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As Uber launches in Vancouver WA, Portland is one of just two major U.S. cities without ride-hailing

Posted by on July 14th, 2014 at 5:16 pm

vancouver map

(Screen capture from Uber’s Vancouver website)

Portland is now the largest major city in the United States where the private ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft aren’t operating — but as of last week, one is now up and running in its largest suburb.

Uber Vancouver, WA launched last week, just ahead of today’s vote by Seattle City Council to fully legalize the services, which remain illegal under Portland’s taxi regulations.

The apps essentially let ordinary drivers turn their cars into taxis, much like Getaround turns private cars into Zipcars and Airbnb turns spare bedrooms into hotel rooms. They also open up big liability issues — especially when one of them claims that it isn’t liable for damages when one of its drivers kills a six-year-old in between fares. But the compromise Seattle approved today sets requirements for the insurance that these drivers-for-hire must acquire.

Uber’s new Vancouver service, which was tested Sunday by KGW-TV, allows people to hail a ride leading outside Vancouver’s urban area (including Portland) but not a ride coming back. Rides cost $1.50 plus $1.65 per mile, with a minimum fare of $6. In some cities Uber also offers a higher-cost service with professional drivers, UberBlack, but that service isn’t available in Vancouver.

Uber and Lyft drivers have the right to refuse fares.

According to the fast-growing ride-hailing services’ websites, of the country’s top 40 metro areas, there are only two that don’t currently offer either Uber or Lyft: Portland and Las Vegas.

Last month in Austin, both companies launched even though they’re illegal in the city. Uber and/or Lyft are also operating in cities like St. Louis, Mo.; Modesto, Calif.; Toledo, Ohio; Greenville, SC; Annapolis, Md. and Fort Collins, Colo., among many others.

Last year, Uber used an ice cream delivery stunt to draw attention to an unsuccessful bid to change Portland city code.

The company turned heads last month when it was valued at $17 billion, a sign that investors see its technology as a major improvement over taxis and, maybe, a gateway to self-driving car services that could dramatically reduce urban car ownership by making carsharing more convenient.

Uber, Lyft and smaller startups such as Sidecar, sometimes known as transportation network companies or TNCs, differ from taxis in that they let users hail rides using a smartphone app; they assume cashless, tipless transactions by keeping users’ credit cards on file; and they map the route for both driver and user.

Crucially, they’re also less regulated than taxi companies. As of 2012, Portland city code allows only 432 taxis to pick up fares within city limits, creating one of the lowest taxi supplies in North America.

It’s possible that by making taxi services more prompt or pleasant, ride-hailing apps are reducing drunken driving. In today’s Monday Roundup, we linked to stories from three cities that showed a possible association.

Local taxi companies and drivers are surely watching these companies with interest. Commenting beneath this morning’s roundup, reader PJ wrote that “living in a household supported by cabbing we are making plan B and C on how to deal with this right now. I would rather get in a cab with a licensed and trained cabbie any day over some random stranger with an iPhone.”

Of course, TNCs also create new jobs, or at least income streams, for their own drivers.

“Drivers are live and on the road,” Uber spokeswoman Brooke Steger wrote in an email Monday. “We are still actively partnering with new drivers though and will continue to work to build reliable supply.”

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Peter W July 14, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Having used these in San Francisco, I’ve found Lyft and Uber are great as a fallback service (or a cheaper alternative to transit for short trips, if you rideshare with enough friends). By making it easier to get around with a car without owning a car, hopefully they actually help reduce vehicle ownership and thus VMT.

    That said, both services require drivers to own cars. I don’t think we should let them operate in Portland until they give the OK to drivers of pedalcabs, xtracycles, and bakfiets.

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  • Christopher Sanderson July 14, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    I find this quote interesting: “I would rather get in a cab with a licensed and trained cabbie any day over some random stranger with an iPhone.” I think I can understand where this person is coming from, but honestly some of the sketchiest drivers I have experienced are taxi cab drivers. Many of them punch the gas when a light turns green, driver over the speed limit, brake hard, and take riders on longer routes than is what is necessary. Taxi drivers also have little to no accountability. With both Uber and Lyft, users can rate their drivers. Also, through their apps, one can pay for the ride instead of having to fish for cash or having that awkward moment of processing a credit card in the cab after the ride. I hope Oregon (or Portland?) law provides the environment to have these services here in Portland.

