Uber Moves From Land to Sea

(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - Even as it has faced angry protests from Boston taxicab drivers mad it is escaping the regulation they endure, on Wednesday, fast-growing Uber launches a new front in its efforts to revolutionize ordering personal transportation: Water taxis.

Boston Harbor Cruises, which operates harbor ferries including those to Salem, Lynn, Charlestown, Hull, Hingham, and the Harbor Islands, has just added eight water taxis to its fleet. Starting Wednesday morning, it will partner with Uber on UberBoat – adding a water taxi ordering option to Uber’s existing car-ordering service.

"We thought, what a fun way for people to be able to request a taxi ride, using an app like Uber," said Alison Nolan, principal of Boston Harbor Cruises, in an interview Tuesday afternoon. "It’s a convenience and a customer service both."

With UberBoat, you can order a ride between any pair of destinations among 21 served by the BHC water taxis in the harbor for $10, including the Logan International Airport dock and docks downtown and in Charlestown, East Boston, and the Seaport. (A trip to Black Falcon Pier in South Boston is $20.) You pay a $1 Uber booking fee plus a 20 percent added gratuity, but the water taxi price drops to $8 if you are connecting from one of the BHC harbor ferries.

For now, UberBoat is set to run through June 15, but Nolan said it’s possible it will get extended. "It really depends on what happens over the next two weeks," Nolan said.

While there is buzz and excitement around the harborfront over the newest way to book a water taxi, the launch is re-igniting the long-running feud between land taxi drivers and Uber.

"They're taking over the land transportation, now they're going to take over the water transportation -- what are they going to take over next?" said Donna Blythe-Shaw, head of the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, an affiliate of the United Steelworkers union.

Last month, Blythe-Shaw led hundreds of cabbies who protested, honked, and streamed down South Street in the Leather District in front of Uber’s local headquarters, protesting the company’s ability to get around at the rules and regulations for picking up and carrying passengers they have to comply with from the Boston Police Hackney Carriage Unit.

"Because they're introducing a pilot project like that," Blythe-Shaw said of the water taxi service, "I think the state and the city has to take a serious look at Uber. They have to call Uber in, find out who the operators are, because, right now, no one knows .. Call them to the table, find out what their plan is, and tell them what kind of regulation we're going to impose on them, and that's what we expect from the [police] commissioner." Blythe-Shaw and other union leaders are set to meet Thursday with Police Commissioner William Evans to review their complaints about what they call an unfair competitive situation between medallioned taxis and Uber cars.

Uber has stressed that its drivers are closely scrutinized and monitored and those who get poor performance ratings from customers are quickly fired as Uber affiliates. It’s also argued taxi fleet owners should focus on improving notoriously poor taxi service and fleet conditions instead of complaining about Uber offering a service thousands of consumers love and prefer to city-regulated cabs.

Nolan said BHC is not looking to get in the middle of the cab-versus-Uber battle and doesn’t think it will. "We certainly don't want to negatively impact any other industry in the city of Boston," Nolan said, adding that water taxis are clearly a small niche service that does not compete with taxis operating on city streets. "There's a whole scope of downtown Boston and Massachusetts that just can't be reached by the water taxi, so we really feel that it's a small and unique group."

With videographer Scott Wholley

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