intensified the calls for additional oversight.
Baker’s leanings have been difficult to discern since last year’s gubernatorial campaign, when he declined to outline a regulatory vision for what technologists call the sharing economy — a marketplace that also includes services such as Air-bnb, which allows travelers to book nights in private homes instead of hotel rooms.
“It’s hard to get a read on the new governor,” said Jose Gomez-Ibanez, a professor of urban planning and public policy at Harvard University who specializes in transportation. “I imagine we’ll see [tougher] background checks for drivers, safety checks for cars — things Uber will be glad to agree to.”
Baker, a Republican, directed the Department of Public Utilities to let stand, for now, temporary regulations enacted at the eleventh hour by his predecessor, Democrat Deval Patrick, that allow ride-hailing services to continue their operations largely unfettered.
In the final days of Patrick’s tenure, cabbies denounced the move and questioned the outgoing governor’s motives. Uber’s senior vice president of policy and strategy, David Plouffe, was an adviser to Patrick during gubernatorial runs in 2006 and 2010.
Permanent regulations by the DPU need legislative approval, however, and Baker said he plans to file a bill with input from ride-hailing companies, taxi owners, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.