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    • Alex Reed July 15, 2014 at 11:26 am

      It’s the City of Portland. It’s a long story involving the Private For-Hire Transportation Board (under the Revenue Bureau, not the Bureau of Transportation for some reason) but the person to email/call is Mayor Hales who’s in charge of that bureau.


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    • Scott H July 15, 2014 at 11:29 am

      I hear you. Riding in a taxi cab is typically a terrifying experience. And if you’ve ever dropped something inside of a taxi, you’ve got a one in a billion chance of getting it back. The lack of safety, oversight, and customer service has no place in the modern world. A lot of people are comparing taxi companies to other mom and pop business, and I don’t see the resemblance. If a mobile app puts these self entitled companies out of business, good riddance.

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    • grimm July 15, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Some of the scariest times I’ve had in a car were when a “professional” cab driver was behind the wheel. The ones in PDX seem mildly better. But as a group cabs seem to offer an over priced product with a generally bad experience. No one I know in SF really uses cabs anymore, all Uber/Lyft, probably a good indicator. We should allow it in and let capitalism sort out which model is best.

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  • Charlie July 14, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    I’d rather the city just increase the number of permitted taxis. 432 is ridiculously low.

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  • Josh Berezin July 14, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    I found this quote from the Uber CEO from a recent New York Times interview interesting:

    “The whole point of price cuts is to get UberX pricing below the cost of owning a car. Let’s say you take three or four trips a day on average. If we can get the price of UberX low enough, we can get to where it’s cheaper to take Uber than to own a car.”

    More here.

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    • 9watts July 14, 2014 at 9:56 pm

      Yeah, whatever.
      Biking’s still a whole lot cheaper than either.

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      • Coss71 August 25, 2014 at 2:00 pm

        Remind me of that when it’s 38 degrees and raining

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  • William Henderson July 14, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    I’m quite surprised to see Bike Portland giving such one-sided, glowing coverage to an extremely controversial company. You might not agree with Portland’s reasons for keeping Uber at Bay, but let’s take full advantage of the slow process of democracy by having a conversation about the pros and cons here. You’ve done a good job at outlining the pros, so I’ll jump on the other side of the boat:

    First and foremost, Uber is taking a publicly-regulated city service and making it fully privatized and unregulated. That is, after all, what has allowed them to innovate and grow so quickly while taxis commissions are still stuck in the stone age. But consider what will happen when the company starts getting pressure from their investors to make good on their extremely high valuation. They are a for-profit company, and their sole duty is in maximizing profit for their share holders. When the bill comes due, they might still be aligned with the interests of the city, they might not. Without regulation, there is absolutely nothing guaranteeing that they will keep the best interest of cities and citizens in mind. You could argue that we can regulate them after the fact, when the problems emerge. But why not start there? What parts of the taxi system are broken and what parts are worth keeping around? If we relax the right rules, perhaps we can allow local companies to compete with Uber while preserving the parts of the taxi system that have the city’s long term best interests in mind.

    A great example is this is insurance coverage. City code requires (https://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/?c=28593#cid_254406) for-hire transportation companies to have comprehensive insurance for vehicles and drivers. In SF, Uber attempted to deny coverage when one of their driver’s hit and killed a 6 year old girl (http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Uber-denies-fault-in-S-F-crash-that-killed-girl-5458290.php). The company’s position is that driver was never an employee of Uber, and because they were not actively carrying a passenger Uber had no bearing on responsibility in the crash. Allegedly the driver was using the Uber app at the time of the crash. Uber later agreed to provide coverage in cases where a driver’s personal liability insurance denies it. It’s unclear whether Uber provided any coverage in this case, but they’ve made it clear that the expect liability burdens to be met by personal insurance in the future (see here: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-03-14/uber-tries-to-convince-drivers-and-lawmakers-theyre-covered). Many cities (NYC, SF, Boston, Chicago to name a few) where Uber is active are now finding themselves in conflict over the issue of liability.

