Taxi Versus Uber Battle Has Genesis in Charlestown

When Winthrop resident Tiffany Mitchell – one of the largest taxi cab operators in Boston, running Top Cab and City Cab – first saw Uber ride share vehicles move into the Boston market, she could never have predicted it would threaten the very existence of her second-generation cab company.

She wasn’t sure what to make of it, she said, but she would have never thought Uber would have sparked the fight of her life, and a fight where a lifetime spent in cabs and cab garages has nearly gone with the wind in a short few years.

“The whole point for me is I’m a second generation cab owner and all of that is threatened by a company that doesn’t have to follow the same rules,” she said in an interview at the Logan Airport Taxi Pool last week. “I grew up with cabs. I’ve only known a garage. I was in the garage with my dad since I was a little, little kid. The drivers have known me as a little girl, a student, a mother, and a business owner. My son was a cab driver, too, and they’ve taken all of that away. My sons cannot even think about following me into the business because there’s nothing left for that generation anymore. Uber has taken it all…People will say their business is down 40 percent, and that’s bad enough, but that’s not correct. They’re down 60 or 70 percent. We’re all hurting. I know what these guys make and they don’t make anything now. Before, this taxi lot was never full like this. Nobody was sitting around waiting. They were picking up fares and going.”

While Mitchell and other cab companies have recently taken their fight to the State House, the battle for regulating Uber and other ride sharing companies that have rocked the hackney transportation business over the last few years actually began in Charlestown.

Lifetime Charlestown resident Gregg Nolan, who owns the Nolan Group public relations agency in Charlestown, used to play hockey with the husband of the owner of Somerville’s Green Cab, Cheryl Horan. In exchanging stories, Nolan learned about how Uber had really eaten into his friend’s business.

Soon after, Green Cab hired Nolan to lobby for more regulations on Uber, which the taxi industry contends is basically unregulated.

However, it didn’t take Nolan long, he said, to realize that this was going to be a huge battle, one that is being fought around the globe by taxi drivers and taxi companies, and it was going to take unity if Boston was going to be the dam to stop the floodwaters.

“Cheryl Horan called me and we were hired by Green Cab,” he said. “We talked and I soon realized that one company fighting against this was not the way to do it. There’s strength in numbers. We needed an association. That’s what we ended up doing. We got together at the Somerville Holiday Inn and did a presentation and formed the MRTA. We’ve gone from 10 members to 115 members.”

Soon after that meeting, skeptical owners such as Mitchell began to see the strength that Nolan was speaking about.

“They’re a $40 billion global company and they have the money to do whatever is necessary,” said Mitchell. “We’re the working class men and women trying to put this together. We are up against heavyweights. We’re the underdogs in the fight. We’re hoping Boston is the place where it all stops. No one has stopped it yet. Before, it was like talking to brick wall. Now, we have people’s attention and we hope a movement has started.”

The Massachusetts Regional Taxi Advocacy Group (MRTA) has now become front and center in the fight to regulate Uber, and that was displayed last month during hearings at the State House over several bills designed to get a better hold on the ride share industry. In those heated hearings, the MRTA and its members faced off with officials from Uber.

Nolan said they aren’t looking to put Uber out of business, and can learn some things from them, but would like to see fair competition.

“We’re not looking to get rid of Uber,” he said. “We want a level playing field that includes Uber. Our members want to compete against Uber. They applaud the technology. It just needs to be regulated and it’s not.”

Mitchell said there are numerous regulations that she has to follow that Uber does not have to follow – including making accommodations for handicapped riders – for doing essentially the same job.

“I have 52 pages of rules that I have to memorize and follow or I get in trouble,” she said. “All they have is a vague paragraph from former Gov. Deval Patrick. The police know who every one of our guys are, they’ve checked them out, they know how long they’re idling, and they know when they take lunch. What do they know about Uber? Where does Uber’s money come from? Who are its drivers? Those are great questions.”

That safety and regulatory aspect is one very important part of the bills sitting on Beacon Hill right now, and something that Boston Police Commission William Evans said was paramount to him in any legislation that is passed.

While cab companies in Boston are checked thoroughly by the Boston Police Hackney Division, Uber’s drivers are allegedly only given a cursory check by the company itself. While Uber disagrees with that summation, Mitchell said there is no denying it.

“People see the billboards saying that Uber is safe and they figure that if Uber says it, then it must be true,” said Mitchell. “It isn’t though. It’s the persona.”

Meanwhile, Nolan said such points are rallying cries for the MRTA, and from their Charlestown office, they will continue to concentrate on fighting the fight to regulate ride sharing companies with legislation on Beacon Hill.

“The hearing two weeks ago on Beacon Hill was huge for us,” he said. “Having a bill is huge for us. We have a bill now that we’re fighting for in a unified way and the fight has just started.”

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