Efforts to reform Boston’s taxi system shouldn’t be derailed by April’s Marathon bombing. A few weeks before the attack, the Globe’s Spotlight Team published an exhaustive report on the rampant mistreatment of drivers by Boston’s taxicab industry. The articles spurred calls for reform and, a few days before Patriots Day, the long-overdue removal of the city’s chief hackney regulator, Mark A. Cohen. It’s understandable why the attention of the city abruptly shifted elsewhere. But now Mayor Menino and Police Commission Edward F. Davis need to get back on the case.
The current taxi rules serve neither drivers nor passengers well. There are 1,825 cabs in the city, but many passengers have trouble finding one when they need one — and when they do, they pay some of the nation’s most exorbitant fares. Yet those fares don’t enrich the drivers, many of whom are badly exploited immigrant workers who face serial indignities, including a tacit expectation of payoffs to managers. It’s only the holders of publicly issued “medallions” — permits to operate a cab which are purchased for prices as high as $600,000 — who win out under the current rules.
One of the biggest obstacles to reform had been Cohen; taxi drivers charged he was often contemptuous of their concerns and sided reflexively with owners in disputes. Unfortunately, the Globe found in a follow-up story on Monday, his replacement hasn’t shown much greater willingness to challenge medallion-holders. The continued problems should prod the city to shift oversight of cabs from the Police Department to a civilian commission. Making sure enough cabs are on the streets, setting rates fairly, and regulating an important industry is fundamentally an economic challenge, not a law enforcement one.
While moving to civilian control, the city should also overturn the ruling by former mayor Kevin White that allowed cab companies to categorize drivers as contractors instead of employees. Many of the abuses uncovered by the Spotlight Team stem from that ill-fated decision. Cab drivers are forced to lease their vehicle from medallion owners, paying all manner of petty bribes and unjustifiable fees, and then spend much of their shift working their way out of that hole. Cabbies work 12-hour days and assume all the risk of slow business; it’s no wonder critics call the arrangement “urban sharecropping.”
In the longer term, though, a civilian commission should steer the city away from the medallion system entirely. Boston created medallions during the Great Depression to limit the number of cabs, and has been haunted by that hasty decision ever since. The tradeable, never-expiring licenses are now enormously valuable. That has created a cartel of medallion owners who fight tooth and nail to protect their investments. For riders, the artificial cap on cabs translates into a shortage of taxis at busy times, and extra medallion acquisition costs that eventually get passed along to riders in the form of higher fares.
The city created medallions, and can get rid of them. Opponents of reform may cite individual taxi drivers who’ve plowed their life savings into a medallion. Such driver-owners exist, but they’re hardly representative of an industry dominated by big companies that have amassed hundreds of medallions. Still, for the sake of those medallion owners, change should be phased in over several years so the medallions’ value declines gradually.
The eventual goal should be to have no fixed cap on the number of cabs, no permanent, transferable medallions, and no regional restrictions that prevent cabs in Boston from picking up fares in surrounding municipalities. The city should issue nontransferable permits that must be renewed every year.
By moving to a more sensible regulatory regime, Boston would also be better positioned to take advantage of the technological revolution sweeping the hackney industry. Traditional taxi regulations have assumed a clear distinction between calling for a cab and hailing one from the street, but smartphone apps have made it an increasingly fuzzy line. Services like Uber were unfathomable when the current hackney system was devised, but they have become valuable amenities that the city needs to encourage.
In the wake of the Spotlight series, Menino seemed wounded by the suggestion that he has ignored the exploitation of taxi drivers by owners, some of whom had also been campaign donors. He can turn his umbrage into action by using the remaining months of his term to create a civilian oversight board — so that the board and the city’s next mayor can lead a sweeping regional effort to shape a taxi system to meet the needs of a 21st-century metropolis.