Boston Fines Uber Drivers Even as Massachusetts Tries to Allow Them

How can the state government be working to make room for ridesharing companies even as the city's police continue to fine them?



If you’ve been following news of Gov. Charlie Baker’s attempt to create statewide regulations for Uber and Lyft, today’s headline might seem discordant. “Even as Uber, Lyft gain riders, drivers face $500 city fines,” the Boston Globe reports.

These fines aren’t just vestiges of an earlier policy, either. “So far this year, Boston police officers have handed out tickets to 225 drivers,” the Globe reports, “a lower rate compared to last year, but still higher than before the advent of ride-hailing services.” It begs the question: How can the state government be working to make room for ridesharing companies in the regulatory framework even as the city’s police continue to fine such companies’ drivers?

The fact is, Baker’s attempts withstanding, regulating the taxi industry has long been a city government game. That’s unfortunate, because it makes our ability to adjust to emerging technologies like Uber much more difficult. The companies need to change the rules on a city-by-city basis. The Boston area is an metro area made up of many deeply interwoven municipalities, all with their own regulatory structures for cabs. This breeds myriad inefficiencies. The Globe’s Dante Ramos described just a few of them in a recent column:

A Cambridge driver who brings passengers through traffic-choked streets to dinner in downtown Boston gets the benefit of a long ride with the meter running — but can’t pick up a street hail on the way back. Meanwhile, if a taxi company in Salem also wants to do business in two neighboring towns, it has to get its cabs inspected and licensed three times.

A company like Uber that seeks to streamline the car-hailing process doesn’t want to adhere to 18 different sets of regulations. Indeed, if it did follow all the rules of all the cities, it would lose most of what makes it attractive to riders: seamlessness, low-cost, and convenience.

That’s why a statewide solution like the one proposed by Baker is so attractive to both Lyft and Uber and to mayors Martin Walsh of Boston and Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, all of whom have offered support for Baker’s plan. This support suggests that if legislation goes through, it will succeed in streamlining a lot of the differences in municipal policies. It would be nice if Uber drivers didn’t need to fear that if they pick up a fare in one city, they’ll be subjected to licensing requirements and fines different from the one where they started their shift. (It’d be nice for cab drivers, too, but that’s a whole other story.) Baker’s proposal implicitly gets at the fact that in a place like the Boston area, where one short Uber ride can take you through so many separate city jurisdictions, a statewide solution is the best bet.