ALONG FOR THE RIDE: Rachel Carvalho, owner of luxury-car-service firm Rachel’s Big City Transporation, has expanded her work into short-distance, low-priced rides, thanks to Uber. But a new state rule may kill Uber’s plans in Rhode Island.
PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD
MAKING CONNECTIONS: Taxis line up at T.F. Green Airport waiting for disembarking passengers, a consistent stream of business.
During the week, Rachel’s Big City Transportation fills a traditional luxury-car-service niche, with two Cadillacs ferrying Rhode Islanders from their homes and offices to the region’s airports.
But starting this past summer, busy weekend nights have drawn owner Rachel Carvahlo into the streets of Providence to drive bar patrons and theater-goers around town, formerly the exclusive domain of taxis.
Technology, specifically the mobile-phone application Uber, has made it possible, and profitable, for Carvahlo and others to dive into short-distance, low-priced rides without a dispatcher, large fleet or license to pick up people waving their arms on the street.
It’s also put the Coventry resident and dozens of other Rhode Island drivers at the center of a taxi battle raging in cities around the country. Cab drivers accuse Uber drivers who pick up quick-turnaround, short-haul riders of operating “rogue” or “gypsy” taxis operating outside the law to undercut them and “steal” customers.
At the behest of taxi and limousine companies, the state this fall attempted to implemente a $40 minimum charge for all hired rides not provided by registered taxis, effectively snuffing out the business model of Uber and other car-service apps that might try to disrupt the cab industry.
“It will effectively do away with affordable transportation for Rhode Island,” said Meghan Verena Joyce, general manager of Uber Boston and Providence, earlier this month as the company rallied opposition to the new minimum charge. “Providence would be not only isolating itself, but would be making it clear it is the least friendly to consumers. That’s the wrong direction to go.”
That message may have gotten through.
The $40 minimum was scheduled to go into effect Nov. 11, but when four local car-service companies that Joyce said do not use Uber sued the state over the rule, the R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers decided to suspend enforcement to work on a compromise.
Although Uber has been the public voice of the opposition to the new rules, the car services’ suit highlights the fact that the dispute is not really about Uber, which facilitates rides but doesn’t employ any drivers directly, but about the taxi industry and its status as a public service.
Since the advent of the motor vehicle, taxis have been regulated in Rhode Island as utilities, just like drinking water and electricity providers.