When Regulators Attack: Cambridge and Uber

I’m on the brink of making a big real estate commitment in Cambridge, the idiosyncratic New England city I’ve called home since 1994. But a set of proposed regulations discussed at a License Commission meeting last night are so bad and so dumb they’re causing me to rethink whether or not I really want to live here.

The draft rules cover how people get rides in the city. And I’ll at least give the Commission credit for honesty; they’re not even really trying any more to cover up their assault on Uber, Lyft, and other on demand, smartphone-summoned ride services. The rules they came up with are quite clearly designed to drive these companies out of town; there’s really no other way to read them. As Uber summarized on its blog:

these regulations would:

    • Set a $50 minimum price for any non-taxi car ride, regardless of time or distance
    • Prohibit you from requesting a ride on-demand from anyone other than a taxi
    • Forbid any technological device from being part of fare calculation during a ride

Who else but a Cambridge taxi driver or regulator could possibly think this was a good idea?

I’ve been taking cabs here since I showed up as an undergraduate in 1984 (I wasn’t taking many back then because I was so poor). I’ve never had better than an OK experience, and I’ve had plenty of truly lousy ones: dirty, broken down cabs, unqualified drivers, and so on. I’ve also been unable to get a cab so many times I’ve lost count. When there are only 257 medallions for a city of more than 100,000 people this isn’t too surprising, but it’s always frustrating.

And then Uber came along, and life got better for me and all other ride seekers (I’ve never used Lyft, so can’t comment on it). I’ve always been able to find a car, it’s always showed up, and I’ve had an OK-to-great experience all but a handful of times. And each of those times Uber noticed my dissatisfaction (since users rate every ride), reached out to me, apologized, and tried to make it right via a refund. The Uber experience is so superior that I’ve basically taken ‘taxi’ off my mental list of ways to get around Cambridge.

The License Commission wants to put it back on not by improving taxis, but by taking away my preferred alternative. Can they be serious? This honestly seems like an elaborate piece of civic performance art in which I’m an unwilling participant, or an episode of “Nathan For You” where he somehow convinces bureaucrats to use their powers to maximum detrimental effect.

Uber supporters came out in force last night and the Commission backed off, saying that the public hearing “was the start of the conversation and committed to a transparent process going forward, involving both Uber and the people of Cambridge.” according to Uber’s blog.

My fellow Cantabrigians, let’s make sure we stay involved. There’s a lot riding on this issue.