As I hurried up the east end of the Common along Park Street toward the Statehouse last Tuesday morning, I saw coming over the stairs leading up to Beacon Street a line of blue shirts, upon which I could read, in thin white lettering, “Uber.”
“Soldiers,” I thought, “in the transportation revolution.”
The blue shirts rushed down the stairs, anxious to set up their camp. At the top of the stone steps I was met with yet more soldiers, this time with a different uniform – yellow with black lettering, displaying not a single word, but various taglines, questions and exclamations describing their views. Later on, one more faction – smaller and more orderly – marched onto the scene, wearing pink shirts emblazoned with “Lyft.”
These soldiers were of course nonviolent, but they fought hard nonetheless, with a more subtle (and perhaps even more intimidating) arsenal than one might see in a real battle: political discourse.
There was a political battle at the Statehouse in the revolution over how city people get from point A to point B, and the smoke has not yet begun to clear. It was a battle of wills over just what we as a commonwealth ought to do about these new transportation network companies (TNCs) that have exploded onto the urban scene in recent years.
At the core of the discussion is a dichotomy that was central to that most famous Revolution in which Boston was the front line: that the government uphold its duty to defend both freedom and equality.
Freedom and equality – two equally profound and beloved (if a bit lofty) ideas ingrained in the fabric of American society and governance. It becomes clear in this case of intra-industrial conflict that the two are not so easily reconciled.
Should TNCs’ freedom to operate as they have up to this point – with little to no state or federal regulation – be respected? This is, after all, a capitalist nation; TNCs could be viewed as a shining example of the free market just doing its thing. “May the better business win,” perhaps?
But what about equality? As Sen. Linda Forry (an co-sponsor of the most pointed bill on the table) commented during the hearing, a given TNC can make its descriptions of itself just as innovative as the products and services it offers, but it cannot avoid the fact that any company that transports people is a transportation company, shoulder to shoulder with the taxicabs that have existed on city streets for many decades. Should they not be subject to the same laws and regulations in order to, as so many have described, “level the playing field?”
Hypocrisy seems to hover at the peripheries of this situation, like most legislative decisions, as our policymakers dance along the fine line between freedom and equality. How can – and perhaps more importantly, why would – one level a playing field in a free market?
There seems to be two answers, one legitimate, the other not so much.
This is part one of a three-part series; click here for part two.
Joe Kourieh is an associate editor with The Warren Group, publisher of Banker & Tradesman.