Baker proposes new ride-hailing regs

Lyft concerned by data-collection provision

Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday proposed a range of new regulations to prevent abuses of the Uber and Lyft ride-hailing platforms and to more precisely monitor how those on-demand travel services are being used.

The legislation would require the tech giants that host the services to share reams of anonymized data about rides so that cities and towns can make more-informed transportation plans and so the state can monitor the amount of vehicle emissions.

That privately held data would be far more than the state already receives, giving officials a window into when – within a minute – and where – within 110 yards – rides begin and end, plus information on the type and age of vehicle driven and how long it took a driver to go pick up their fare, said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides. Under current law, ride-hailing companies provide the state with some data, which is made publicly available in aggregate form, showing the annual number of trips originating and concluding in a particular municipality, and the average length and speed of rides.

In statements shortly after the governor announced his legislation, spokespeople for Uber and Lyft, the two industry heavyweights, both stressed their commitment to safety. While Uber spokesperson Alix Anfang expressed no position on the bill yet, Lyft spokesperson Campbell Matthews took issue with the data-collection provisions.

“We have concerns with the extensive data the Administration is asking for, as we believe it may put the privacy of our rider community at risk,” Matthews said. “We remain committed to working with Massachusetts leaders on common sense solutions to the Commonwealth’s transportation challenges.”

In addition to all the data about the rides themselves, the bill would require the companies to fork over the time and distance logged by ride-hailing drivers when they are on the platform but not actively giving a ride or driving to pick someone up. That could help determine the extent to which ride-hailing drivers contribute to congestion by cruising around waiting for a fare.

The specific new data sought under the legislation would not be shared with the public, officials said. Last December, the New York Times demonstrated how anonymized data from cellphone apps could be used to pinpoint an individual’s travel patterns.

The governor said a long-awaited study of congestion on state roadways would be completed by the end of July, and he was hesitant to say whether the state should be doing anything more to prevent congestion caused by ride-hailing companies.

“It’s really hard if you don’t know anything about the where and the when to think of what a strategy might be,” Baker said, suggesting more data might help inform an approach in that area.

The bill doesn’t include provisions requiring driver fingerprint data collection, which was a hot-button issue when state lawmakers first passed a bill regulating ride-hailing companies in 2016. It also would not increase the 20-cent-per-ride fee charged by the state, though some lawmakers are hoping to increase the fee to help finance transportation priorities.

Lizzi Weyant, director of government affairs for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said she hopes lawmakers consider amending the bill to ramp up the per-ride fees on ride-hailing companies.

“We should be capturing some of that revenue, back to municipalities and to the state,” Weyant said. Discussion about fees on companies like Uber and Lyft could also lead to a broader discussion about congestion pricing, Weyant said.

In 2017, the 20-cent-per-ride fee generated a total of $12.8 million. Under provisions of the 2016 law, half of that money is disbursed to cities and towns for local projects. The governor’s recent bill would ease the regulatory burden for municipalities to spend that money, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. For smaller communities without much ride-hailing activity, the reporting requirements are burdensome, according to Polito, who said only 25 municipalities around the state received more than $25,000 from the fee.

Ride-hailing companies that let users summon a car at all hours of day and night through their smart phones have become immensely popular over the past decade and have added a whole new wrinkle to the transportation system. The 81.3 million trips taken through ride-hailing services in 2018 was a 25 percent increase over the prior year.

In addition to changing how people get around, ride-hailing apps have altered the employment landscape – giving people a new way to work on their own schedules in their own cars – and created a simple way for people to catch a ride home after a night on the town. It has also led to some novel safety hazards.

In May, the Boston Globe reported on the experience of an Uber customer who filed a harassment prevention order against a driver after he showed up at her home, first looking for a date and then to talk to her after she made a complaint to the company about him. The governor’s bill includes new criminal penalties for drivers who use information available to them to stalk or annoy customers.

“The point here in the legislation is to basically say, you are providing people with a professional service, period. And that should be the beginning and the end of your relationship with them,” Baker said.

The legislation would also crack down on authorized drivers fraudulently sharing their credentials with those not authorized to drive.

The new penalties proposed in the bill include up to two years imprisonment for stalkers and 2 ½ years for “account renting,” where an unauthorized person is allowed to drive under someone else’s credentials.

The bill, which has the shared goals of improving public safety and traffic flow, was filed amid a massive inquiry into failures by the Registry of Motor Vehicles to properly suspend the licenses of Massachusetts drivers after out-of-state infractions.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation was unable to immediately say whether any of the 876 people whose licenses were recently suspended by the RMV following the discovery of previously neglected documents were authorized to drive for ride-hailing companies.

The RMV communicates regularly with the Department of Public Utilities, the ride-hailing regulator, including about information gathered in the recent review, Baker said during Wednesday’s press conference.

State Police Lt. Col. Robert Favuzza said under the current law, police patrolling the ride-hailing lot at Logan Airport frequently find scofflaws who fail to display the proper stickers or printed certifications required. On occasion, police have written up more than $10,000 worth of fines for those types of violations over the course of only a couple of hours at the airport, Favuzza said.

In addition to Uber and Lyft, a company called VIA is permitted to conduct ride-hailing, and the Department of Public Utilities is reviewing the application of a company called Embarque, which is now operating under a memorandum of understanding, according to the administration.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.