Letters, Fall 2015

INSTANT RUNOFF VOTING NOT WORKING IN CAMBRIDGE

James Sutherland’s article on Instant Runoff Voting (“A Democracy Worth Paying For,” Summer ’15) points out that turnouts in Cambridge run higher than in Boston, but that’s not particularly useful information. A comparison with teeth is Cambridge’s 72-year history of IRV-style voting, where you will find decades-long, steadily declining turnout, with occasional spikes due mainly to the electorate’s level of interest in the issues and stakes in a given election cycle.

Sutherland says that Cambridge’s council mirrors the city’s racial makeup. He is correct. The current council, elected in 2013, has one black councilor out of nine, which tracks closely with Cambridge’s 12 percent black population. But implying that there is a connection between IRV voting and proportional racial representation is a risky business. How is it that two black councilors were elected from 2001 through 2011 when the population during those years was the same as in 2013?

In case nobody noticed, Sutherland’s example of electing four at-large Boston councilors using IRV would disenfranchise 9,996 voters (50,000 — [10,001 x 4]). That’s 20 percent of the electorate. Those votes will end up in the “exhausted” pile. They will not be credited to any candidate because the winners and losers will have already been decided without their participation. Contrast this to plurality elections in which every vote is credited as it was intended, even if it gives a candidate more than enough to win, a situation Sutherland disparages as vote wasting.

Sutherland measures democracy by how many people go to the polls. He obsesses over statistics such as per-vote costs when the overall cost of running an election probably won’t change no matter how many or how few people turn out. He proposes new strategies to increase election turnouts — presumably to increase the number of votes that get cast — only to then endorse a system that will put limits on the number of votes that actually do the electing. This is not a vision of a better democracy but of a democracy in name only.

Rick Snedeker
Cambridge

UBER-TAXI DEBATE SHOULDN’T BE BINARY

Thank you for a great back and forth on Uber and other ride-sharing applications. Both articles in the Argument & Counterpoint feature — “Uber is not just an app” and “Ridesharing choices must be protected” — bring up many good points. However, I’ve found the coverage on ride-sharing apps to be very binary. Arguments typically fall into one of two categories, either excoriating Uber and saying it is destroying the jobs of hardworking taxi drivers and flouting local regulations, or claiming it’s an amazing new development and that politicians trying to get in its way don’t understand the sharing economy.

What I think these apps really show us is that existing regulations, including those that have supported entrenched taxi monopolies around the country for decades, don’t work in the new, borderless, hyper-connected world we’re now in.

I’ve been a casual Uber user for a few years now, and it has provided consistently better service than I typically get from a taxi and the same quality of service no matter where I am.

The first point is easy to understand. Uber has high standards for its drivers and for their cars. Poor reviews quickly take bad drivers off the road. And because drivers are self-employed, they’re motivated to offer a quality product that meets Uber’s standards. This is an area where medallion owners could compete, but without an easy outlet for passengers to summon a “good” taxi (besides Uber), it’s hard for medallion owners to differentiate themselves. (Do you ever pay attention to the cab company operating your taxi? I don’t.)

As for the second point — the consistency of the quality of service — no matter where I am in the world (Boston, Cambridge, or Brookline, or New York, San Francisco, London, or suburban northern Virginia), I can always get an Uber that will take me where I need to go. When dealing with taxis, because they’re regulated municipally, they’re often reluctant to cross town lines because they’ll have to drive back before they can get another fare. And because each town licenses taxis separately, you could have the best service with clean cars and courteous drivers picking you up in one town, and then receive abysmal service on the return leg from another town. Why in this modern day and age, when I go to Brookline for dinner with friends and then Cambridge to see a show before returning home to Boston, are the taxis all licensed and regulated differently in each town? Uber makes it simple and I always get exemplary service.

So should Uber and other ride-sharing apps be regulated like taxis currently are? In part. But maybe our taxis should also be regulated like Uber.

We should reconsider many aspects of our taxi licensing. Does it make sense for each town and city to license and regulate its taxis separately? Not really. Taxis in our metro region should all follow the same rules. Should Uber drivers face more stringent background checks? Possibly. So let’s have the State Police do background checks for all taxi, livery, and ride-share drivers.

Does it make sense to have medallion owners collude with local politicians to keep an artificial cap on how many taxis serve each town? Probably not. Let’s scrap the medallions and allow owner-operators to pay a flat annual fee each year for the privilege of being licensed by the state. What about fares? Set them at the regional level — a taxi around Boston shouldn’t be priced the same as a taxi around Amherst, but a taxi in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, or Somerville probably should be.

This shouldn’t be a binary choice — Uber or taxi. We should allow the disruptive aspects of Uber to let us see how municipal regulation of what’s now a regional business doesn’t make any sense and set up a process where the taxi industry and Uber can compete on a level playing field. Each may lose out a bit, but it gives consumers the choice they demand with the protections they deserve.

Patrick Starling
Boston