The Gardner Auditorium at the Massachusetts State House was divided two weeks ago: one side of the room clad in yellow, the other dressed in blue and pink.
The color scheme marked a sharp partition in the audience’s approval of two bills that could have a significant impact on how government oversees popular but largely unregulated ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.
Ride-sharing app users and drivers—those in pink and blue—and representatives of the taxi industry—in yellow—exchanged applause and boos throughout the 10-hour debate. Drivers of ride-sharing companies vocalized their support for a bill proposed by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, while cabbies registered their approval for a bill filed by State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry and State Representative Michael Moran back in July.
Baker’s bill, backed by both Uber and Lyft, would allow the Department of Public Utilities (DOPU) to regulate all ride-sharing companies. The DOPU would search all driving records for any drunk-driving arrests, as well as other violations that could prevent eligibility to drive for any ride-sharing company. Baker’s bill would also put forth a two-tiered criminal background check on all drivers that would reveal any previously committed crimes in any of the 50 states.
Uber argues that it already performs a pre-screening process for its drivers. “All driver-partners wanting to use the Uber platform are required to undergo an extensive background check, which is performed on our behalf by Accurate and/or Checkr,” the company’s blog states.
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Uber pointed a finger at the loopholes in the Boston cab industry’s background-check procedure at the bill hearing. Representatives from Uber said 7.6 percent of the 1,025 licensed cab drivers who have undergone Uber’s background checks failed, based on comparing driver names and hackney numbers.
Baker’s bill also gives the Massachusetts government permission to require fingerprinting or impose other regulations it finds necessary. Fingerprinting of drivers is critical in solving any crimes associated with ride-sharing companies, the bill says.
Though the proposed bill would change the way ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft manage their drivers, the companies are still on Baker’s side. Carlie Woibel, Uber’s Boston communications representative, told The Heights that her company fully supports Baker’s bill.
Alternatively, Forry and Moran’s bill would require all Uber and Lyft drivers to have their vehicles covered by commercial insurance, have livery license plates, and be fingerprinted with full background checks.
Employees of taxi drivers support Forry and Moran’s bill because they feel that Uber has an unfair advantage over the taxi industry ever since the ride-sharing company launched in 2012.
“Uber cars just send a picture of their car to Uber, and that’s it—that’s their inspection,” said Steve Sullivan, the general manager of Metro Cab, Inc. “We have to have a full inspection by the City of Boston twice per year where they look under and over the car, check for any dents or rust, and even the faintest flaw will prevent its approval for service.”
Meghan Joyce, Uber’s East Coast general manager, said in a prepared testimony that the lawmakers’ bill would discourage people from signing up to drive with the company by imposing rules that included “fingerprint checks not currently required of taxi and limo drivers and economically burdensome and duplicative insurance coverage.”
Forry responded to the sharp criticism from Uber and Lyft supporters.
“In no way are we trying to eliminate Uber or Lyft from the transportation industry in Massachusetts,” she said in an interview with ABC. “To all the drivers out there who have been told we are taking away your livelihood, that we want to destroy you and transportation network companies, it is not true.”
Taxi companies—especially those in the greater Boston area—have recently seen a mass exodus of their drivers flocking to Uber and other ride-sharing companies. Out of Boston’s 6,400 licensed cab drivers, more than one-fifth have signed up to drive with Uber, the company said.
Several medallion owners have also transferred over to ride-sharing companies. Medallion owners would be the ones least likely to leave the taxi industry because a medallion is a transferable permit that confers the right to drive a cab, Sullivan said. The prestige of owning a medallion, however, has faded away since Uber and Lyft were introduced.
“When Uber was first launched, medallion prices were around $750,000—now, they have dropped to below $300,000,” Sullivan said. “The taxi industry isn’t looking for special treatment—we just want Uber to be regulated the same way as us.”
Uber and Lyft have stated in the past that they adhere to a market that taxi companies cannot, because they provide reasonably priced rides to people in outlying areas of Boston. Uber has more than 10,000 drivers in the Boston area, and has said its drivers give more than 1 million rides every month across the state.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the co-chair of the finance committee, said there was no timeline for the legislation. Currently, the committee has not made a decision on any of the bills, but the hearing could ultimately result in legislation governing the popular but controversial ride-hailing apps.
“If such a proposal were to become law, it would effectively ban ridesharing services from Massachusetts,” Joyce said.
Featured Images by Steven Senne / AP Photo