Uber and out for taxi protectionism?
Years from now, public policy students or perhaps cultural anthropologists will sift through the history of the current debate in our capital city over what have become known as ride-hailing companies and this thing known as the taxi industry.
They’ll wonder how a government-run system was concocted that involved minting a limited number of small metal plates known as medallions, which then became quite valuable because of their limited number when affixed to a usually funny-painted car. These small plates were a path to payments, if not exactly riches, to the drivers of the funny-painted cars from strangers without cars at their disposal who nonetheless wished to get, as quickly as Boston’s streets would permit, from point A to point B. (Some drivers owned their own little metal plates and were small business owners worth sympathizing with. Many others leased their funny-painted cars from small-plate overlords, who owned many coveted medallions and cashed in handsomely on the arrangement, while drivers often toiled 12-hour shifts for paltry earnings.)
One day, small electronic devices that connected everyone with everything suddenly appeared in the land, and very many things changed very quickly. One was the ability to secure, for a fee, a car ride from drivers working outside the small-plate system. It became much easier to get rides, and it became much cheaper to do so than under the older system that existed for so many years.
This development, a regular feature of market-based economic systems, seemed like progress.
It became a pitched battle, but the outcome was never in doubt.
That is the state of things now, as the region’s battered taxi industry digs in and looks for even the smallest table scraps while ride-hailing businesses feast on a booming market for their services.
Today’s battle: The ability to pick up passengers at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. The House version of ride-hailing legislation now pending on Beacon Hill would impose a five-year ban on drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing companies picking up passengers at the convention center. It would make Boston’s convention center one of only a handful in the country with such a ban, and officials from the center say it would put Boston at a competitive disadvantage in landing convention business.
Taxi industry representatives say some level of protection is the only way some taxi drivers will be able to stay in business.
State Rep. Michael Moran, who backs the House bill, offers a new wrinkle by expressing concern for banks that have made loans to finance taxi medallions, whose value is plummeting.
“We owe the medallion industry a little better effort than just saying, ‘Sorry, there’s new technology, and you’re out of luck,’” he told the Globe.
Rich Davey and Chris Dempsey had prominent roles on opposite sides of the Boston 2024 Olympics debate, but they are of one mind on this issue. They team up on a Globe op-ed today that calls for the state legislation to scrap any restrictions on where ride-hailing services are available, including the convention center and Logan Airport.
In most cases where technology throws an old industry to the curb, government owes it nothing. The misgivings over the impact of the insurgent ride-hailing sector seem to relate to the fact that government had such a big hand in driving up the cost to enter a business that is now in free-fall.
It’s inevitable that ride-hailing firms will ultimately be allowed to operate everywhere. Like slogging through Boston traffic at rush hour, it’s the business of getting from here to there that will be messy and try lots of nerves.
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