Downtown View: Disruption or Consequences?

Disruption was 2014’s trendy cliché. A new idea comes along and, poof, out with the old. Business school types are enthralled. New technology and new ideas are part of the disruption.

But some businesses and industries are vulnerable, sometimes because they haven’t taken certain developments into account.

Take coal. It is hard to listen to West Virginians complain about too much regulation, too much belief in climate change and too many jobs lost. They have been disrupted by cheap natural gas and the promise of wind and solar power. But coal has been going out of fashion since London banned most coal burning, first in the 1950s and then more so in the 1990s. Few people want to live downwind from a coal-burning plant. Few want to live with the polluted rivers and soil that coal mining and burning brings.

Nevertheless, it is easy to sympathize with long-time coal boosters and climate change deniers. Their livelihoods are disappearing; their way of life is going. Their unimaginative leaders have fanned their complaints instead of helping them invent new industries and find creative solutions.

Downtowns in many communities were also vulnerable. It wasn’t just that shopkeepers’ merchandise was more expensive than that sold by Walmart. Too many of those shopkeepers were offering out-of-date goods, little variety and unkempt environments. Too many towns demolished retail buildings to build parking lots so there were fewer shops of any kind to attract buyers. Walmart didn’t have to do much to disrupt such town centers.

Now we’ve got taxi drivers complaining about Uber, and it sounds like coal and town centers all over again.

I’ll confess I know little about Uber. I’ve never called one up on my cell phone. I don’t have an opinion on how much Uber should be regulated, if it is regulated at all.

But I do know taxis. They are as vulnerable as coal and town centers. There are not enough of them at many hours of the day. Residents of the Charlestown Navy Yard or the upper slopes of Beacon Hill who call a taxi say they never come. Even though the hybrid Toyotas are more comfortable than the old Ford Victorias, they are still cramped. The electronic screens on the back of the front seat are annoying. Unlike New York City taxis, more than half of Boston taxis have no rules posted, no telephone numbers to call with a problem and no driver identification. Let’s not even discuss the driver’s annoyance if you pay by credit card. Finally, again unlike New York City, Boston taxis have no light indicating if they are free to pick up a fare.

With service such as this, no wonder this industry is being disrupted.

The taxi industry, however, has made changes in the recent past that show it could clean up its act.

Drivers now seem to have more of “The Knowledge” about how to get around Boston. In the last few months, I have had to instruct few drivers about how to get to where I wanted to go. Twenty years ago, I had to guide almost all of them.

The airport taxis are better managed. When our children were young, we encountered drivers who cursed and pounded the steering wheel because we were headed to downtown Boston rather than Lexington, where they expected such a family as ours to live.

The cabs are cleaner and no longer smelly. They have been painted white—not as eye-catching as New York’s, but at least a gesture toward helping people identify them as they cruise around. Several years ago there was a driver who played the trumpet as he drove. Thank goodness he and other crazies have left the industry.

Most drivers, however, talk on their mobile phones, confusing passengers who think they are talking to them. More annoying, is that while on the phone, drivers can’t hear the passenger or pay attention to traffic.

There are problems besides Uber that the taxi industry faces. The Boston Globe exposed many of those last spring.

But the reason Uber is a threat to taxis is not because of the problems the Globe unearthed. Nor, for many people, is it that Uber might be cheaper. Like the status-quo defenders in coal-producing states, the taxi industry seems blind to conditions they have caused.

            Cab drivers need to stop trying to get regulators to impose rules that will last only until the next new idea comes along. Instead they should provide better service and create new incentives that will keep customers loyal.

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