You may not have noticed if you don’t spend much time in cabs but there is a battle unfolding on the streets of American cities and it is steadily getting uglier.
The fight is between taxi drivers and app-based car services, namely Uber and Lyft. Taxi unions in cities such as Boston, Denver, New York, and San Francisco are not pleased with the sudden explosion of Uber's popularity, which has taken off in 67 cities in North America and 36 countries around the world since it started in 2009. Today, the Wall Street Journal announced that the company is now valued at 18.2 billion dollars, one of the highest valuations ever for a start-up company.
Uber allows people to request a ride using an app on their phone and recently introduced the less expensive UberX feature that uses taxi cabs and personal cars instead of fancier livery vehicles. Lyft and Sidecar are two other competitors that use a similar model as UberX.
Car-sharing services such as Uber do not need a commercial license to pick up drivers, which means they are not restricted by the same regulations as official taxis. This has pissed off a lot of cabbies in cities pretty much everywhere, who argue that Uber and Lyft are undermining their business by driving down prices and offering services that regular cabs cannot.
The fact that the car-sharing services' drivers do not need to purchase a commercial license has also angered the taxi commissioner in particular, because owning and selling taxi medallions – the licenses required to drive taxis – is a lucrative operation that Uber drivers bypass. This in turn has caused the price of medallions to skyrocket in cities such as Boston, because there is a finite amount available to drivers.
Although Uber does require a background check of their drivers, they do not go through the same extensive check or vehicle inspection from the police department as regular cabbies do. This has led to some unsettling incidents, most recently on Monday, when an Uber driver in California was arrested for allegedly kidnapping a drunk woman.
Another incident that attracted outrage against Uber occurred in San Francisco in January, when an Uber driver hit and killed a 6-year-old girl in a crosswalk. Uber denies that they are liable because no passengers were in the car and the driver was not yet picking up or dropping off anyone.
Cities are taking on Uber
As a result of this growing ire towards Uber, multiple cities and states are pushing for greater regulation or just a flat-out ban of car-sharing services. The most recent was today, when Colorado became the first state successfully to pass a law regulating the industry by requiring background checks, vehicle inspections, and mandatory insurance for the drivers once they are logged into the app.
But the most contentious fight is taking place in Boston, where the Boston Taxi Drivers Association (BTDA), the union for Boston cabs, has led the fight in trying to get Uber out of the city.
Two weeks ago this fight finally came to a head when the BTDA organized a “rolling rally” outside of Uber’s offices in downtown Boston in which taxi drivers from around the city circled the block, honking continuously for an hour.
In a statement about the protest, BTDA said they were “calling on the Mayor of Boston and the Police Commissioner to order all Uber-X and Uber-XL for-hire transportation vehicles off the streets of Boston until the city can regulate and license all Uber drivers and cars.”
At the urging of the BTDA, the city of Boston has been working with a transportation task force to establish regulations for the car-sharing industry. Soon after the rally, Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh voiced his frustration, saying to the Boston Herald, “This needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. I want the regulations soon.”
Uber, however, does not seem too concerned. “The taxi medallions should spend their time improving customer service rather than complaining about Uber,” Lane Kasselman, spokesperson for Uber, told VICE News. “Bostonians know that we are still the safest, most reliable and affordable ride in Boston.”
According to Donna Blythe-Shaw, a spokesperson for BTDA, part of the reason for the contention is that Boston’s taxi industry has pretty much remained the same since when it was first created in the 1930s.
“Uber came into a city that has had a defunct regulatory taxi system that was under the control of the Police Department and burdened by over-regulation. This system has not been able to keep up with the changing times of taxi-for-hire services,” Blyth-Shaw told VICE News. “So Boston was basically ripe for takeover by Uber.”
But Uber says they should not be held to the same regulations as taxis since they are an app-based service and not taxis.
“We’re not opposed to all regulation. We just think that the regulation should be reflective of the new overwhelming industry,” said Kasselman. “Uber is a ride-share service and taxis are something different. The regulation should be different.”
But despite Uber’s lack of concern, increasingly more cities are getting in on the fight. London’s black taxis are pushing for regulation of Uber. On Thursday, Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles sent cease and desist letters to Uber and Lyft, saying they were in violation of state laws. Despite the attempt at banning them, Uber continues to operate in Virginia. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission also ordered Lyft to stop operating in Albuquerque.
It remains to be seen if Uber will be allowed to remain in any cities or if the collective power of cabbies will drive them out. But as things stand now, “There is no level playing field,” said Blyth-Shaw.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: obecker928
Photo via Flickr