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Local cab companies feeling the pain from Lyft, Uber

Owner Dick Johnston at his Newton Yellow Cab company, which is closing under pressure from Uber and Lyft.
Owner Dick Johnston at his Newton Yellow Cab company, which is closing under pressure from Uber and Lyft.Photos by David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

NEWTON — For more than four decades, Newton Yellow Cab’s fleet of taxis took elderly residents to the supermarket, students to school, and travelers to the airport.

It was the life’s work of Dick Johnston, 78, who bought the company as a 34-year-old in 1973. But on Wednesday, the company parked its cabs for good.

Johnston said ride-share companies like Uber took too much of his business away, and he couldn’t afford to keep Newton Yellow Cab open. He’s known for a few years that the company faced grave financial challenges, but it still wasn’t easy to stop.

“It’s my identity; that’s why it hurts so much to leave,” said Johnston. “It’s not just ‘Dick Johnston.’ It’s ‘Dick Johnston, Yellow Cab.’”

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“Not anymore,” he said. “Not after today.”

Old style cab dispatch board still in use at the Newton Yellow Cab company.
Old style cab dispatch board still in use at the Newton Yellow Cab company.<b>David L Ryan/Globe Staff</b>/Globe Staff

Around the world, ride-share companies are taking increasingly bigger bites out of the business once dominated by traditional cab companies. Uber’s website says its service is available in some 650 cities worldwide, and the website of rival Lyft says it works in about 500 American cities. Uber arrived in Massachusetts in 2011, and Lyft showed up in 2013.

In suburbs west of Boston, several taxi operators said that ride-share companies are capturing their business, sometimes forcing drastic changes to their operations.

At JFK Transportation in Natick, owner Tim Kelley, 50, blames ride-share companies for cutting his taxi revenues in half.

He’s tried adapting — the company also provides student transportation and livery services, plus it rolled out an app that allows customers to call a taxi on their smartphone.

Kelley expects his company to survive as a result of its other transportation services, but he doesn’t expect his 9-year-old daughter to hire a taxi as an adult.

“I don’t think this will be around for her generation,” he said.

In Framingham, Jo-Anne Thompson, owner of Tommy’s Taxi, reported that her company has seen a drastic cut in business due to ride-share companies.

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Part of that has been a reduction in fares from students at Framingham State University, which she attributes to their turning to a smartphone app to hire a driver.

And she worries that taxi services like hers — which her father founded in the 1940s — are being taken for granted due to their longevity.

“We’re kind of an institution,” she said. Customers “assume we’ll be around forever. I hope they’re right.”

At Waltham-based Veterans Taxi, Michael Antonellis, 53, the company’s general manager, said Veterans has lost about 30 percent of its taxi sales to ride-share competitors. Veterans also has contracts to provide transportation in communities such as Newton and Weston, plus some state agencies, he said.

While the contract work can help support the company, he said, Veterans struggles to hire enough drivers to fill roughly 100 shifts each day, working in areas as far from Waltham as Boston and Foxborough.

“We’re a business in Massachusetts, not an app,” Antonellis said.

When David Stone closed Natick Cab in July 2016, he had about 30 full- and part-time workers, plus a fleet of 11 cabs. Ride-share companies undercut his business, he said, because they aren’t responsible for maintaining vehicles and other costs.

“How do you compete with that?” said Stone, who also runs Stone’s Auto Service in Natick.

Uber and Lyft defended their roles as both employers and providers of transportation.

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“Lyft has enabled thousands of people in the Boston area to earn extra income and support their families,” Lyft said in a statement. “These economic opportunities were nonexistent just a few years ago.”

Lyft said 28 percent of its rides start in “low-income areas that lack reliable transportation,” and said nearly two-thirds of its Boston-area drivers identify with a minority group.

“We’ve made it possible for Bostonians to get a safe, affordable and reliable ride at the push of a button,” Uber said in a statement.

“At the same time, more than 20,000 people in Massachusetts are driving with Uber because our app provides the freedom to work on a schedule that fits your life, not the other way around.”

In Newton, Johnston hasn’t figured out his retirement plans yet. He’s still working to settle payroll for the 20 or so employees at Newton Yellow Cab. He kept it open partly because it was his company, but also for the workers who stuck with him.

“I care about it for the people who work for me, who don’t want to work anywhere else,” he said.

Cab dispatcher Kathi Peters has worked in the cab industry since 1974 at Newton Yellow Cab.
Cab dispatcher Kathi Peters has worked in the cab industry since 1974 at Newton Yellow Cab.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

That includes dispatcher Kathi Peters, 63, a Newton native who has worked at the company since 1974.

Peters said she knew many of the longtime customers, and they were upset about losing their local taxi service.

“I’ve been here my whole adult life. It’s a big part of who I have been for a long time,” said Peters as she worked her last shift. “I don’t want to do this.”

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Johnston said he’d been telling customers about his decision over the past several days, including one woman who visited the office on Border Street to buy senior citizen taxi coupons on Tuesday.

“We had to turn her down. She walked out of here looking like her world was over,” he said.

Johnston said taxis serve those who don’t necessarily have easy access to smartphones, or who aren’t comfortable navigating apps.

“They’re being left behind,” he said. “When we’re gone, and it’s only [the] so-called ‘ride-share,’ all sorts of people will have no options.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.