Challenge to Lax Rideshare Rules Sputters

BOSTON (CN) – Boston taxi drivers struggled Monday to persuade the First Circuit that they unfairly face more stringent regulations than are required for rideshare outfits like Uber and Lyft.

The Boston Taxi Owners Association brought the suit in January 2015, and continued voicing objections even after Massachusetts brought new regulations in August 2015.

Among the new rules are limits for emissions, car-safety standards and procedures for rideshare companies to obtain state license.

Traditional cab drivers complained, however, that the new regulations did not include a requirement for rideshare drivers to face criminal background checks that were still mandatory for them, while also requiring all taxis in the city to be hybrids.

Boston city attorney John Boscia told a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court this morning that that differences are appropriate given how taxicabs operate as compared with rideshare outfits, what he called a TNC, for transportation-network company.

“The key distinction is that traditional taxi cabs have the exclusive right to engage in street hails,” Boscia said. “A TNC, conversely, has a prearranged contractual relationship.”

Arguing for the cab drivers, Schlossberg attorney Jennifer Pinkham disputed that the two business types were substantially different.

“This is on-demand transportation,” said Pinkham, whose firm is in Braintree. “TNC and taxis are on demand. You’re either hailing in the street or hailing with your phone. The services these two groups provide are identical.”

Pinkham downplayed the value of taxis having the exclusive right to respond to street hailing while also arguing that taxis do not have exclusive use of city-approved taxi stands.

“The street hail is going to go by the wayside,” said Pinkham. “There are a lot of TNCs, and there are a lot of gypsy cabs that use the taxi stands.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson asked why more taxi drivers don’t drive for rideshare apps themselves if the regulations are too excessive.

U.S. Circuit Judge William Kayatta meanwhile challenged the assertion that street hailing was not significant to the taxi drivers’ business.

“The city of Boston has a menu with two items on it,” said Kayatta. “Your clients don’t like that menu.”

Boston took great pains in recent years to establish itself as a “start-up-friendly” city, even coining one area of town the “Innovation District.”

Ahead of the lawsuit, the city’s recently elected Mayor Marty Walsh had voiced support for rideshare services and convened a task force to discuss how to address evolving concerns and conflicts.

Just days before the complaint was filed, Uber struck what itcalled a “first-of-its-kind partnership” with Boston, offering to share data regarding dates and times of trips, zip codes for pickup and drop-offs, distances traveled and trip durations.

Boston said it planned to use the data to inform policy decisions concerning traffic planning, zoning and parking changes, and expects to receive data on a quarterly basis.

In the month before the suit last year, Boston-based Uber drivers were accused in three sexual assaults.