Uber Debate Comes to Cambridge

It’s around 12:30 a.m. when my Uber driver James pulls up. I’m the last fare of the night, and since it’s a two-door car, I slide into the front seat. He says he only drives for Uber once a week to supplement his income and is overwhelmingly positive about his experience.

“Uber is safer,” he explained. “In a taxi, you are carrying a lot of money, and it is very dangerous. With Uber, it is all electronic. We have the background check, and we know who you are.”

These sentiments – the convenience of paying without cash and the safety of knowing and having a record of who you’re driving with – are echoes of the consumers who are choosing rideshare apps over the traditional taxi. In Cambridge, cab drivers have decried these rideshare options, calling for regulations on a currently self-governing industry.

In June, the Cambridge License Commission held a hearing to gather opinions from the public on the growing prevalence of rideshare use in Cambridge. Donna Blythe-Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Taxi Drivers Association, claimed that as much as 40 percent of traditional cab service has been lost to the unregulated rideshare programs. Regulations, however, would not be likely to change that.

“For us it’s a public safety issue,” said Andrea Jackson, chair of the Cambridge License Commission. Their investigation, she said, is in the very preliminary stages and could take six months or more before effective legislation would be enacted. She also said that another public meeting is likely before legislation is decided upon. The investigation is looking at three main issues: proper inspection for rideshare vehicles, thorough background checks, and adequate insurance.

“I don’t see it as our job to keep [taxi companies] in business,” she said. In addition to standard safety measures, some are calling on the City of Cambridge to look at other facets of rideshare operations.

Sassy Outwater, an audio engineer who is blind, spoke at the June meeting about the way that she’s been treated by some Uber drivers. “You can’t hail a cab off the street if you can’t see,” Outwater said. She also points to the accessibility of using a smartphone app as well as the advantages of paying through her phone as ways that rideshare programs have given her increased mobility. But she says that their disability training is severely lacking.BkYg5zFIgAAIKWt

“On thirteen occasions between 2013 and 2014, I was denied Uber because I had a service dog. The drivers would pull up, see that i had a dog, and they would drive away, argue with me or flat out refuse to take me,” Outwater said. When she voiced her complaint at the June meeting, she said the cab drivers there erupted with anger at the idea that she had been refused service. In response, an Uber spokesperson told her that issues like this were addressed via email to the driver.

“We want Uber to take responsibility for its drivers,” Outwater said. “There’s a lot more to driving a cab than just ‘Here’s the keys.’ You’re dealing with a lot of people with different needs.” While refused
by Uber, Outwater says she has not been refused by Lyft, another
rideshare app.

Regulations for this burgeoning industry are surely on their way, but it’s likely none of them will seriously affect their operations as much as they will affect how well they can serve and protect their customers. This means that, unless they can innovate, the cab industry, a relatively inefficient institution, may be on its way out.

“Times change. Look at the people who made typewriters! I’m sure those typewriter companies weren’t too happy when computers came out,” remarked Jackson. “I’m sure some of them tried to innovate, and the ones who didn’t went out of business.”