What’s more important to Cambridge: keeping its status as an innovation hub, or protecting the entrenched taxi industry? That’s what’s at stake in the city’s silly crusade to shut down the car-hailing app Uber, which is in Cambridge’s crosshairs again. After the city’s last effort to ban the car service failed in 2012, the Cambridge licensing board is set to consider rules tonight that would effectively chase Uber out of town. What message would that send? In the very industries the city strives to cultivate, banning Uber would turn Cambridge into a laughingstock.
The meeting tonight comes as cab drivers and taxi companies have launched increasingly desperate attacks on Uber, which has spread to 128 cities in 37 countries since its 2009 launch in San Francisco. The app lets users summon a car with a smartphone and then determines fares using GPS. Uber can’t pick up street hails, but the competitive advantage that privilege once provided taxis has eroded, since so many customers now carry smartphones. Cab drivers can pick up street hails, but must charge fares regulated by the city. The trade-off was worth it when street hails were the most practical way to summon a cab, and strict controls on the number of medallions meant taxis were protected from competition.
That turned taxi medallions into cash cows — and also left the taxi industry woefully unprepared when Uber appeared on the scene. Cab companies haven’t been able to upgrade their own service to offer Uber-like convenience, so now they’re looking for regulators to snuff out the competition for them. But a city that prides itself on fostering innovation, as Cambridge does, should be pressuring taxi companies to give riders what they want, rather than forcing riders to just accept what the taxis are offering.