The startup company Uber’s steady path toward upending the traditional taxi industry is roiling the established guard — not just entrenched cab companies, but also the regulators who are supposed to protect consumers’ interest. In just a few years, Uber and similar firms have vastly expanded the area’s ground transportation options, by allowing customers to book rides — via limousine services or even private vehicles — through their phones. Uber generally isn’t cheap. But it is convenient, and anyone who’s waited in vain for a taxi for 30 minutes or more can attest that the local taxi industry is ripe for fresh thinking. Local regulators should strive to promote competition and innovation, rather than defending the status quo.
Yet last week, newly appointed Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told radio host Dan Rea that “Uber services . . . you know, there could be a level 3 sex offender driving that.” The accusation was not only sensationalistic, it was “patently false,” as Uber was quick to point out. In fact, Uber drivers do go through background checks.
But Evans’s comments, coming from a defender of the status quo, raise a larger question about taxis and the need for change in Boston: Where are the much-needed reforms of the existing medallion system, which has been regulated by Evans’s department through the hackney carriage unit? Under the city’s supervision, Boston’s traditional cab system has evolved in ways that primarily serve the economic interests of the medallion owners, often exploiting the cab drivers, as last year’s Globe investigation into the taxi industry clearly showed.
What’s so threatening about Uber, and other transportation newcomers like RelayRides, Sidecar, and Lyft, is they take some of the power out of the hands of the incumbents and their regulators.
Uber is popular in Boston, as Mayor Marty Walsh pointed out following Evans’s comments, because it works. There’s a market for it, and perhaps market forces will compel reform of the taxi industry faster than the regulators responsible for overseeing it.