No common ground in Uber fight
Testimony on competing bills reveals divisive views on how to regulate new industry
WITH A RAINBOW of partisans as a backdrop – hundreds of Uber supporters in blue, a near-equal number of taxi drivers in bright yellow, and a smattering of Lyft devotees in magenta – lawmakers at the State House on Tuesday took testimony on four disparate bills seeking to craft state rules covering the unregulated ride-hailing companies.
While the Legislature’s Committee on Financial Services can fashion a measure drawn from all the bills, it was clear common ground would be hard to find. And though many cities and towns in the state are waiting for state regulations to be passed before moving forward with their own rules in order to have some semblance of uniformity, there were hints that there would be disparate bylaws at the local level even if a bill is passed on Beacon Hill.
The two bills that were the focus of most of the testimony were offered by Gov. Charlie Baker, whose representatives argued for light interference in the marketplace, and two Boston legislators, Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester and Rep. Michael Moran of Brighton, whose measure would regulate ride-sharing company much the same way as the taxi industry, with drivers subject to heightened background checks and fingerprinting.
Katie Stebbins, Baker’s assistant secretary of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship, said the administration understands the struggles the taxi industry is facing but said it’s not up to the government to pick winners and losers in the marketplace.
Daniel Bennett, Baker’s public safety secretary, said fingerprinting was consciously left out of the administration’s bill but that would not preclude cities and towns from requiring them. “I didn’t think it was necessary,” he said. “We don’t say you can’t use fingerprints. Municipalities can still do that.”
Bennett said the bill is the most stringent in mandating two levels of background checks as well as compiling information on drivers that can aid law enforcement officials in identifying potential criminals.
“This is as great a law enforcement tool as we’ve ever seen,” said Bennett, a former prosecutor. “I’m excited about it. My friends in law enforcement are excited about it.”
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, who said he and Mayor Marty Walsh support new innovations, testified on behalf of the city and said he is unsure of how Uber performs its background checks. Evans said he has asked for information about who and how the company performs its criminal checks but has yet to receive a satisfactory answer.
“I don’t know who is doing their background checks,” Evans said. “A lot of claims that they made they haven’t been able to back up. They’re about profit. I’m about public safety.”
Moran, a Brighton Democrat, said the bill he and Forry filed only levels the playing field between Uber and the cab industry, which operates with price regulations and safety and insurance mandates that do not apply to ride-sharing companies. Forry said many of the regulations in the lawmakers’ bill are there to protect the safety of riders. She said Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing companies should be held to the same standard because they perform the same service, regardless of how they view themselves.
“They are innovative companies, but we believe they are innovative transportation companies, moving people from point A to point B,” she said. “That’s what you are.”
“If such a proposal were to become law, it would effectively ban ride-sharing services from Massachusetts,” Meghan Joyce, Uber’ East Coast general manager, testified.
Moran dismissed Joyce’s complaints, charging the company is just trying to bully people to get its own way. “I find that there is little room for debate in dealing with Uber,” said Moran. “They’re not the first company that’s come in and said, ‘if you regulate us, we will leave.’”
The Forry-Moran bill would also bar Uber and its peers from engaging in “surge pricing” during public emergencies and disasters. Forry noted that, during this year’s record snowfall, Uber raised its prices considerably as the state’s public transportation system collapsed and people were stuck for rides.
Uber also flexed its political muscle before and during the hearing. Joyce was joined at the hearing by former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, now a senior advisor for the company, and former California congressman Anthony Coehlo, one of the main architects of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Opponents have charged that those with disabilities are unable to access Uber’s service because nearly all the private drivers do not have handicapped-accessible vehicles. Coehlo, who said he does not work for Uber and came at his own expense, said the company has convinced him they are reaching out to provide service for those with disabilities.
Joyce outlined steps the company is taking to increase the number of vehicles available to those with disabilities as well as launching a pilot program to serve the elderly. Both Davis and Joyce touted the background checks Uber undertakes to ensure passenger safety and they claimed there are studies that show ride-hailing companies can reduce the incidence of drunken driving.
“Uber makes city streets safer by playing a critical role in reducing drunk driving with several studies correlating a reduction in DUI arrests with Uber’s entrance into a market,” said Joyce.
Davis also brought up a study from several years ago that showed Boston cabs avoided going to some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. He said the cost and availability of ride-hailing services gives residents in those neighborhoods more options.
“There is a shameful history in our city of taxis not picking up certain passengers in certain neighborhoods, most often people and communities of color,” said Davis, who as police commissioner was in charge of regulating the city’s taxi industry and whose father and grandfather were cab drivers. “Uber picks you up and drops you wherever you need to be. I feel strongly that no community in Boston should feel trapped because they don’t have access to transportation.”
The committee co-chairs, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston and Sen. James Eldridge of Acton, gave no hint as to which proposals they would favor putting into a bill. Eldridge, who said he wants a measure that ensures a “level playing field,” also indicated any measure would have to address gaps in accessibility for the disabled.
Freshman Rep. Shawn Dooley had some misgivings about a five-day window to complete background checks. Bennett, the public safety secretary said if the background check was not complete in that time frame, an applicant could get a provisional permit to drive for a ride-hailing company. Dooley said he’d prefer a measure that would bar them from driving until the background check is successfully completed.“I don’t care if it’s a one-in-a-million chance, I don’t want that guy out picking up my daughter,” Dooley said.
Despite the mob of taxi drivers in the audience, very little was offered as a way to relieve them of their regulatory burden relative to ride-sharing companies. State Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston asked if a medallion buyback could be put into motion. But other than that, there were no other proposals to lift taxi and livery regulations that control price, cap the number of cabs, and, in places such as Boston, mandate taxi companies use a radio service rather than an app for dispatching.