Wading into a feud between the traditional taxi industry and emerging smartphone car-sharing services, Boston city councilors voiced support Monday for overseeing ride-sharing companies to “level the playing field” while avoiding excessive interference.
“Regulation shouldn’t squash innovation,” Councilor Michelle Wu said at an afternoon hearing packed with Boston cab drivers and drivers from the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. “For me, this is not an either-or.”
Supporters say the ride-for-hire services provide convenient, reliable transportation at a generally lower cost than regular cabs and say passengers benefit from having more options.
Critics said the companies are operating outside the law and said the city should establish oversight — from inspecting vehicles to running checks on drivers — to safeguard the public.
“They’re not licensed by anybody,” said James Gaughan, director of hackney and licensing for the Boston Police Department. “We have no idea who’s driving.”
“The whole idea is consumer protection,” he added.
Car services allow passengers to request rides through their smartphones and pay the fares electronically.
Tensions among taxi competitors have intensified in recent months, as traditional drivers have expressed anger about losing business to the upstarts.
At the hearing, police said they had received complaints that car-service drivers were poaching fares in busy areas such as South Station, a claim that drew dismissive grumbling from Uber and Lyft drivers in the crowd.
The City Council held the hearing to determine how to regulate the growing services. A city task force is also reviewing the issue.
“People need to be confident drivers are properly vetted,” said Chris English, chairman of the city’s taxi advisory committee.
But the companies said potential drivers are subject to rigorous background checks and said instant feedback from passengers provides another layer of oversight.
Several councilors said they had used Uber and supported increased competition in a highly regulated market.
Councilor Tito Jackson said taxi services helped extend transportation to the city’s outer reaches and provided a convenient alternative in what “is more of a 24-hour city every day.” But Jackson, like other members, said the council should consider ways to protect traditional taxi drivers.
Councilor Sal LaMattina said he has often encountered cab drivers who refuse to drive him to East Boston, a problem he said affects the entire neighborhood.
“It’s not right, and I hear it from a lot of my constituents,” he said, holding a large stack of e-mails he had received from Uber supporters.
Officers from the Boston police division that oversees taxi drivers said they had cracked down on cabs without livery plates, issuing more than 700 tickets this year.
But the number of unlicensed drivers was vast, they said.
“There are just so many people out there, and we’re not sure who they are working for,” Tom Lema of the police department said.
Bill Linehan, the council president, called for a greater government role, saying the services are now operating illegally.
“They aren’t compliant with the law, and we’re not really doing anything about it,” he said.
An Uber representative said the company had provided millions of trips in the area in recent months and had tens of thousands of drivers.
Uber and Lyft representatives said they’ve seen more than enough demand to support traditional taxi services and they are offering drivers an alternative by providing more choices.
Katie Kincaid, manager of government relations for Lyft, said the ride-share service is helping to “fill the gaps in the transportation system.”
“This is not a zero-sum game,” she said.
Before the hearing, taxi drivers gathered outside City Hall to protest ride-sharing services, holding signs that read “Stop illegal UberX vehicles now.”
Donna Blythe-Shaw, a representative of the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, acknowledged the need for alternatives to taxis, but she said change must be accompanied by oversight.
“You have a city in need of change, but no one is willing to take the necessary, painful steps,” she said.
John Holder, 24, said he often uses UberX to get home to Brighton from Faneuil Hall. UberX costs $15, he said, while traditional cabs are more than twice that much.
“It’s a great service to have in the Boston area,” he said.