Cambridge cabbies took a page from their Paris comrades’ playbook on Monday, staging a strike to protest Uber and other ride-hailing companies that are stealing a growing number of riders.
But while the French drivers in June won strong support from the national government, which has outlawed some Uber services, the reaction from Cambridge officials boiled down to this: Uber is too popular to stop.
“You guys realize the constituency that supports Uber is the majority and you’re the minority, right?” said a frustrated City Councilor Nadeem Mazen, arguing with a mob of angry cab drivers who overheard him remark to a reporter that he uses Uber every day. “The state is about to make Uber legal — it’s about to make it fully legal, OK? And you guys are about to be in an even worse position.”
The fundamental complaint of the protesting drivers, who numbered about 50 to 60 throughout the day, was familiar: Uber openly flouts existing regulations, unfairly undercutting taxi owners who cannot raise fares in response to demand, who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for medallions that are plummeting in value, and who must buy expensive commercial insurance.
In response to Monday’s protest, which was opposed even by the area’s two largest taxi advocacy groups, Cambridge officials agreed the rules were unfair and called the drivers hard-working small businessmen. And yet they seemed completely resigned to Uber’s increasing market dominance, saying the city would almost certainly not move to stop such services and that a majority of their constituents prefer the convenience of ride-hailing smartphone apps.
For Mazen and most other officials, the debate has shifted from banning ride-hailing companies to regulating them, while possibly relaxing longstanding regulations that are suddenly strangling the cab industry.
“At this point, we understand that the shared economy is here to stay,” said Cambridge’s vice mayor, Dennis Benzan. “What we need to start thinking about, and should have thought about a long time ago, is deregulating the cab industry.”
At it aggressively expands, Uber has generated controversy in many cities around the world. Besides the ire of cabbies, the company has drawn scrutiny from local and national governments over its practice of treating its drivers as contractors instead of employees and its lack of accommodations for people with disabilities; both issues are the subject of ongoing lawsuits in California, for example.
In Cambridge, Benzan and Mazen said they supported several proposals to soften the blow on cabbies, including a city-funded “buy local” ad campaign to support taxis, lowering fees on taxis, and helping cab companies develop or buy an app similar to Uber’s that would allow customers to summon cabs and rate drivers, an effort that could be funded with a modest local tax on ride-hailing companies.
“If I had something just as convenient [as Uber] for cabs, I would use it,” Mazen said. “We need to level the playing field so cabs can compete.”
Cambridge has twice tried and failed to check the explosive growth of Uber. In 2013, it lost a lawsuit against state regulators, and last year, the city abandoned an attempt to enact new rules after Uber supporters flooded public hearings.
For the moment, ride-hailing companies are operating more or less unfettered under provisional rules renewed this week by Governor Charlie Baker, though individual municipalities can and have imposed their own tighter regulations.
Baker has submitted a bill to the Legislature that would put in place a permanent rulebook, to be enforced by the state’s Department of Public Utilities. The measure includes new requirements such as state background checks on ride-hailing drivers, but it was drafted in cooperation with ride-hailing companies and is widely seen as an “Uber-friendly” law that would mostly preserve the status quo for consumers.
A competing statute proposed by two Boston legislators is supported by the taxi industry and would impose tougher rules on ride-hailing companies, which vigorously oppose it.
The Legislature is expected to resume debate on the rival proposals in September.
Monday morning, the striking Cambridge drivers parked their cabs in a bus lane in front of Cambridge City Hall, chanting loudly and honking their horns. Police tolerated their presence, occasionally shooing away drivers who blocked the road.
One cabbie, 30-year veteran Michael Gervais, stopped his Ambassador cab in the middle of the street, jumped out, and started shaking his fists in the air and yelling in support of the protesters on the sidewalk.
“These guys here are trying to work for their families,” Gervais said, gesturing to the crowd of cab drivers. “They’re taking away our rights and our livelihood and it’s killing the small businessman.”
Gervais said his business was down by at least 50 percent since Uber debuted several years ago.
The cab organizers demanded a meeting with Cambridge officials within 48 hours — or else, they said, they would continue to escalate the protest.
Nelson Hernandez, 47, complained that many independent drivers like himself had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their city-issued medallions — permits to operate — that they planned to sell upon retiring, but which are plummeting in value.
“That’s our retirement gone,” he said. “We’ve worked a lifetime for that.”
In 2014, the price of a Cambridge medallion dropped from $620,000 in the first sale of the year to $500,000 in July. And it has been more than a year since the last Cambridge medallion changed hands, city records show.
There are about 260 medallions.
Most passersby were not impressed by the protest.
Wanda Queen, 68, said several Cambridge cab drivers had been rude and unhelpful when she needed rides after a recent surgery, often ignoring her directions and taking long routes to her destination.
“I’ll walk or beg for a ride before I take a cab,” Queen said.