Marty Walsh wants higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has a new idea to beat the traffic on Boston’s streets: boost the fees on all those Uber and Lyft trips.
The Walsh administration plans to lobby state lawmakers to adjust the fees that are charged on each trip in the new legislative session that began last week.
Presently, ride-hail companies must pay a 20-cent fee for each ride they complete, under a state law that was passed after months of debate in 2016. Ten cents of each fee goes to the city or town where the ride originated, while the rest is split between the state and a special fund to help the taxi industry.
In 2018, the first year those fees were dispersed, Boston received about $3.5 million, by far the most in the state; city officials say they have used that money to redesign intersections, rebuild sidewalks, retime transit signals, and expand the Blue Bikes bicycle rental system.
The haul illustrates just how many rides are happening in the city: about 96,000 ride-hail trips started each day in Boston in 2017 — more than one every second, according to data from the state Department of Public Utilities, which regulates the industry.
Meanwhile, recent research showing that ride-hailing is leading to greater congestion on city streets has caused some officials and advocates to call for higher fees to discourage so many trips.
“While certainly [ride-hail companies] are creating value for our constituents, and people are using them significantly, they are also putting more cars on the street during rush hour, they are taking revenue away from the MBTA, and they’re resulting in greater emissions in the Commonwealth,” said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets.
Osgood said the fee should vary based on whether a trip is causing more traffic.
For example, “shared” trips — like Uber Pool and Lyft Shared, which pair drivers with multiple riders traveling similar routes — should be lower, while individual trips for a single rider should be higher, he said.
The city does not have a target fee in mind yet. But Osgood pointed to a study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency, that found each ride-hail trip costs the MBTA 35 cents, suggesting that figure could be a potential starting point.
He also noted that the existing 20-cents fee is low compared to other cities and states that have implemented such charges. According to the Eno Center for Transportation, a national research group, Chicago charges 67 cents a trip, and New York recently implemented a $2.75 fee for individual trips in part of the city, that drops to 75 cents on shared rides.
The existing Massachusetts law requires that the companies, not the riders, pay the fees, and bars Uber and Lyft from passing the fee on to customers. Even though pricing in transportation is often meant to influence individuals’ behavior, Osgood said that rule should remain in place. Rather than directly putting financial pressure on riders to use the shared services, he said, a different fee structure on the companies would influence Uber and Lyft to emphasize the option to riders.
Uber and Lyft have often argued that they are beneficial to the transportation system because they connect many riders to transit stations, and — through recent investments — have offered riders trips other than cars.
Uber, for example, is an investor in the electric scooter company Lime and owns the electric bike company Jump, while Lyft owns Motivate Co., the private company that operates the city-owned Blue Bikes network.
Both companies have also advocated for busy cities to toll any motor vehicle that enters a downtown area, a practice known as congestion pricing.
In a statement Monday, Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang suggested that would be a better option than targeting just ride-hail trips.
“We support the mayor’s goal of implementing solutions to address climate change and congestion on our roads, she said. “Uber agrees that people should be incentivized to share their rides but that all vehicles — personal cars, delivery trucks, taxis and Uber — should pay to use roads.”
Lyft said it considers it a high priority to keep rides affordable.
Walsh’s proposal could upset another constituency: ride-hail drivers. Some who spoke to The Boston Globe Tuesday said they prefer individual rides to shared trips, and would hesitate to support a law that encourages more sharing.
“Sharing a ride is very complicated,” said Rodolfo Dos Santos, who drives for both companies. “Everybody prefers individual rides. You make more money. It’s easier.”
Another driver, Dorothy Theodore, said she thinks passengers also prefer solo trips.
“Not everybody likes shared rides. They want to get to places and they want to have that personal option,” she said.
A recent report on transportation from the Baker administration suggested the state should consider congestion pricing, but Osgood said Boston is not advocating for it.
He did, however, detail a few other transportation ideas the city wants the Legislature to take up this year.
One would allow the city to equip school buses with cameras and issue tickets to drivers that are caught passing while the buses’ stop signs are extended. Another would allow cities and towns to create regional ballot questions that ask voters whether to increase taxes to fund specific transportation projects.