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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Green Cab manager Tesfaye Aleme has idled 10 of his new taxis rigged with wheelchair lifts due to turbulence in the market.Uber and Lyft have quickly absorbed half of Portland’s taxi business since they were allowed to operate here in late-April, and regular cab companies and their drivers are feeling the pain.

“The prediction is some of us will die, and I might be closer than the others,” says Green Cab manager Tesfaye Aleme, who has idled 10 of the company’s new taxis rigged with wheelchair lifts due to turbulence in the market.

An interim report issued Friday on Portland’s four-month experiment in taxi deregulation showed that Uber, Lyft and other transportation network companies handled 43 percent of taxi calls in May, compared to 57 percent for regular taxi companies. As the month wore on, Uber and Lyft’s share grew larger so that by late May they were capturing more than half the market.

That’s bad news for the city’s traditional cab companies and their 3,000 drivers, especially those driving vehicles rigged for wheelchair access, which are far more expensive to buy and operate.

Uber and Lyft customers use smartphones to hail a taxi, and their drivers are independent contractors who turn regular vehicles into taxis when they feel like working. Traditional cab companies, who have more expensive dispatch systems and were mandated by the city to have fleets of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, in-cab video cameras and other costly features, find it hard to compete financially.

By flooding the market with new do-it-yourself taxis, Uber and Lyft have recorded lower waiting times for customers than the regular taxi companies, according to the city report. That makes them popular with customers, but cab drivers say the deck is stacked against them.

Before the four-month deregulation pilot project, Green Cab driver Wynde Dyer says she took home $200 to $300 each Friday and Saturday night after paying for expenses.

“Now I’m getting $100 if I’m lucky,” Dyer says. “Sometimes I’m in the red.”

Steve Dancsa, a veteran taxi driver with Radio Cab, says he’s lost “maybe a third” of his income since Uber and Lyft were given the green light to operate here. Some cab drivers who don’t own their own vehicles have “jumped ship” to go drive for Uber, Dancsa says.

Jeanette, a Radio Cab driver who asked not to give her last name for security reasons, still owes $25,000 on her wheelchair-accessible Dodge Sprinter, though it has 501,000 miles on it.

After paying for gas and other expenses, Jeanette needs to collect $130 to $150 per shift before she starts earning any take-home pay. One recent Saturday she took in only $151.

“That’s because of Uber and Lyft,” she says. “Most people, cabbies that I’ve talked to, tell me that they’ve lost about 20 to 40 percent of their income, and that feels about right.

“I used to be able to make a living, not a huge living but I eked by,” Jeanette says. “I’m surviving off of savings,” she says, because of the city’s “grand experiment” in taxi deregulation.

City Commissioner Steve Novick has been promoting deregulation of the taxi industry since the responsibility for overseeing the industry shifted last year from the Revenue Bureau to the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which Novick oversees. As part of that shift, Novick and his staff supported lifting strict caps on the number of cabs that regular taxi companies were allowed to operate here — caps that the companies say partly explained their sometimes long wait times for customers.

Aleme of Green Cab took advantage of the opportunity, winning the right in February to expand from 82 taxis to 141 taxis. But to do that, he had to meet the city’s requirement that 20 percent of the taxis be fitted with wheelchair lifts.

It was an admitted gamble at a time when Uber was trying to bulldoze its way into the heavily regulated taxi market, Aleme admits. But he knew Uber doesn’t own cars and thus wouldn’t invest in expensive wheelchair-access vehicles. “I went out there and bought 13,” Aleme says, and one of his drivers bought a 14th.

The 10 adapted Dodge Grand Caravans cost $37,000 each and the three Ford Transit Connects cost $41,000 each.

Aleme didn’t figure the city would pull the rug out from under him by allowing Uber and Lyft to flood the market with do-it-yourself taxis and low costs to enter the market. Both Uber and Lyft were allowed to ink contracts with other companies to provide wheelchair-lift services.

But few of their customers are doing so.

Brooke Steger, Uber general manager for the Northwest, says about .01 percent of their Portland customers so far are people needing wheelchair lift services.

