Opinion

opinion | Anthony D. Galluccio

Uber is getting a free ride

Philadelphia taxi drivers protested Uber X and Lyft ride services on Dec. 16.
Associated Press
Philadelphia taxi drivers protested Uber X and Lyft ride services on Dec. 16.

I recently visited Rizzo Tailor in Harvard Square and met an elderly woman who was waiting for a cab. When it arrived, the driver, Guy Jocelyn, a Haitian immigrant who has been providing excellent service to riders for 20 years, walked into the shop and politely asked, “Are you ready?” He then personally walked the woman down the stairs to his waiting cab.

As an advocate for the taxi industry for decades — as a Cambridge city councilor, mayor of Cambridge, and a state senator — I often met hardworking individuals like Guy Jocelyn. These drivers have provided affordable rides to people for years, and it saddens me to see them being held responsible for an industry that is being gutted by skyrocketing medallion and insurance costs and slapped with burdensome local regulations. These barriers have made costs high and profits low.

It’s no surprise that both cab service and the cabs themselves have deteriorated as the taxi industry has cut costs to make ends meet. In 2013, the Globe wrote an excellent exposé on the challenges within the industry: exploitation of drivers by owners, costly regulation, and unfair rules. Instead of addressing the issues raised in the nine-month exposé, those of us in government simply blamed the industry. We never fixed the problems.

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Then Uber came along, catering to smartphone-toting riders, from the business person looking for a ride to the airport, to the millennials in the Seaport. Their services gained traction because they could undercut the cost of cabs.

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We all like cheaper, better services, but we are also smart enough to know that there are trade-offs. Consider this: A taxi medallion owner must finance a medallion for $700,000 or more, the cost of a luxury condo for each cab, just to get it on the road. Uber and other ride-sharing services are on the road for free. How can cabs compete?

Moreover, due to regulations, a Cambridge taxi cannot pick up in Boston and vice versa. Absurd, but true. Meanwhile, ride-sharing drivers can roam and troll and wait anywhere.

Roaming creates an environmental challenge as well. Regulations prevent taxis from idling, require that they stay in stands, and promote the use of hybrid small taxis. Comparatively, during peak travel hours, as many as 4,000 Ubers sit idling, waiting for a hit on their smart phone. Look around, they are everywhere, burning gas, taking up precious parking spaces, and blocking traffic.

There is also the matter of safety. Taxis are regulated by the police. While taxi drivers may not always smell like expensive cologne, carry snacks, or be overly polite, riders can be sure they are safe. Uber claims to rigorously screen its drivers before they can work, but these screenings are not vetted by a public safety official.

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Lastly, as we focus on urban areas like Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Quincy, remember that Uber does not want to serve small towns. So if you live in one, and you have always known that a yellow taxi was just a call away, Uber will be “airport only,” seeking out only lucrative fares like those going to Logan, and the taxi will be gone.

Local authorities can and should consider denying Uber and other ride-sharing services livery licenses until the state can address issues of equity, safety, and insurance costs by updating antiquated taxi regulations. We have to level the playing field before the taxi industry is decimated. If we don’t stand up for fairness now, we will be sorry later.

Anthony D. Galluccio is a partner with Galluccio & Watson. He was a mayor and city councilor in Cambridge and a state senator. He is a member of the Cambridge Taxi Industry Group.