Boston City Council Looks for Fees, Numbers from Uber & Lyft

Mobile-tech startups Uber and Lyft have been operating “ridesharing” services illegally in Boston since 2013. City officials say they’re ready to end that run, but they’re hoping to incorporate the popular car-for-hire apps into existing taxi regulations instead of simply shutting them down.

It will probably come with a price, and more transparency about the size of these fast-growing private companies.

At a hearing on Monday, Boston city councilors said it wasn’t fair that ridesharing drivers who use their personal cars weren’t paying fees similar to those paid by professional ride-for-hire drivers. Council members also pressed for data on the number of drivers and trips connected to Uber and Lyft, without much success.

Despite some frustration around a lack of transparency, council members said they wanted to create a “level playing field” that brought services like Uber and Lyft into the city’s regulatory system.

“We’ll have to change the law, because they’re not complying with the law—and we’re not really doing anything about it,” City Council president Bill Linehan said.

The move toward regulating the upstart taxi alternatives, which have cultivated a vocal fan base with the politically potent innovation community, mirrors moves by officials in other states and cities in recent months.

It’s part of an unprecedented makeover for local transportation around the country. Investors have staked market-leading Uber and chief competitor Lyft with hundreds of millions of dollars to establish national networks of cars for hire, shaking up a heavily regulated industry with a heavy dose of technical savvy.

In most cases, these new-generation car services have begun operating in cities without getting permission from regulators, building a customer and driver base that can be mobilized when city officials start asking questions.

That’s helped keep the startups in business despite huge regulatory barriers that have kept the number of taxis low in many places—a canny bit of political organizing that appears to be paying off.

Hundreds of people flocked to City Hall to discuss the future of these new transportation services at Monday’s hearing. Representatives from Uber and Lyft brought supporters, as did establishment taxi services, all of whom had to be repeatedly shushed by council members when debate got heated.

Council members and Boston Police representatives focused on the need for government background checks and the lack of fees paid by Uber and Lyft drivers, who in many cases are using their own cars to offer taxi rides to other people.

That’s technically illegal under city law, which says any car for hire must be licensed by the police unit in charge of regulating taxis.

Uber drivers have been ticketed by police for operating illegal cabs in Boston, local general manager Meghan Verena Joyce said, but the company considers those citiations “unjust” because the rules are outdated.

“The regulations that were written were written even before the idea of a smartphone was conceived of,” Joyce said. “Some of these are from the 1920s and even before then. Regulation has not caught up to this new technology.”

Joyce pointed to regulations recently approved by Washington, D.C., as a model for Boston officials to consider. Uber and Lyft also are participating in Mayor Marty Walsh’s advisory committee, along with establishment companies, that is aimed at updating local regulations.

Linehan tried repeatedly to get information from the two startups about how large their operations were. Lyft manager Katie Kincaid said she didn’t have any details about the number of Lyft drivers or rides, while Joyce would say only that Uber has thousands of drivers who have carried out millions of rides in the greater Boston area in the past several months.

Council member Tito Jackson said he was frustrated by the lack of detail supplied by the companies. “That level of mystery makes it very difficult for folks in our roles who are going to have to make these decisions,” he said.

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