Don’t expect Boston to follow New York City’s aggressive clampdown on Uber and Lyft.
The New York City Council on Wednesday passed a series of reforms to slow the fast-growing ride-hailing industry, highlighted by a one-year freeze in licensing new cars in the city. The plan, which came over the loud objections of the industry leaders, was pitched as a way to limit their impact on urban congestion — a trend that studies show is also happening in Boston.
But the new rules probably aren’t replicable in other cities. New York is unique in the country for the power it has over the ride-hailing industry, with the city’s taxi commission directly overseeing it. Drivers are required to obtain commercial permits, a more burdensome requirement than other states.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office declined to say whether it would support limiting the number of drivers in the city. But it’s a moot point anyway; the 2016 state law that put Uber and Lyft under the oversight of the Department of Public Utilities barred cities and towns from establishing their own rules, with few exceptions.
The state may be able to cap the number of ride-hailing drivers in Massachusetts, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much interest in doing so on Beacon Hill. The DPU said “there is currently no proposal” to cap the number of drivers.
Michelle Wu, a Boston city councilor who closely monitors transportation issues, said that even if the city had the power to limit drivers, she is skeptical it would work. Capping the number of cars, she noted, has long been the practice in the taxi industry that Uber and Lyft ultimately decimated.
“I’m wary of caps in general,” she said. “We’ve seen this show before with taxi medallions or liquor licenses, and whenever government is creating a monopoly through regulation, it leads to inequities.”
But she said the city and state should find other ways to reduce the number of ride-hailing trips on local roads. For example, she said, raising the fees the companies pay the state and communities from the current 20 cents per ride could make the services less cost-effective for some customers; the additional money could be dedicated to improving the transit system.
Again, Boston does not have the ability to impose this kind of fee on its own.
But Boston is allowed to make ride-hailing rules to improve traffic flow. The Walsh administration expects to launch a test sometime this year of dedicated pull-over spaces for ride-hailing drivers so they don’t block traffic during pick-up and drop-off.
In the first few years of the ride-hailing era, most government regulations focused on safety issues, especially in the wake of reports of sexual assaults by drivers. Background check regulations were the centerpiece of the Massachusetts law passed in 2016.
But the apps have only gotten more popular. And as studies in Boston and elsewhere have found that many people are giving up public transit, biking, and walking, officials have increasingly turned their attention to the impact of ride-hailing on traffic.
Uber and Lyft have argued the New York rules won’t mitigate traffic. They instead have said cities should impose new tolls on all car traffic — including their own — in busy urban areas, a practice known as congestion pricing.
“The one similarity between Boston and New York City is an often unreliable public transit system and growing congestion,” said Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang. “That’s why Uber supports comprehensive congestion pricing — the one solution experts agree solves both problems.”
Jascha Franklin-Hodge, who sometimes worked with Uber when he served as Boston’s chief technology officer, suggested another approach: fees on ride-hailing trips in congested areas, and then waiving those fees on “more positive” trips — those that bring riders to and from transit, or are in parts of the city without much transit access, or that help workers get home late at night.