Cab companies say 1 percent to 2 percent of their passengers require wheelchair lift vehicles.

Uber announced a new training program Thursday so its drivers can accommodate other passengers in wheelchairs that may be folded up and put in the trunk of a regular car. Steger acknowledges that wheelchair-accessible taxi service requires a subsidy so that passengers can afford it. She suggests that drivers get double or even quadruple the normal fare for taking those passengers, which requires specially equipped vehicles.

Green Cab subsidizes the costs of wheelchair-accessible vehicles via the “kitty” payments cab drivers make to the company each week for dispatching, insurance and other services. After Uber and Lyft provided stiff new competition, Green Cab lowered its kitty to $478 a week, down from $520 a week, Aleme says. Drivers willing to use one of his new wheelchair-accessible vans get an extra $100 off their kitty as an incentive to drive the vehicles.

But he’s having trouble recruiting enough drivers with the taxi market in such flux. So those expensive new wheelchair-accessible vans are sitting unused.

Green Cab has hired 15 new drivers since it expanded its fleet this spring, but Aleme could use another 60 more and can’t find them. So far, he’s lost one driver to Uber. “But I’m expecting to lose about 20,” he says.

All the drivers want to go to Uber and Lyft, or to companies with a lower kitty, Aleme says.

“Why would you want to jump on a sinking ship?” Dyer says. “That’s how a lot of people see the taxi industry right now.”

Aleme says he expected after the city encouraged regulated cab companies to add to their fleets and install wheelchair-accessible vehicles that it wouldn't leave them out to dry.

“I didn’t know they were going this way,” he says. “I was thinking these kind of investments would be protected by the city.”

“It’s a free-fall,” he says. "I didn’t see that coming.”

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New ideas to pay for taxi passengers in wheelchairs

A typical ride in a wheelchair-accessible taxi may cost the provider $30 to $40 more than for a regular passenger, according to local taxi companies. That’s because a wheelchair lift is very expensive and it takes longer for such passengers to get in and out of the vehicle.

An advisory group working on ideas to serve Portland taxi customers needing wheelchair lifts has recommended a surcharge for every taxi ride, with the proceeds used to subsidize drivers of wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The idea emerged from a subcommittee of the Private For-Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force, appointed by City Commissioner Steve Novick to chart the path to industry deregulation and accommodate the entry of Uber and Lyft into the Portland taxi market.

The panel talked about an extra dime levied on each regular taxi ride, though an exact amount would be left to city regulators, says Mike Greenfield, who chairs the task force and the accessibility subcommittee that came up with the proposal. The city would collect the funds and dole them out to providers.

The subcommittee also suggests that the city no longer require a set number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Instead, it would require that taxis and Uber/Lyft drivers achieve a response time for wheelchair passengers of no more than double their regular response times.

They also recommend that passengers in wheelchairs pay the same fares as other customers, except that Uber would be barred from deploying “surge pricing” for them, when it temporarily raises its rates in times of high demand. The vehicles would have to be able to accommodate an additional passenger, such as an attendant, who wouldn’t be charged extra for accompanying the person in the wheelchair.

The subcommittee rejected the idea of the city hiring one company to handle wheelchair service for all customers, Greenfield says. “The disabled community is opposed to that because it is their position that that’s separate but equal,” he says.

Uber, Lyft winning over Portland’s taxi market

In an interim report issued Friday on the city’s four-month experiment in taxi deregulation, the city found:

• Uber and Lyft captured 43 percent of the taxi market in May, but more than half the market by the end of the month.

• One out of 13 taxi customers had to wait more than 20 minutes to be picked up, versus less than 1 in a 100 for passengers of Uber and Lyft.

• The average wait time for taxi companies was about 10 minutes, versus six minutes for Uber and Lyft.

• The average wait time for a taxi customer in a wheelchair was 23 minutes.

• The wait times were lower for Uber and Lyft customers but they provided very few rides to people in wheelchairs.

What's next?

The Portland City Council will hear a status report Wednesday at 2 p.m. on how the city's experiment in taxi deregulation is going so far.

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