Some open questions and thoughts on the Taxi-Uber issue:
- The customer experience offered by Uber/Lyft is superior to that of taxis in almost every measurable way.
- Are we witnessing the last throes of the taxi industry? How much should this all-but-accepted inevitability play a role in our choice to allocate public effort and resources?
- What about the human impact on laborers in the taxi industry and their families? This must be factored into conversations, and may result in actions like facilitating a move for drivers out of the industry, or better leveling the regulatory playing field.
- What would deregulation of taxis look like in the short and long terms? What would increased regulation on Uber and Lyft look like?
- We must keep in mind that beyond the impact on industry workers, there is an impact on those who rely on or use car services; for many, small differences in cost or convenience can have enormous impact.
- Many poor and working class people use taxi services for everyday needs, like getting to the grocery store or medical appointments. An expanding and more reliable T/transit network, a complete bike network, and smarter, denser planning with useful walkability, would provide more, cheaper, and holistic options for these users. We can go a long way toward addressing these basic mobility needs and fixing this gaping justice issue outside of the taxi-Uber debate. Getting to a low-paying job, or to school, or home from the grocery store shouldn’t be an expensive and unreliable prospect in any system.
- There is serious concern about nondiscrimination in the livery industry, particularly when it comes to access for the mobility impaired, and factors that could theoretically underserve certain neighborhoods or areas, like the rider rating system, and the ability of drivers to self-select rides and geographies.
- All about medallions: they were expensive and are rapidly losing value, and they create a debt-fueled indenture-style labor system. Perhaps medallions made sense in a different time (perhaps); it’s hard to justify their necessity at all today.
- What responsibility, if any, does Uber have to ensure its drivers (who have a contractor relationship with the service) have traditional and basic labor protections?—a difficult question given the very nontraditional relationship.
- What about the taxi industry is worth preserving, anyway? On one hand, it’s a tired monopolistic business model with poor customer service that has been subject to a convoluted protectionist regulatory scheme largely of its own creation. On the other, it has long been a part of the urban landscape and has been the source of a livelihood for many, especially groups like working-class immigrants.
- Is there anything that’s especially different in Cambridge when it comes to taxis and on-demand car services? Is there anything that should be especially different in Cambridge?
The city government doesn’t totally lack culpability for this boiling point being reached with the taxi industry. With the medallion system, and regulations that have expanded over the decades, the taxi industry finds itself suddenly at an extreme disadvantage. Services like Uber and Lyft bring an efficiency to the marketplace that’s exciting and hugely popular. The era of the taxi is coming to an end.
I personally have no use for taxis because (1) I get around by other means for almost all trips, (2) they’re inconvenient, and (3) a positive customer experience is hard to come by. I use Uber when that quick point-to-point need arises, but generally prefer biking, walking, or taking the T whenever possible.
Regardless of what led to this point in the car service industry, we do need to account for the human impact that will come with the decline and inevitable death of the taxi industry as we know it today.
Cambridge Citywide Planning Process
I borrow one of my several campaign mantras from the city’s citywide planning RFQ: sustainability + livability + equity
Last week, the three finalist consultants to take on Cambridge’s citywide planning process presented to the public, and later met with city staff. Sasaki, Perkins + Will, and Utile all gave compelling presentations. I don’t think any of the three would drop the ball on a good community engagement and planning process. However, if asked, I have a preference for Utile. I found their proposal to be the most exciting and potentially useful: of all the firms, I believe they would have the most robust engagement process, and be the most bold when it comes to an actual plan. Otherwise, I heard a lot of great ideas and perspectives from all the firms, including some inspiring “plan”-medicine on transportation: sure it might hurt or feel like an imposition in some areas to improve transit, walkability, and bikeability, and to get away from automobile-oriented non-planning of the past, but we must view it in the context of a complete network, or plan. This is something that’s been lost in recent street reconstruction and site/area planning debates: the necessity of building pieces of a network toward a complete plan.
Utile not only showed a propensity for promising human-scale engagement—for both feedback methods and digital visioning—but they were unafraid of specifics. It’s one thing if our citywide planning process is a feedback loop and lists a thousand bullet points of the preferences and concerns of those who choose to participate, but it’s another thing if it’s an actual plan. The other two presentations seemed heavy on the engagement and “listening” and light on the “stuff.” We need both. So, considering ONLY the presentations and prior materials submitted to the city for the RFQ, Utile seems best equipped and most able (and importantly, willing) to deliver both.
Update: Cambridge has selected Utile’s team to lead the citywide planning process.