In Cambridge, taxi union finds staunch opposition to putting brakes on Uber

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Tensions rose Tuesday in the small basement room of a Cambridge municipal building as citizens waited to hear and give testimony about on-demand driver services in the city.

The Cambridge License Commission held a general hearing to address, among other things, the regulation of taxi alternatives such as Lyft and Uber ride summoning services.

Commission members repeatedly asked attendees to quiet down as other agenda items were discussed leading up to the issue du jour. The committee denied one attendee’s request to have the agenda item moved to the front.

The hearing marks the latest in a saga around transportation regulation and technology with protests being mounted by cab drivers and their unions around the United States and abroad.

The hearing announcement referred to the agenda item as “regulations for smartphone technology for the taxicab and limousine/executive sedan industry.”

In other words: Uber, Lyft, and SideCar.

Uber allows smartphone wielders to hail a ride using an iPhone or Android app. It displays the incoming vehicle’s precise location, an ETA, and a description of car and photo of the driver for security.

To begin the agenda item, License Commission chair Andrea Spears Jackson assured the eager crowd that no vote would be taken on the proposed regulation. The hearing was a preliminary event to begin the dialogue about properly regulating services like Uber, she said. She also urged attendees to understand that the proposed regulations aimed to address the number of illegal cabs that operate in the city in addition to the relatively new services.

Earlier in the day the License Commission tweeted out about a meeting with Uber Boston’s General Manager, Meghan Verena Joyce.

Joyce was first to provide testimony at the hearing. After opening remarks Joyce and the commission discussed a number of questions raised by commission members.

“Transportation options are good for riders, they’re good for drivers, and they’re good for the city,” said Joyce.

Jackson asked that Joyce send examples of regulations in other municipalities so the city might avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Testimony deliverers often cited the California regulations that allow for ride-sharing and the independent contractor model that services like Lyft and Uber apply.

Following Joyce, the committee heard from Cambridge resident Sassy Outwater who advocated for proper regulation of Uber and similar services that have repeatedly denied her access to a ride because of her use of a seeing eye dog. She emphasized that ride-sharing services provide many benefits to the visually impaired but urged the committee to adopt regulations that would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A representative from the Boston Taxi Drivers Union came out in support of regulation and said that ride-sharing services have taken 30 to 40 percent of cab business.

“They can run pretty much rough-shod over our industry,” she said.

The representative suggested that with Uber, Wall Street was coming to take over Main Street and that perhaps one day, Uber would deliver an individual’s first born.

Attendees responded with snickering and laughter.

By contrast the packed room applauded after testimony given by Cambridge resident Joel Fleming lambasted the commission for a “luddite” draft of regulations. Fleming further suggested that a regulation such as the draft at hand would stifle innovation in Cambridge and send a dangerous message to burgeoning entrepreneurs who might feel compelled to take their business elsewhere.

Last month the Globe reported on an outpouring of cabbies from the Boston area who honked their horns and disrupted traffic outside of Uber headquarters near South Station. The drivers called for Mayor Martin J. Walsh to introduce regulation to the growing ride-sharing industry.

A year ago, Cambridge attempted to block the service from operating in the city but an outpouring of opposition from the startup community and a favorable reversal of a prior ruling against Uber resulted in continued service west of the Charles.

By and large, despite protests from cabbies, consumers seem to enjoy the presence of Uber and similar services. A number of hearing testimonies and a handful of Globe opinion pieces would suggest the same.

Last month one editorialist blamed cab companies for complacency and refusal to improve for their current situation, competition mounting around them.

While consumers might welcome the competition, cabbies are also struggling. Last year a report from the Globe’s Spotlight team revealed that driving a cab in Boston is anything but a cushy gig. Cabbies were often cheated out of money and sometimes faced physically dangerous circumstances, the report found.

Among those giving testimony were a number of former cab drivers who found an oasis in Lyft or Uber after either being laid off or discovering they could make more money without medallions.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at george.levines@gmail.com.
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