TAXI OWNERS HAVE been hit with a double in recent years.
First, the explosion of ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft has proven devastating to their business. The pandemic has added insult to that wound, turning downtown Boston into a ghost town as the city bustle that is a taxi driver’s lifeblood comes to a halt.
A trio of Boston city councilors say it’s time for the city to step in and help.
Advisors Kendra Lara, Frank Baker and Michael Flaherty placed an order yesterday calling for a hearing to explore using some of the more than $350 million of American Rescue Plan Act money the city has available to support a “redemption” medallion or other efforts to help struggling taxi owners.
“It’s an industry that’s been pretty much decimated,” said Lara, a district councilor representing Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, who is leading the effort. She said the focus was not on owners of large taxi fleets, but on small operators, many of whom were immigrants, who took on huge loans and pushed their savings into buying taxis. one or two medallions.
The taxi industry is one such sector of the economy that functions like a market, but with a significant distorting effect due to strict government regulation. The number of taxi medallions has long been limited to ensure a level of business for taxis, but this has driven the price of a medallion up over the years, with licenses running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars at their peak.
Then came the disruptive impact of Uber and Lyft, which offered rides at the touch of a phone screen at a fraction of the going rate for taxi service. Prices for ride-sharing apps have since risen, but there has been a lot of damage to taxis. Add the pandemic hit, and taxi owners are in dire straits, Lara said.
“We are bailing out the banks very quickly,” she said of the bursting of the housing bubble more than a decade ago. And when it comes to the pandemic, she said, restaurants were quickly targeted for help.
The case for helping taxi drivers, advisers say, is particularly strong because they relied on a heavily government-regulated market to get into the business, only to see these protectionist guardrails s ‘collapse.
How a city program to redeem medallions works is unclear. Lara says the idea of a hearing is to think about different possible solutions.
“It’s not a level playing field,” Flaherty said, referring to the disruption caused by ride-sharing apps and the “onerous” regulations the city imposes on taxis that don’t apply to ride-share drivers.
Drivers bought medallions thinking they were a way to support their families, he said. Flaherty said that’s what his grandfather, a father of 10, did decades ago when he bought a locket. Flaherty said his father and one of his uncles also drove his grandfather’s taxi to support the family.
Last fall, New York taxi drivers camped out in front of City Hall, some going on hunger strikes calling for the city’s help. At least nine debt-ridden New York taxi drivers have committed suicide, according The city. Some drivers owe up to $500,000 in loans for their medallion, according to the site.
An association of taxi drivers called on the city to buy back medallions and then resell them to drivers at prices with loan repayments no more than $750 per month. The city instead came up with a proposal calling for interest-free loans of up to $20,000 and $1,500 in monthly payment grants for up to six months.
“We’re selling this American dream, where if you invest and work hard, you have a chance of achieving it,” Lara said. “When things are happening beyond their control and our control,” she said of Boston taxi drivers, “we can’t act like our hands are tied behind our backs.”