Coalition unites firms concerned about Uber, mayor's task force

Wynde Dyer worries how the poor will get to their medical appointments if Uber decimates the Portland taxicab industry.

Dyer makes a living driving Oregon Health Plan clients to and from their medical appointments for Green Transportation, a local cab company. Most have no money. Their trips are covered by the state.

In contrast, Uber requires its passengers to have a credit card and use a smartphone app to request a driver. The unregulated, paid-ride service is trying to break into Portland, where its drivers would charge less than city-regulated cab companies.

“All of my passengers are anxious, a lot of them are in pain, and some of them have mental issues. There’s no way many of them could take Uber to their appointments,” she says.

That’s why Dyer has become active in the Transportation Fairness Alliance, a new coalition of Portland cab companies. It was scheduled to hold a rally in Pioneer Court Square on Tuesday afternoon with out-of-service cabs from its members, including Broadway Cab, Green Transportation, Portland Taxi Cab Co., Sassy’s Cab Co., Union Cab PDX, and Radio Cab.

The alliance was formed after Mayor Charlie Hales appointed a Private For Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force to develop new rules for taxis and other city-regulated private transportation companies, including limousines, pedicabs and shuttle services.

Hales appointed the task force as part of a negotiated settlement with Uber. It came after the city filed a lawsuit to keep the company from operating in Portland. Uber agreed to suspend service while the task force meets. Hales has promised the City Council will consider its recommendations at an April 9 hearing.

For now, however, the new alliance is as worried about the task force as it is about Uber. According to Radio Cab Superintendent Noah Ernst, no one in the city has told the cab companies what the task force is supposed to do. The task force does not include a representative from any of the cab companies, even though its recommendations could affect their employees’ livelihoods.

“We believe everyone should play by the same rules. But for now, we’re just trying to get a seat at the table. We’ve contacted the city to find out more, but no one’s told us anything,” Ernst said Monday, two days before the first meeting of the task force was announced to be held Jan. 14.

According to a news release issued by Hale’s office on Dec. 18, the task force is going to study and make recommendations on the broad range of issues. They include “whether to continue to limit the total number of permits granted, whether to have a regulated pricing system, mandated criteria (including insurance, inspections and background checks), and accessibility. In addition, the task force will explore how regulatory changes could improve driver earnings and working conditions.”

In fact, Ernst says he does not know why the task force is even necessary. The city has a Private for-Hire Transportation Board of Review that makes recommendations to the council for regulated taxis and other private transportation companies. Among other things, the board has long made recommendations about the rates the companies can charge, along with requirements on insurance, vehicle maintenance, and background checks for drivers.

“The review board looked at all the regulations just a few years ago. I don’t know how anyone thinks a task force with no experience can come up with a whole new way of doing business in just a few months,” Ernst says.

The controversy is just the latest twist in the council’s attempts to come to grips with what has been dubbed the sharing economy by some and the renting economy by others. It includes companies like Airbnb that make money by running websites where people can rent out rooms in their homes. The council has spent months trying to come up with regulations to ensure the lodging are safe and their owners pay the transient lodging taxes required of hotels and motels.

Uber makes money by charging 20 percent of the fares that its drivers collect from passengers. It does not employ drivers directly and does not register as a private for-hire transportation company in any of the cities it operates. This has led to protests from taxi companies around the world. Some governments also have banned Uber from operating, including the state of Nevada, where a court ruled the company violates state laws regulating private for-hire transportation companies.

Uber’s business model violates Portland’s private for-hire transportation regulations. Among other things, its drivers do not obtain permits from the city or meet the same insurance requirements. Uber stayed out of Portland while discussing the situation with city officials for awhile. Then it abruptly declared its drivers were serving Portland on Dec. 5.

The city filed suit to bar Uber operations a few days later in Multnomah County Circuit Court. Uber was able to move the suit to federal court because it is an out-of-state corporation, but it then negotiated a deal to suspend operations in exchange for the city promising to consider new private for-hire transportation regulations by April 9.

Ernst wonders why Uber is getting so much respect from the city officials, including Hales.

“Radio Cab has been complying with all the city regulations for many years and we can’t find out what the task force is going to do. Uber operated illegally in Portland for a couple of weeks and we read in the news they’re meeting with the mayor’s staff,” Ernst says.

The task force is scheduled to hold two more meetings before sending its recommendations to the council.