Stephen Harris hasn’t had a lot of time to follow the Beacon Hill debate over how to best regulate the ride-sharing industry. He’s been too busy pursuing his newfound career as an Uber driver.
But when we spoke recently, he said his life has gotten much easier in the months since he left his low-paying retail job to become a driver. At first, he expected to drive occasionally, a few hours here and there. But before long, the flexibility and steady stream of income it provided led him to work as much as 60 hours a week. He drives at the busiest times, and takes time off every few weeks to visit an ill relative in Atlanta.
“In my previous work I wasn’t able to take this time off,” Harris said. “I can manage my own time and run it like my own business. It’s given me the autonomy and flexibility I need. It’s giving me a chance to control my own future.”
The emergence of ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber has brought with it cries for regulation, and this week the State House responded. A House committee passed a bill that would subject the companies to a host of new regulations, including certification and background checks, and regulations for surge pricing. It would also prevent the services from picking up passengers at the Convention Center or Logan Airport, preserving those lucrative territories for the traditional cab industry.
In typical State House fashion, it’s a bill that satisfies neither of the most-invested parties. The ride-sharing companies believe they are being unfairly restricted (although they are relieved the bill will not require drivers to be fingerprinted). Meanwhile the cab industry has complained that it does not create a level playing field, apparently under the impression that it is government’s job to shield them from competition.
I will admit up front that I’ve recently become a fan of Uber, mostly for the most fundamental of reasons: they will actually come to my house in Dorchester. That has often not been the case with traditional cabs, whose service I would generously describe as spotty.
But beyond that, this bill is a test of state government’s ability to deal with an innovative new industry. And I think it’s fair to say that its first instinct has been to protect the established old order. That’s discouraging.
Of course, thousands of cab drivers — and the medallion owners they work for — depend on the current system. They have been an important part of the city’s economy for eons. And it’s worth remembering that the Convention Center was largely paid for with money raised from the city’s sale of taxi medallions. No one wants to dismantle the cab industry.
But at times it appears that the cab industry’s idea of good regulation is to make it as hard as possible for its competitors to operate. But it isn’t government’s job to make the cabbies’ competitors go away. Uber and Lyft are popular because they fill a void. That’s a good thing, not something to punish.
According to state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, chairman of the Financial Services Committee that passed the bill, that history provided much of the rationale for shutting Uber and Lyft out of the convention business.
In his view, the fact that neither side got all it wanted is proof that the committee did its work well. “We were in a difficult position,” Michlewitz said. He noted that the cab industry wanted far more regulation of the ride-sharing services than it got. Good, but the bill still goes far. Shutting the ride-sharing companies out of two of the most lucrative venues in town is particularly unfair, and should be wiped out when the bill moves to the Senate.
The simple fact is that the transportation industry is changing, and old-fashioned protectionism isn’t going to save anybody. The cab industry’s monopoly has broken up, and no bill can reassemble it.