All hail Uber, anywhere but Logan
The other day it cost me under $20 to hail an Uber from Dorchester to Logan Airport. Coming back, the bill was closer to $60.
The ride out of the airport always costs more because of the tunnel toll and other fees, but one of the biggest reasons for my sticker shock is Tom Glynn, the guy in charge of the airport.
Glynn has decreed that drivers for ride-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft can’t pick up passengers at Logan unless they have commercial livery plates like those used by limousines. Most drivers charging lower rates have conventional plates.
And if members of the House get their way on proposed legislation to regulate companies like Uber, Glynn’s rules can’t be changed for five more years. Many have derided the House’s proposal as propping up the taxi industry by protecting the last bastion of its business.
At best, this is bad policy; at worst, it’s protectionism.
But Massport’s rules also need to change. When passengers land in Boston, they expect to tap an app on their smartphones and order just about any ride-sharing service they want. This is no longer a fad or just how millennials roll.
Uber has cut deals to allow UberX at all but a handful of the country’s 40 biggest airports. That’s the company’s most popular and affordable option in which drivers use their own cars to pick up passengers. Lyft has also made similar arrangements at many airports.
On Monday, I had no problem catching an UberX from Globe headquarters because there are no restrictions going to the airport. Coming back, however, I opened up the app to find this message: “No UberX available.” This, the company tells me, happens over 40 percent of the time due to Logan rules. For me to use Uber at all, I had to take UberBlack, its more expensive service.
So yes, Boston may be the hub of innovation, the new home of General Electric, the birthplace of Zipcar and iRobot, the cutting edge of health care, but don’t try to get a cheaper ride from the airport.
I get why Glynn, chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which oversees Logan, is toeing a hard line here. The cabbies feel threatened, and Glynn needs to keep them happy because they’re a critical part of Logan’s ground transportation. Or, as he likes to call taxi drivers, a “volunteer army.”
To keep ride-hailing companies in check, Glynn will only allow Uber and Lyft drivers to pick up from the airport if they follow the same rules as limos and black cars. That means getting commercial plates, going through another background check, and paying Massport $3.25 per ride. Lyft, unable to yet negotiate a deal, suspended pickups from Logan a few months ago.
Glynn insists that Massport rules are not holding back Uber, but rather the company and drivers themselves are opting out. If they complied, then Uber could be as big as it wants to be at Logan. Glynn tells me he’s all for more consumer choice at the airport, but he wants to be fair.
“We don’t have special rules for Uber,” Glynn told me Monday sitting in his East Boston office overlooking the harbor. “We have rules for everybody.”
House and Senate leaders are trying to hammer out differences on the ride-hailing legislation by the end of the month. The Senate bill doesn’t impose a moratorium at Logan, or a House proposal for a five-year ban on ride-hailing companies from picking up fares at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.
Rather than trying to shoehorn ride-for-hire companies into the existing rules, we need new ones. Uber, Lyft, and others shouldn’t be viewed the same as limos; the vast majority of their drivers work part-time and don’t cater to the same deep-pocketed clientele that limos and black cars serve. As for making the drivers go through additional screening, that’s something these companies need to work out with Massport given the heightened security concerns around airports.
Other airports have welcomed the ride-hailing industry into the fold by assessing fees and per-ride surcharges. For example, at Los Angeles International Airport, UberX cars are assessed $4 for each pickup and $4 for each drop-off. At Pittsburgh International Airport, Uber pays a $2.90 per pickup and a $12,000 annual permit fee.
That’s the right approach to leveling the playing field. The Senate version of the Uber bill gets at this idea by imposing an assessment of 10 cents per ride — money that will go to cities and towns that can be used on everything from road repairs to compensation for taxi owners whose required medallions have lost value.
The state could go further with additional fees to and from Logan in exchange for expanding ride-sharing services.
Neither the state nor Massport should be in the business of controlling the market with an iron fist. The consumers have spoken, and we want an alternative to cabs. We act like this is a Boston problem, and it’s hard to come up with a solution when others have figured out a way to nurture a new industry without destroying an old one.