The State’s Taxi Industry vs. Uber Battle Is Headed to Federal Court

A lawsuit argues that different regulations for Uber, Lyft are unconstitutional.

Tension between the traditional taxi industry and ride-sharing companies shows no signs of dissipating. In Massachusetts, the former is now suing the Gov. Charlie Baker administration, arguing that it’s unconstitutional for the state to have two different sets of regulations for what they argue is essentially the same service.

This comes after Baker signed off on new regulations for companies like Uber and Lyft, which taxi drivers have argued did not go far enough to bring them in line with what taxis have to do to stay in business.

The plight of your average taxi driver, and an ongoing war between the old and the new, has at this point been well documented. In order to operate, cab drivers and their bosses have to invest in medallions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are also required to comply with mandated minimum fares, insurance, and safety requirements, even as the cab companies have seen ridership plummet to new lows.

Uber, Lyft, Fasten and the like, meanwhile, invite everyday people to put their cars to use, and right now, recently passed regulations for those drivers (which kick in next year) are less burdensome: a background check, plus new costs to corporate overseers that include a fee on the service and a minimum insurance requirement.

The argument being made now, led by the Boston Taxi Owners Association and filed in federal court, is that the dual set of rules “violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

“This particular law allows for there to be less burdens, less fees, less requirements on so called TNCs — Uber, Lyft and other companies — and taxis continue to have to be regulated by cities and towns and they face very heavy burdens, fees and it’s very difficult for them to compete against the TNCs,” Jennifer Pinkham, attorney for the association, tells WBUR. She adds: “For instance, if you have a Chinese restaurant and an Italian restaurant, they would need to have the same regulations.”

The association also sued the city of Boston earlier this year, making a similar argument. A judge in that case has ordered Boston to update policies on ride-sharing by the end of this month.

It isn’t just regulation, of course, that is dogging the cumbersome taxi industry.

The on-demand nature of the smartphone-enabled services, the nimbleness of their leaders, and access to a trove of data on riders have also allowed old-school taxis’ upstart competitors to undercut cabs with new ways to make rides cheaper for passengers, and even score promising collaborations with state government to make transit for riders with disabilities less expensive.