Cabbies say firm upends transit model, hurts riders

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Radio Cab supervisor Noah Ernst calls for Uber to follow the citys for-hire ride rules during a demonstration by Portland cab companies and drivers in Pioneer Courthouse Square.Portland is working hard to legalize businesses that haven’t followed the rules — so far.

The first meeting of a task force created to pave the way for so-called ride sharing companies to operate in the city was held last Wednesday afternoon. It was appointed by Commissioner Steve Novick after Uber, the largest and most aggressive of the companies, made it clear they want to operate in Portland.

The meeting took place the day after all six Portland taxi companies protested Uber at a Pioneer Courthouse Square rally. They are upset because Uber began offering rides in town on Dec. 5, even though its drivers don’t meet city rules that all taxi companies and drivers must follow, like specific comprehensive insurance coverage. Uber drivers — who pick up passengers through the company’s smartphone app — also charge less than taxi drivers, whose rates are set by the city.

“Uber is hoping that the task force findings will prompt Portland City Council to amend existing laws and essentially deregulate the for-hire transportation industry in our city, at least as it applies to the for-hire service they provide. This outcome would threaten the safety of people seeking rides in our community,” Radio Cab supervisor Noah Ernst said at the protest.

Ernst also complained that taxi companies and drivers had no input into the creation of the Private For Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force, even though it could recommend changes that affect their livelihood.

Uber suspended service in Portland after the city sought an injunction in court. The company has said it will return to the city on April 9, however, whether or not the council has adopted new regulations allowing their drivers to pick up passengers. Staff members representing Hales and Novick told the task force their bosses believe it can resolve all the safety and accessibility issues by then. Some task force members agreed, but others said such work will take much longer.

The task force met hours after the City Council expanded rules governing short-term residential rentals, a change made to accommodate Airbnb and other new businesses that help people rent out rooms in their homes. The council already had approved such rentals in single-family houses.

The expansion covers apartment and condominium buildings. The expansion was approved even though an estimated 93 percent of Airbnb hosts are not following with previous requirements to obtain permits and pay transient lodging taxes, like hotels and motels.

Only Commissioner Nick Fish voted no, saying he is concerned Airbnb and their hosts aren’t

following the existing requirements. The council is scheduled to consider an enforcement ordinance this week.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Dozens of off-duty taxis packed Pioneer Courthouse Square to protest Uber at a Jan. 13 demonstration.

Uber genie and the bottle

Uber and Airbnb are just two companies that are making money by disrupting traditional business models. They profit by offering cheaper services than existing businesses. Investors have poured large sums of money into them — in Uber’s case, $2.5 billion — even though they disregard the laws and rules in many of the communities they operate.

Wynde Dyer, a medical driver for Green Transportation, wonders why Portland officials think Uber will comply with any new rules it doesn’t like. She is concerned a deal has been struck for Uber to begin operating in Portland again on April 9, even though no one can predict what the task force will come up with by then.

“Once you let that genie out of the bottle, it’s going to be impossible to get it back in,” says Wynde Dyer, who drives medical trips for Green Transportation, one of Portland’s existing taxi companies.

Urber and businesses like it are officially known as Transportation Network Companies. Hales and Novick want the 11-member task force to propose new regulations for them covering such safety-related issues as mandatory driver background checks, vehicle inspections and insurance coverage by April 2. The task force has scheduled a series of meetings between now and then, including a forum with existing taxi drivers on Feb. 10 and a public listening session on Feb. 19.

After April 2, Hales and Novick want the task force to make recommendations on such larger issues as whether the city should continue to limit the number of permits issued to taxi drivers and set the fares they can charge for rides. The schedule calls for those recommendations to be finalized by July 2.

Task force members did not discuss any of the issues at length during the first meeting, which involved background briefings and the remaining schedule. Comments made by several of the members revealed deep philosophical splits, however.

Early in the meeting, Richard Lazar, a member of the Technology Association of Oregon, said he thought all of the issues could be easily resolved before the April 2 deadline. This was met with surprise by Sue Stahl, a member of the Portland Commission on Disability, who said the federal Americans with Disabilities Act has many requirements that paid-ride providers must meet. JoAnn Herrigel, representing Elders in Action, said ensuring safety and accessibility is a top concern for seniors.

When discussing the forum with drivers, citizen representative Jeff Lang balked at having to meet them face to face. He proposed video testimony to maintain a professional level of detachment. But Kayse Jama of the Center for Intercultural Organizing said many drivers are Somali immigrants for whom personal conversations are the cultural norm.

The next meeting is set for 3 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28 in Room C of the Portland Building. It will include presentations for those in the paid-ride industry. Among those invited to testify are representatives of Uber and the taxi companies.

Integrity of the system

Uber has found success around the world because it offers something people want — a cheaper and quicker alternative to local taxi companies. It also allows people who own cars to make money without having to go through lengthy, expensive and restricting permitting


The taxi protest was organized by the newly formed Transportation Fairness Alliance, which includes Broadway Cab, Green Transportation, Portland Taxi Cab Co., Sassy’s Cab Co., Union Cab PDX, and Radio Cab. Although they normally compete against one another for customers, Ernst says they came together because company’s like Uber threaten the integrity of the city’s public transportation system.

Although taxis are privately owned, they are part of the public transportation system the city has established over many years. It is intended to provide safe and equal transportation services to all people in the city on a 24-hour basis, regardless of where they live, the color of the skin, their sexual orientation, or their physical condition, Ernst says.

“Portland has spent years adopting rules that make sure taxis provide a public service. They are part of the city’s overall public transportation system,” he says.

According to Ernst, the City Council has approved numerous policies to ensure taxi companies meet these goals.

“We’re required to dispatch taxis 24 hours a day, take all fares, and make sure 10 percent of our taxis are wheelchair-accessible. We also have to conduct real background checks on our drivers, carry insurance that covers anyone involved in an accident, and properly maintain our vehicles to make sure all rides are safe,” he says.

As Ernst sees it, Uber and its drivers don’t meet any of these standards. Uber is a smartphone app that allows anyone with a credit card to request a ride from a private person who has signed up with the company. Right there, that eliminates anyone without a smartphone or credit card, he says.

And, Ernst adds, there can be gaps in service hours, people with disabilities might not be accommodated, no one at the city knows for sure how the company conducts background checks, most personal insurance policies exclude commercial trips, and vehicle maintenance is up to the drivers.

On top of that, Ernst says, the city sets taxi rates to make sure there are no misunderstandings about the cost of a ride. They include a $2.50 minimum flag drop, $2.60 per mile, $1 per extra passenger, and $30 per hour waiting time.

In contrast, Uber is trying to copyright a “surge pricing” technology that changes during peak travel times, like rush hours and during emergencies and special events, Ernst says.

All these issues are expected to be discussed by the task force at future meetings.

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