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Summon-a-car service Uber courts Portland with ice cream Friday

Posted by on July 19th, 2013 at 7:37 am

Uber’s website.

Uber, a California-based startup on a crusade to make taxis and towncars better, is the latest company lining up to serve low-car Portlanders.

Uber’s basic product, which it calls Uber Black, lets users book a nearby towncar using a smartphone, then electronically pay the driver and privately leave him or her a rating, without opening their wallets. In exchange, it costs about 30 percent more than a taxi, though fare-splitting is allowed.

But with this company, there’s a catch: as Uber’s employees will be the first to tell you, the basic service their company provides is currently illegal in Portland, due to the city’s complicated body of codes that regulate for-hire transportation. Those laws require taxis to accept any ride, however unprofitable. In exchange for that requirement, the city limits the supply of taxis and protects them from competition by requiring limos and towncars to book all rides at least 60 minutes in advance.

For Uber to launch in Portland, it’ll need to convince the city to change these laws. That’s where the hand-delivered ice cream comes in.

As part of a one-day national campaign on Friday, Uber’s iOS and Android mobile apps will be able to summon ice cream trucks instead of towncars. In Portland, ice cream deliveries will cost $20 for five servings.

Uber currently operates in 35 cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In most of its U.S. cities, it’s faced entrenched opposition from the local taxi industry — and if KATU’s report on Tuesday is any indication, the story in Portland will be similar.

There’s wide agreement among transportation policy experts that cities would be better off if they didn’t artificially restrict the supply of taxis. Doing so tends to drive up their price, reduce the competitive pressure to offer good service and generally increase the pressure on everyone to own a personal car. In 2011, Seattle’s Sightline Institute found that Portland had one of the country’s smallest supplies of taxis per resident, despite being in the middle of the pack on taxi price.

“The demand [for taxis and towncars] is there, but people just haven’t had high-quality, reliable and quick solutions.”
— Uber spokesman Andrew Noyes

“Taxi service in Portland is unreliable, difficult to order, and has insanely long wait times,” wrote Lillian Karabaic, a BikePortland contributor and local bike activist who’s used Uber in other cities, as she signed a petition the company’s government affairs firm helped line up to show support for Uber. (There’s also a local Twitter feed.) “I want Uber because I’ll pay a little more to not wait an hour in the pouring rain for a 2 mile ride!”

Karabaic is right that Portland taxis can be unreliable. Uber has a real argument that its slick, upscale service could keep more drunk drivers off the road while also making it more pleasant to live in Portland without owning a car.

“The demand is there, but people just haven’t had high-quality, reliable and quick solutions,” Uber spokesman Andrew Noyes said Thursday. He added that Uber “would do everything in our power to accommodate bikes” and that the company has been talking about the subject locally.

On the other hand, taxi politics are complicated. Noyes is happy to attack local taxi companies such as Broadway Cab (whose president, Raye Miles, has been quick to criticize Uber) for “making millions” on the labor of low-paid cab drivers — but it’s not as if Uber isn’t trying to do the same thing. And while state campaign finance records show Miles and his company contributed a total of $4,700 to the campaign of Mayor Charlie Hales (plus $2,000 more to his opponents, just in case), Uber’s lobbying firm Gallatin Public Affairs and its local partner, Greg Peden, chipped Hales $2,125 themselves, plus $500 to future Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick.

However this political battle plays out, the best thing about this news may be that multiple companies are fiercely competing to provide services to Portlanders who are getting around without cars of their own.

That, or the ice cream.

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Schrauf
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Schrauf

Great article – well written and interesting.

At first glance I scoffed and thought, what typical low-car user is going to summon a “luxury” town car with the other options already available, but I now see it could come in handy in some limited situations. And having multiple options (bike, transit, car rental by the minute or hour, normal taxis, fancy taxis, etc.) is key to making a low-car lifestyle nevertheless convenient and available to more people.

Craken
Guest
Craken

“Those laws require taxis to accept any ride, however unprofitable.”

Would someone please explain how or why a taxi ride might be unprofitable? Too short?

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

So the Uber car will be a third more expensive than a taxi, and there is no particular reason why it should come any faster (except in the initial period where there are few users and many idle cars). Doesn’t sound compelling, unless it is important for you to ride in a black Town Car.

Spiffy
Guest

88° high forecast for my neighborhood today…

it’s the ice cream…

Bjorn
Guest
Bjorn

I’ve nearly missed an international flight because a taxi I scheduled 2 hours in advance never came and when I called to find out if it was coming they dispatched a taxi too small to take our boxed up bikes to the airport. I’ve also waited well over an hour for a taxi home from a bar. The service in Portland is probably the worst of any city I have ever taken a cab in, we should just end the ridiculous medallion system. The idea that the current regulations are making anything better is laughable.

lazyofay
Guest
lazyofay

“I want Uber because I’ll pay a little more to not wait an hour in the pouring rain for a 2 mile ride!”
Even a lazyofay can walk 2 miles in less than one hour…jeez.

