When It Comes to Uber, Cab Drivers Have a Public Relations Problem

Until they acknowledge that the public is taking Uber's side, their protests aren't going to be very persuasive.

In light of the protest that Boston cab drivers put on Thursday outside the Uber’s offices, let us take a moment to gently remind the city’s cabbies of the steep, steep public relations battle they face in their battle to shut down apps like Uber.

On Thursday afternoon, about 30 Boston taxi drivers parked outside Uber’s offices near South Station and leaned on their horns for an hour. The drivers want to convince Mayor Marty Walsh to establish a civilian commission that would more strictly oversee and regulate the ride-sharing industry dominated by companies like Uber, a ridesharing app that lets users summon a car from their phone. Again, to endear themselves to us, they chose to express this by honking their horns en masse.

Uber has had mixed success around the country in making its legal case to courts that their drivers need not obey strict regulations on taxi services. But as the cab drivers are petitioning Mayor Walsh, an elected politician, let’s set aside an evaluation of those legal arguments and focus on what probably matters more to Walsh: the public opinion.

There, it seems clear, the cab drivers are not doing well. You’ll recall that the state government did briefly side with the taxi industry in 2012 by ordering Uber to shut down. The app tends to inspire a cultish devotion among users, and the ensuing uproar from its fans convinced Gov. Deval Patrick to intervene and reverse the decision. Public opinion clearly mattered, and it wasn’t taking the side of the cabbies.

Since then, not much has changed. Uber has had some court challenges and public relations screw-ups. They catch flack for their “surge pricing” scheme, which increases rates during times of high demand. There have been some minor rants about their new UberXL service, which guarantees a car that will fit five passengers.

But cab drivers haven’t successfully capitalized on those moments of discontent with the young company. After all, they’ve had their own PR issues. A scathing Boston Globe series on the state of the cab industry left a lot of readers with the distinct sense that regulations as they stand now have hurt drivers and passengers alike. It didn’t make the argument that Uber should be forced to adhere to those existing regulations all that persuasive.

At every turn, it seems like organized cab drivers can’t help but do the opposite of whatever might endear them to the public. When Boston announced late night T service, a wildly popular idea, Uber applauded it. Cab drivers, on the other hand, expressed concern.

And then there was Thursday’s protest. Anyone with a clear view of the PR hurdle the taxi industry faces might suggest that turning out in a populated area on a weekday to lay on the horn for an hour doesn’t seem like a great way to further one’s goals. Seriously, unmute the Vine video embedded at the top of this post and listen. After 15 seconds, you’ll feel inclined to find out exactly what it is those people want, and then devote your life to making sure it doesn’t happen. Read the web comments on news coverage of the protest, and you’ll get a sense that the demonstration didn’t go over well.

Of course, Mayor Walsh has a duty to uphold fairness and focus on the safety of everyone in the city. But whether Uber’s model is unfair or unsafe is, at best, an unresolved question, and in the absence of a clear answer, a highly vocal public is going to have a say. Before cab drivers can win over the city government, they’re going to have to win over the rest of us first.