Taxi tiff roils Boston

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March 13, 2013, 8:26 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - Few service industries are as extensively regulated as taxis and cars for hire, more expensive for entrepreneurs to enter (when taxi medallions can go for over $100,000 or more) –- or more widely complained about by customers for poor service and high prices.

Now a smartphone-app company called Uber is trying to bring the iPhone revolution to the process of finding and hiring a cab or town car, through an app that shows you, down to the block, the locations of the closest cabs, livery cars or limousines and lets you click to hire them and pay through a credit card linked to your phone.

But in Chicago, Washington, Las Vegas, and now Boston, Uber’s triggered legal battles with entrenched cab owners who call it illegal and unsafe.

Among the many making the case for how great Uber can be is Mohammed Noor, who spent years struggling to support a family working as a Boston cab driver before four months ago going into business for himself with help from Uber.

"It is very easy and very convenient with the technology," Noor said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. "Finding the customer is very easy. The convenience of running it made my life much easier, and it brings a lot of food on the table."

But late Monday, the owners of Boston Cab Dispatch Inc. and EJT Management filed a nine-count, 35-page lawsuit against Uber in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, contending Uber violates numerous safety, insurance, consumer-protection and non-discrimination laws cabbies must abide by.

"Uber’s is a system which only allows you to ride if you're rich enough to have good credit and a credit card," said their lawyer, Sam Perkins of Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten LLP. "It offers no wheelchair-assisted vehicles, which are required by Boston law. It discriminates against any neighborhood it wants," saying that if you closely check its web page over time, almost always the only places drivers are offering to pick up fares are in "rich neighborhoods" of central Boston, Cambridge and Brookline and Logan International Airport.

But Uber Boston general manager Michael Pao disputes that.

"We serve all of Greater Boston. If you open the app and you want a ride in Charlestown, you can get a ride in Charlestown. You can get a ride in J.P., in Roxbury … Uber is legal in Massachusetts, and in any city that we do business in. We've been legal since we launched," he said.

Pao said while service is optimized for iPhone use, it can be accessed through the m.uber.com website on any smartphone, and users can even summon cars by sending an SMS text message, although they will miss many of the most technologically advanced features of the service.

Uber does have a powerful friend in Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick, who intervened to try to get the city of Cambridge to stop thwarting Uber from offering service there over a question about whether GPS-based distance calculation was accurate enough for calculating fares.

"I think Uber's a great company, it's a very popular service," Patrick said Wednesday after touring the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Orange Line car shop at Wellington Yard in Medford, where he was trying to boost support for his tax plans to support transportation maintenance and upgrades. "One day, I may get one of those apps myself," Patrick said with a laugh. Referring to the lawsuit, the governor said: "I hope it gets sorted out. I think Uber has been a, I think, very welcome addition and convenience for a lot of people in this area and in many other cities, and I'd like for us to be as welcoming here in the Greater Boston area as other cities have been."

Among issues raised in the lawsuit is how much Uber does to screen and vouch for drivers who can get business through the app. Perkins said it appears many town-car-type drivers may be able to get access to carrying passengers without facing anything like the 13-part testing and vetting process required by the City of Boston for licensed cab drivers, which includes looking up people’s driving records and immigration status, whether they have a criminal record, and whether they are on the state sex-offender registry. Pao said Uber runs rigorous “background checks” on drivers – he didn’t want to specify details – and said Uber collects extensive feedback from users to quickly weed out drivers who get poor ratings or complaints.

"We’re pro-consumer choice, we're pro-driver, and we want to make cities that we operate in a better place," Pao said.

But Perkins said rather than making Boston a better place, Uber’s potentially endangering drivers, with an iPhone end-run around decades of regulations meant to ensure their safety and screen their drivers.

"If Uber says, 'We don't need to comply with any regulations in order to be hip and innovative,' that would be the equivalent of opening a restaurant and saying, 'We don't have to comply with food inspection, we don't have to have cooks who are trained in how to avoid disease transmission, we don’t have to serve USDA-inspected foods,'" Perkins said.

With videographer Scott Wholley. NECN reporter Justin Michaels and videographer Abbas Sadek contributed to this report.

Tags: Boston, Peter Howe, Uber tax, Uber taxi Boston, Uber lawsuit
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