Anne Hawley
Guest
Anne Hawley

The rare occasions when I call a taxi usually involve activities with my elderly mother, a child, or an out of town guest. I’d happily treat them to a luxury ride. Portland taxi service is pretty awful.

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

i’d pay money to never have to ride in a linoln town car. imo, the city should require that every taxi for an able bodied person be an e-vehicle or have a combined fuel efficiency of 45 or better.

Brad
Guest
Brad

Portland cab service is terrible! Towncar service and SuperShuttle are reliable and readily available in other cities. Worth the cost to not miss a flight or to get an entire dinner party home safely.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

It is all relative…years ago Portland service was worse than Honolulu but better than Vancouver WA. (I was shocked when I first moved here that it took 45 minutes to get a cab on demand vs. Honolulu’s 10 minutes…but at least in Vancouver I have had excellent cab service over the last 5 years. (No longer are the cabs that meet me held up with bailing wire and the seat is propped up with a broom handle.)

One option may be for the city to create more taxi stands…this may generate more in town use of the cabs…I as a transit rider will use taxis more often if they are right there at hand after I just missed my bus or transfer and its 20 or 40 minutes to the next bus arrival.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

I stopped using Blue Star Shuttle after spending 30 minutes lost in a subdivision looking for an address. Taxis are my choice for the airport runs.

kittens
Guest
kittens

To those who think we need more taxis please note: The City of Portland Revenue Bureau published a report in January 2012,
the Taxi Driver Labor Market Study finding that many contracted taxi cab drivers in the City of Portland work for low wages under poor working conditions. The study confirmed Portland taxi drivers’ reports of long hours with low net income after expenses. Most drivers work without benefits, vacation, medical or accident insurance.

The impacts of these working conditions are not limited to drivers
and their families: the study also noted that passenger safety declines
and costs to the community increase when drivers work long hours for inadequate wages.
(entire report: http://nwlaborpress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/2012.09.26-Staff-Recommendation-Report-City-of-Portland-Taxi-Vehicle-Permits.pdf )

q`Tzal
Guest
q`Tzal

Think Portland is bad with taxis?
Read up on the fight the NYC Limousine and Taxi Commission put up starting sometime around last September (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/05/nyregion/as-ubers-taxi-hailing-app-comes-to-new-york-its-legality-is-questioned.html) culminating in court battles ending only recently (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/01/nyregion/uber-companys-app-for-hailing-yellow-taxis-is-available-in-new-york.html?_r=0)

If you think the Portland taxi companies weren’t watching NYC’s woes and preparing litigation in advance you are naive. It may be quite a long while before we see Uber service here.

mikeybikey
Guest
mikeybikey

I’m all for the competition and for services like Uber coming to Portland and we certainly do need better taxi services and on demand car services here. (I would like to see something like jitneys allowed) However, something sours me about an out-of-town company coming in and PR blitzing the city in an attempt to get city hall to rewrite our taxi regulations to favor their business model. I have no doubt that the taxi regulations need to be modernized, but I think the the changes need to come from a well-thought-out transportation, economic and labor policy perspective and not simply short-sighted changes based on an emotional response to a PR campaign and for the benefit a single company’s business model.

dwainedibbly
Guest
dwainedibbly

Competition is good, right? I wouldn’t mind having options for those times when I don’t want to bike, walk, take transit, or drive.

hroðberacht
Guest
hroðberacht

I spent a few years living in a couple of cities in South Korea. One was a affluent Portland-sized district of a larger city-satellite of Seoul, on the edge of farmland and tiny villages. It had incredible bus and subway service. The other was a provincial, massively auto-centric city (also Portland-sized) with very poor public transit, out in the middle of nowhere. Both cities had cheap, readily-available taxi service, at any time of day. Never had to call for a cab or wait more than a couple of minutes. There were cabstands on arterial streets every few blocks. The way I see it, the key is entirely density. Most of Portland lacks the density and 24-hour vibrancy to support a stellar cab service.

Steve Brown
Guest
Steve Brown

I have used Uber in several cities. It is a great service, especially if you are visiting a city. Many times you are in an area that does not have a lot of cabs or it is a peak cab time. It is a modern service Portland needs.

Adam Messinger
Guest
Adam Messinger

I’m an Oregon native now living in SF. As with PDX, the taxi service here has been remarkably bad, bad enough that a lot of people just have up and drove instead. With Uber the service is much better, you get cars quickly, they always actually show up, and when you talk with drivers, they tell you they can make more money because efficient centralized dispatch keeps them busy. They started with towncars, but now also offer Prius as well (UberX) and these are actually cheaper than taxis. It is a great service — I wholeheartedly recommend PDX do whatever is needed to make it work there too.