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To take on Uber, Cambridge taxi operators ask city to ease rules

Taxi drivers marched up the steps of Cambridge City Hall last year during an anti-Uber protest.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2015/Globe Staff

Taxi companies have routinely called foul on cities for allowing app-based ride services like Uber to cruise the streets without facing the same local regulations that govern cabs.

But in Cambridge, cabbies are now taking a different approach. If the city can’t create new rules for Uber and Lyft drivers, they want Cambridge to lighten the regulatory load on taxis, according to a recent court filing.

The tack comes on the heels of a new state law that sets largely permissive standards for companies like Uber. It includes a provision that prevents cities and towns from adding any further rules.

Prior to the law’s passage, a group of Cambridge taxi companies had filed a federal lawsuit saying the city should hold Uber drivers to the same standards as taxi companies. Without doing so, Cambridge was violating their equal protection rights, they alleged, diminishing the value of their city-issued licenses to operate.

Cambridge officials sought to dismiss the suit last month after the law was signed, citing the measure barring new local Uber rules.


But in a filing earlier this month, the cab companies argued that even if the city can’t govern Uber and Lyft, Cambridge could still level the playing field by easing the cab rules.

“You certainly still have the ability to regulate the taxis,” Jenifer Pinkham, the attorney representing the cab companies, said in an interview.

For example, Pinkham said, giving cab companies control over their fares, which are currently set by the city, and allowing vehicle models to be older than the current age limit of five years could make business easier for them.

The argument is a twist on the original claim, in which Pinkham argued the taxi rules serve the public good and Uber and Lyft drivers are breaking the law by not following them. Taxi companies would still prefer Uber and Lyft to be subject to the city’s cab rules, Pinkham said, but that option is no longer legally feasible. The one exception: Municipalities are allowed to set rules governing traffic patterns.


Janice Griffith, a law professor at Suffolk University who has studied Uber and taxi regulations, said the cab companies are making one of the only arguments they have left under the new law.

“The difficulty here is that taxis are operated on a municipal level and [Uber and Lyft] are operated on the state level now. So about the only thing the city could do at this point is lighten the load on taxis,” she said. “And then the city would have to evaluate whether they want to exercise police powers in that matter.”

Cambridge officials are, in fact, in the process of reworking the city’s taxi rules, said Nicole Murati Ferrer, who chairs the city’s License Commission.

She declined to discuss the specifics of potential changes in the rules, except to say her goal was to “bring them to the present,” adding that the lawsuit had no effect on the proposed changes.

Ferrer also declined to say when details of the proposed rules, which would need License Commission approval, could be made public. But Lee Gianetti, a city spokesman, said a legal review of the proposal may be ready for the commission by the end of September.

Pinkham said she doubted the city’s new rules would satisfy the cabbies, because she and her clients have not been invited to provide input.


In a similar suit filed in Boston in 2015, Judge Nathaniel Gorton — who is also overseeing the Cambridge action — showed some sympathy in March to the Boston taxi owners’ equal protection argument, ordering Boston to revisit its taxi rules and to update the court on its progress by late September. Pinkham is the lawyer in that case, too.

It is unclear how the new state law will affect the order. City of Boston spokeswoman Bonnie McGilpin declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Cambridge is no stranger to the taxi-Uber battle. In 2012, city and state officials butted heads over whether Uber was legal. In 2014, officials sought to adopt more restrictive rules for Uber and Lyft rides before reversing course amid public backlash. And last year, cabbies protested on Cambridge streets, calling for stricter Uber regulations.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.