    Uber’s careful avoidance of classifying drivers as employees has all sorts of other consequences. Like any freelancer, they are responsible paying for for health insurance, liability insurance, retirement, gas, auto expenses, etc etc. Uber’s claims that Uber drivers make $90k are quite overstated. And of course, Uber holds all the power in controlling these wages. There are no regulations or unionization backstops here. And if anyone can hop in their car and become a driver for UberX, you can guess where the average wage is likely to go. Particularly as Uber moves to secure market domination and return value to their share-holders. You can already see the start of this in the complaints and protests of UberX drivers in SF (http://time.com/92988/uberx-san-francisco-protest-uber/).

    In conclusion, I’ll return to the big question: what should the role of purely private companies be in providing basic services for cities? Do we trust them to always and forever be the best thing for Portland? Do we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater when we allow Uber to completely circumnavigate our (admittedly complex/byzantine) regulatory system? How can we encourage Portland to create regulation and partnerships that foster innovative services without throwing out the safety nets?

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    • Alex Reed July 18, 2014 at 9:53 am

      To most of what you say, I say, “Sure, that’s true. But the solution is not to keep Uber/Lyft/etc. illegal through a limited number of taxi licenses. It’s to allow them to exist, *but* regulate them to fix all the known problems (driver insurance, potential for driver distraction by apps, etc.) If currently unknown problems crop up, let’s fix them in the future rather than prohibiting these services based on things we don’t know about yet.”

      To the point about driver wages being held down by the huge supply of potential drivers, that’s exactly what happens now with taxi companies! Except for cooperatives like I understand Union Cab works, the drivers make low wages (after all, there’s a huge supply of potential drivers ready to replace any given driver, which greatly limits his/her bargaining power) and the companies owning the taxi licenses get all the excess profits from the limited supply of licenses.

      I see two ways to increase wages: 1) Make all the cab companies be cooperatives with equal profit-sharing, but keep licenses restricted. This amounts to a cash transfer from the taxi-using public to a select number of taxi drivers. Since taxi drivers tend to be lower-income/lower-skilled, seems potentially pro-equity to me. BUT it would require lots of regulation to avoid cronyism (“only my buddies get to join the taxi driver clique”). Also I think I would rather spend the public’s money on a broader-based redistribution program rather than one that only benefits ~1000 taxi drivers (some of who may not actually be low-income) out of 600,000 Portlanders.
      2) Increase the efficiency of the taxi industry, thus there’s more money to be divided among drivers and owners. If call operators become largely unnecessary, that’s a significant expense taken out of the taxi industry. If more vehicles are allowed, allowing faster response times, more people will take cabs… I mean ridesharing vehicles 🙂 The savings can be distributed between lower fares, higher wages for the drivers, and even some profits for uber/lyft/whoever. As fares get lower, more people use the taxi industry so the pie grows with more hours and jobs available to drivers. Seems like a win/win/win to me. Would definitely need regulation of uber/lyft/whoever AND competition between different ride-sharing services for drivers so that uber/lyft/whoever doesn’t take all the extra money and leave drivers as bad off as they are now or worse.

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  • kittens July 14, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Taxi driving is one of the last jobs an unskilled worker can do and still make a living. Often these are first generation Americans. Though it would be totally naive to ask a consumer to think of anything or anyone but their own bottom line and desires… people should think of the impact this would have on our community as a whole. You buy organic milk right?

    WalMart, Amazon.com, Uber, these giants are gobbling up every last shred of marketshare and human dignity and give little in return. Yes, present taxi services can suck. There should be more customer service checks in the system. But these can be rectified through the same technology.

    The city of Portland and thousands of others have for decades tightly regulated the taxi supply to insure folks can make a living providing the service. It works 99% of the time. Maybe not on NYE. We all have stories.

    As for the effects of ride-sharing on the transportation network as a whole, I thought the goal was to DECREASE the use of private cars, not further enable them with novel technological solutions.

