So what’s Boston’s plan for the taxi industry?
Two years in the making and 224 pages long, the “Go Boston 2030 Vision and Action Plan” released by Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration this week is a wide-ranging blueprint of the city’s transportation future. It ponders a new super-regional transit agency, massive public transit projects, and “smart” traffic signals, among dozens of other ambitious ideas.
There is, however, one notable omission: taxis.
Over the course of 10 sections, taxis are mentioned only in passing several times, including in a table as a transportation mode under the category “other,” along with motorcycles.
Cabbies and their advocates see the omission as evidence Boston officials have no plan to address the ongoing economic collapse of their industry, which is regulated by the city. They feel abandoned, noting that the Walsh administration also allowed a “taxi advisory committee” that was convened several years ago to go dormant, and they wonder if City Hall sees any future for cabs.
“The mayor doesn’t think of the taxi industry. Why they omitted it from the transportation report is beyond me,” said Donna Blythe-Shaw, former head of the Boston Taxi Drivers Association. “This is the second time they’ve dismissed the need to revamp and restructure the taxi industry.”
Drivers and small medallion owners say they’re caught between stifling competition from ride-hailing services such as Uber, which offer cheap fares, and strict city rules that won’t let them adjust prices or try other business models. They want the Walsh administration to deregulate the taxi business and reform the imploding medallion system; The licenses, which once sold for $700,000, are now worth under $100,000.
City transportation officials insisted taxis are indeed part of the city’s future and said the “Go Boston” report was intended to be a high-level visioning exercise, not a deep-dive into the economics of any particular type of transportation. They also noted that little of the public input they solicited on transportation concerned taxis.
But officials also said that comprehensive reform is unlikely. They blamed divisions within the taxi industry, saying drivers, medallion owners, and dispatchers could not agree on possible solutions when they met under the auspices of the now-defunct advisory committee. Plus, they argued, the state Legislature would need to sign off on any changes to the medallion system.
“The City of Boston is aware of the financial situation facing many cab medallion owners,” said Chris English, a city policy analyst. “The city is concerned about the regulatory playing field for all for-hire transportation services. It’s a difficult situation that is based in a complex web of regulatory systems that are not easy to untangle.”
A year ago, Boston made modest changes to its taxi regulations, including halving the fees drivers paid to medallion owners for shifts and removing the requirement that small owners pay into a radio association for dispatch services. English said the city would continue to meet with industry members and said further changes are being considered.
Despite a steep decline that followed the advent of ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber, Boston cabbies still gave nearly 6 million rides in the 12 months before October 2016, worth $127 million in fares.
However, owners and drivers say they can’t make money in the current environment. The decision by Massport last month to allow ride-hailing pickups at Logan Airport means the cost of medallion loans or shift fees, city-required insurance, vehicle maintenance, city fees, and other expenses now exceeds revenues, they said.
So what should the city do? Blythe-Shaw has long called for a civilian advisory committee to replace the Boston Police Department’s Hackney Carriage Unit, which enforces the taxi rules. She also wants the city to pressure banks to restructure or forgive loans to small medallion owners who will otherwise declare bankruptcy.
Transportation experts agreed the medallion system is unsustainable, saying there was little sense in maintaining city-mandated fares and other more stringent requirements on cabs that don’t apply to Uber-like services.
“The idea of paying for the right to enter the market is going away,” said John Attanucci, an MIT transportation researcher and former chief executive of transportation planning firm Multisystems Inc. “And there’s a natural market force now to keep the prices down for the public good, so I don’t see why we have to regulate the fare. In order to compete, taxi companies have to be able to respond to the market.”
However, Attanucci said, Boston’s 2030 report was right to focus on improving public transit over the troubled taxi business.