Help for Boston taxi owners? 

City councilors want to explore ARPA funding fix, other ideas

TAXI OWNERS HAVE been hit with a one-two punch in recent years. 

First, the explosion of the Uber and Lyft rideshare apps proved devastating to their business. The pandemic added insult to that injury, turning downtown Boston into a ghost town as the bustle of the city that is a cabbie’s lifeblood ground to a halt. 

A trio of Boston city councilors says it’s time for the city to step up and help. 

Councilors Kendra Lara, Frank Baker, and Michael Flaherty filed an order yesterday calling for a hearing to explore using some of the more than $350 million in American Rescue Plan Act money the city has to support a medallion “buy-back” or other efforts to help struggling cab owners. 

“This is an industry that’s been all but decimated,” said Lara, a district councilor representing Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury who is leading the effort. She said the focus is not on owners of large fleets of cabs but on small operators, many of them immigrants, who took out enormous loans and pushed their savings into buying a single medallion or two.  

The taxi industry is one of those areas of the economy that operates like a market, but with a heavily distorting effect from tight government regulation. The number of taxi medallions has long been limited as a way to ensure a level of business for cabs, but that has driven up the price of a medallion over the years, with the licenses fetching several hundred thousand dollars at their peak.

Then came the disruptive impact of Uber and Lyft, which offered rides at the touch of a phone screen at a fraction of the going rate for taxi service. Rideshare app prices have since risen, but lots of the damage to taxis has been done. Add the hit from the pandemic, and taxi owners are in dire straits, said Lara. 

“We are very quick to bail out banks,” she said of the housing bubble break more than a decade ago. And when it comes to the pandemic, she said, restaurants were quickly targeted for help. 

The case for helping cabbies, say the councilors, is especially strong because they relied on a market heavily regulated by government in getting into the business, only to see those protectionist guardrails collapse. 

How any program by the city to buy back medallions would work isn’t clear. Lara says the idea of a hearing is to brainstorm different possible solutions. 

“It’s not a level playing field,” said Flaherty, referring to disruption caused by rideshare apps and the “onerous” regulations the city imposes on taxis that don’t apply to rideshare drivers. 

Drivers bought medallions thinking they were a path to providing for their family, he said. Flaherty said that’s what his grandfather, a father of 10, did decades ago when he bought a medallion. Flaherty said his father and one of his uncles also drove his grandfather’s cab to support the family. 

Last fall, New York City taxi drivers camped out in front of City Hall, with some going on a hunger strike calling for help from the city. At least nine debt-burdened New York cab drivers have taken their lives, according to The City. Some drivers owe as much $500,000 on loans for their medallion, the site said. 

A taxi driver’s association there called on the city to buy back medallions and then resell them to drivers at prices with loan payments of no more than $750 a month. The city instead offered a proposal calling for interest-free loans of up to $20,000 and $1,500 in monthly payment subsidies for up to six months. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“We sell this American dream, where if you invest and work hard you have a chance to make it,” said Lara. “When things outside their control and our control happen,” she said of Boston cab drivers, “we can’t act like we have our hands tied behind our back.”