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My View: Fix my mistake on Uber insurance
My biggest regret from my time as a city commissioner is how I handled the advent of Uber and Lyft. A puzzling thing about the new City Council is that it hasn't corrected the biggest mistake I made — even though the argument for correcting it has grown stronger with time.
I don't regret the basic idea of opening up the taxi industry to more competition. What I regret is something more specific. Taxis, at all times, are required to carry $500,000 worth of insurance for any incident. Uber and Lyft are required to carry $1 million per accident in insurance for cars when they are engaged in going to pick up a fare or carrying a fare, but are required to carry only a total of $125,000 per accident's worth of insurance during times when a driver has the app on but has not been summoned.
We adopted this differential when we first authorized a "pilot" to allow Uber and Lyft to operate. The differential was based on a "national agreement" that Uber reached with insurance companies. I was uneasy about the differing requirements — but the mayor was eager to make a deal with Uber and avoid the kind of lengthy "Uber war" that was plaguing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Uber threatened war — i.e., to go back to operating illegally — if we insisted on an insurance requirement that departed from the "national agreement." I gave way, thinking, in part, that it was only a pilot program and we could revisit the insurance issue later. That was definitely a mistake. I should have listened harder to my own conscience.
Months later, when we were adopting permanent regulations of so-called transportaion network companies (TNCs), the issue came up again. By that time, a huge number of other jurisdictions had adopted the "national agreement" rules, and Uber and Lyft threatened that if Portland departed from the norm, they would cease operating in Portland to make an example of us.
Since Uber and Lyft had gained a strong foothold in the city, that threat packed a punch: It would have been disruptive for customers and Uber and Lyft drivers.
I didn't like the idea of giving in to threats, but I was gearing up for a gas tax campaign, which would be a war with the gasoline dealers. I didn't think I had the capacity for a two-front war, so I voted to keep the status quo, thinking, again, that I could revisit the issue later, in a second term, especially if I could find some other cities to rebel with us.
Since then, three things have happened that strengthen the argument for challenging Uber and Lyft.
One, the city of Austin challenged them on another issue, and they did pull out — but the sky didn't fall. Other, smaller TNCs largely filled the void.
Two, it seems possible that the advent of Uber and Lyft has reduced the use of public transit, and added to greenhouse gas emissions. When Uber and Lyft came along, some thought it would increase the number of cars on the road. But some environmentalists believed that people would actually use transit more often — for example, someone who usually takes transit but drives when she is planning to work late might instead bus in and take Lyft home.
In fact, transit use has gone down, slightly, in a number of cities, in the past couple of years. That could very well be the result of other factors; it's not clear that the TNCs are reducing transit use. But now, at a minimum, it seems unlikely that they are increasing transit use.
Three, Uber has gotten so much bad press that a war with Uber has a definite political upside.
So far the City Council — including Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish, who voted against and denounced the insurance differential, and Chloe Eudaly, who made my handling of Uber into a major campaign issue — have not moved to correct my mistake. I realize that it's hard to go back and unravel governmental decisions. But it's the right thing to do, and I think they owe it to the taxi drivers and taxi companies. If one of them brings a correction forward, I'll be ready to testify for it.