Creating Technology for Social Change

[Peer economy] Recap: Transportation licensing hearing in Cambridge

This last Tuesday, the Cambridge Licensing Commission held a hearing to discuss regulations concerning unregistered cabs, including transportation network companies (think Uber, Lyft, SideCar—peer-to-peer platforms that offer private point-to-point car service) and rogue cabs (not registered with the city and not participants with a TNC). A proposal—Regulations for Smartphone Technology for Taxicabs and Limousines—served as grounding for the discussion around how to regulate private transportation and/or update the definition of private transportation. An alert went out over email to the Media Lab community, and I attended the hearing. As the only ML community member who attended the hearing in full, I sent back a report. I’ve been encouraged to share it here. It has been slightly altered to provide links and to make it coherent outside of the Media Lab community.

The first picture shows a woman who is asking for quiet from the attendees, who could not all fit into the meeting room. She explained that the meeting room door needed to stay open because of emergency exit standards, but there was too much noise from concerned TNC (transportation network companies) stakeholders for the commission to conduct other agenda items first. 

Okay so all said and done, the hearing on private transportation lasted for about 1.5 hours. It started with the commission chair explaining that this was just a preliminary conversation. In order to even have a conversation about transportation networks (TNCs – the container that California’s Public Utility Commission established for groups like Uber, Lyft, SideCar) and private transportation, they have to call a public hearing because the commissioners are forbidden to discuss these sort of things amongst themselves in private settings. This wasn’t just about TNCs but also the rogue cabs in Cambridge.

They called on Uber’s general manager in Boston, Meghan Joyce, and she took 20 minutes explaining Uber’s intent, the safety precautions that Uber takes in screening their drivers (zero-tolerance policy for drugs, alcohol, sexual violence; social security, registration, multi-state background check, county background check; maximum age of vehicle and aesthetic requirements) and claimed that Uber has a more stringent screening process than the City of Boston. She talked about all of the affordances of Uber software in providing transparency for both driver and passenger. She was very clear that what Uber offers is a software to their “partners” (drivers).

Attendees eventually asked for testimonies outside of Uber (i.e.: Lyft – I don’t think there was a Lyft company representative there, but there were plenty of Lyft drivers). The chair explained that they had asked Uber to be at the hearing because most of the emails they received were about Uber. There were then testimonies from lots of folks centering around these issues:

  • California Public Utilities Commission rulings – For context, the California PUC passed regulations late last year that legalized ridesharing under the term “transportation network companies,” which captures pre-arranged pick-ups and drop-offs. The big problem at the time, besides all of the cab/livery issues, was applying insurance and safety standards to TNC drivers. Insurance companies wouldn’t cover drivers if they were in an accident because using their vehicle for commercial purposes actually nullifies their insurance. Anyhow, in those rulings, the PUC detailed accessibility requirements, management, obligations of the TNC company (Uber, Lyft, SideCar, other groups like them). Attendees who keep up on this urged the commission to look to California.
  • Safety v. competition – Proponents of TNCs urged the commission to separate safety from competition when figuring out regulations (a common accusation is that the taxi lobby has been meddling in city politics). Later on during the session, one cab driver pointed out that besides the typical arguments for regulating Uber, the fact is that even good taxi drivers can’t compete because taxis cannot charge surge pricing. Taxis are bound by legal measurements and pricing for metered travel. Meanwhile, surge pricing/gouging is not regulated by public laws. On the flip side of this, several of the drivers pointed out that licensing costs and other fees actually go toward supporting public infrastructure. Basically, TNCs don’t pay into the public infrastructure the way that livery and taxi drivers do through permitting/licensing costs. One person put it as “socializing costs, privatizing profits.”
  • If taxis want to compete, they need to change their customer service approach – Attendees claimed that taxis are unable to compete because their customer service is horrible. Even those who want regulations for Uber/Lyft (refuting that Uber is not a taxi service, and it should not try to mask what it is) say that the taxi industry still needs to get its game on when it comes to customer service. They’re the incumbents, so they should have the advantage.
  • Misinformation – There was misinformation across the attendee spectrum. A few cab drivers and livery drivers claimed that TNC drivers do not get background checks, while a few long-time Uber drivers thought that they had always been covered under Uber’s $1 million insurance policy. (IMO the misinformation is actually indicative of TNCs’ failure in reaching out in a culturally thoughtful manner to antagonized communities)
  • Accessibility issues
    • Disabled persons – There were two women at the event who were disabled persons. One was blind and had a service dog. She said that TNCs have been amazing for accessibility reasons in that she does not have to figure out where a taxi stand is, the car comes to her, that the read back feature on smartphones makes it possible for her to understand her waybill (and she doesn’t have to rely on the driver’s word that she was charged the correct amount). For disabled persons, accessibility means independence. HOWEVER, she has been refused rides by many Uber drivers (she gave a shoutout to Lyft) because of her service dog. Many drivers think service dogs are pets, and they have not accommodated her. She usually has to call at least a second Uber before she gets a ride. The other woman, who represents a disabled persons group, said that Uber had been alerted many, many times to this issue, and she specifically cited Meghan’s claims of “taking the issue very seriously” (Meghan said this a lot during her testimony) as disingenuous. These two women made it clear that they do not believe in Uber’s public assurances. They believe that whatever regulations materialize, it needs to give the TNC companies “incentive to comply with civil rights laws.”
    • Location – Several people brought up that TNCs were the reason that they could hurry from one location to another (mostly using a TNC in lieu of public transportation) without care about how close they were to a taxi stand.
    • Safety – Two women brought up safety issues in relation to gender. They appreciated that—even with surge pricing—they could get from one point to another when other transportation options are not relaistic without worrying about whether the driver would reject them based on their end destination (i.e.: cab driver in Jamaica Plain might refuse to drive a passenger to Cambridge because it is too far).
  • Data transparency – The data transparency means that passengers will always know the route they traveled. That they get an electronic waybill immediately is powerful because if passengers leave anything in the car, they know how to get hold of the driver. Additionally, this can make it easy to discipline drivers. Meghan also gave an example of an Uber driver who transported a measles patient to Massachusetts General Hospital. An MGH doctor then called her to say that the hospital was worried that the Uber driver had become a carrier, and that they needed to contact him and all his other rides that day to alert them. Uber was able to do that through their data.
  • Invocations of Harvard and MIT – Chilling effects on innovation came up a few times. People invoked Harvard and MIT, saying that if the area wanted to compete against New York City and Silicon Valley, then they couldn’t pass laws that might communicate an anti-innovation mindset. However, there were also attendees who were both pro-TNC and anti-TNC who made the point that regulations do not necessarily stifle innovation and that they are still needed.

There were about 25 testimonies on Tuesday, and I couldn’t squeeze all of the perspectives and nuances into this report. There were many valid points that taxi/livery drivers brought up that have only been described in part here (they had a presence, but they were definitely drowned out—sometimes derided—by TNC drivers and their impassioned supporters). The commission promised that this was just the first in many hearings to discuss the role of TNCs in Cambridge.