Tech-friendly cities struggle with new biz rules 

click to enlarge Boston is considering restrictions on ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber. - JEFF CHIU/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Jeff Chiu/AP File photo
  • Boston is considering restrictions on ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber.

BOSTON -- A renowned technology hub that is home to some of the country's top universities, Boston is emerging as an unlikely battleground for web-based businesses like Airbnb and Uber, with some saying more regulations are needed to prevent the upstarts from disrupting communities and more established industries.

Boston, prompted by the arrival of the mobile app Haystack, recently banned services that allow people to offer their public parking spaces for sale. Now the City Council is considering restrictions on ridesharing services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar and lodging websites like Airbnb, HomeAway and FlipKey, which allow users to book short-term stays in private residences. Across the river in Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT, officials have been trying for years to restrict rideshares.

From New York to San Francisco, cities have been wrestling with the same questions and developing solutions ranging from outright bans to minimum safety requirements. At the heart, officials say, the issue is about balancing public safety and governmental oversight with the services' growing popularity.

But technology companies point out that the push for regulation is ironic in many technology-heavy cities that have built their reputations, in large part, on being on the leading edge.

"For a city known for its innovation and progressiveness, it is shocking that Cambridge would cling so blindly to the past," Uber wrote on its website in June.

Andrea Jackson, the chair of Cambridge's Licensing Commission, said Uber was oversimplifying the challenges emerging business strategies pose to cities.

Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett said the company understands the need for thoughtful regulations but will fight attempts to protect the local taxi industry.

Cab owners complain rideshares offer lower prices because they avoid licensing fees and other costly mandates imposed on their highly-regulated industry.

For short-term lodging services, cities have focused their energies on imposing local hotel taxes, establishing basic registration programs, and making sure property owners meet minimum housing standards.

In Boston, City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who has requested public hearings on Airbnb-type services, said he's concerned the services could eventually end up pricing out families and full-time residents.

But Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas disputed that notion, citing a company-commissioned study that suggests offering rooms for short-term rentals provides extra income to families living in high-cost metropolitan areas.

Papas says the San Francisco company has already had "productive conversations" with Boston leaders and looks forward to working on "clear, progressive and fair" rules for home sharing.

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