    Lastly, Drunk driving deaths decreased sharply over the last three decades with our current taxi system through aggressive law enforcement and education efforts. By your rationale ride-sharing would serve to ease alcohol consumption substance intoxication. Who benefits from encouraging more folks to go out and drink more?

    Ridesharing seems like a brilliant idea until you start to unpack it.

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    • Alex Reed July 15, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Accounts are that Uber drivers make a live able amount of money (I recall seeing an average of $70,000 for drivers that do around full time work.) Not sure about accounting for taxes, insurance, gas, maintenance.

      Assuming ride sharing is just pretty much more efficient taxis, it could actually decrease car use significantly. If getting a ride when necessary because of time/carrying capacity/whatever becomes significantly easier, that helps some people become car free or car lite. When that happens, many car trips become transit or bike trips. I would posit more such trips than actual Uber trips.

      Our current taxi system provides outsize profits to license owners and I’ve seen complaints of drivers being underpaid (I believe in the Mercy or Willamette Week). It probably does no better to help drivers than would Über or Lyft, especially if uber or Lyft’s entrance meant more public scrutiny of the regulations (the for-hire transportation board is a joke currently and dominated by the taxi companies). Plus, the level of service is worse than I’ve experienced in dc or even la. I’ve had plenty of cabs not show up or show up 20 minutes late. And there are precious few cabs to hail on the street downtown.

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    • Reza July 15, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Oh please, the taxi cabal is a joke in Portland and most other cities. Expensive rides, unreliable service, and massive waits if you’re not in one of the few prime destinations (Old Town Meat Market or Sassy’s). Taxi drivers are among the rudest and most inconsiderate drivers in Portland as well.

      Uber and other services let you know exactly how much you will pay for your ride, and let you rate your drivers so that there is some incentive on their part to provide a good customer service.

      I refuse to take taxis in Portland and if the whole industry went belly-up tomorrow it couldn’t happen too soon.

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    • Stretchy July 16, 2014 at 8:53 am

      A few things to keep in mind.

      Uber Drivers are also working folks trying to make money to feed their families, keep a roof over their head etc… By prohibiting Uber, the city is taking away an option these folks have to earn a living.

      Taxis are rarely owner-operator, especially in a large city. The medallion itself is owned by a corporation who then employs the driver. Part of that employment means the employer can dictate hours, wages and working conditions. The driver is paid a wage while the taxi company earns profits.

      Because there is no ‘medallion’ for Uber drivers, they are far more likely to be self-employed. They can dictate their own hours, set their own rates and, critically, keep their own profits.

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      • SteveG July 16, 2014 at 9:20 am

        Great points, Stretchy. The cab companies regulated monopolies. Regulators get a franchise fee, and in exchange the operators (cab companies) have artificially-limited competition. This limits the supply of cabs and drives up fares. Cabbies don’t get the benefit if the artificially-limited supply; the cab companies do.

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  • Granpa July 15, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Unregulated driver with their attention focused on their I-Phones as they await a fare is not my idea of a great way to run a commercial driving enterprise. I imagine that payment is in cash so that taxes are avoided.
    Kittens nailed it, this is just another symptom of a struggling economy in a devaluing spiral.

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    • Spiffy July 15, 2014 at 9:11 am

      payment is via credit card on file with Uber… no payment transaction during the ride…

      but yeah, I’d rather not have more people focused on their phone while driving their car…

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  • paikiala July 15, 2014 at 9:25 am

    WalMart, Amazon.com, Uber, these giants are gobbling up every last shred of marketshare and human dignity and give little in return. Yes, present taxi services can suck. There should be more customer service checks in the system. But these can be rectified through the same technology.

    Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to achieve the highest return on investment possible, it is literally the law. Slamming a company that is working within the law is pointless.
    If you don’t like the rules, change the rules the corporations have to play by. This means you have to change those that make the laws, or petition for new laws.

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    • 9watts July 15, 2014 at 9:36 am

      Oh please!

      Do we need to speculate on how the Roberts Court would find in Kittens v. Amazon? The whole point is that our system, such that it is, invites all the rule changing you can imagine–from those who can afford the lobbyists. And you and me and kittens ain’t in the running.

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    • oliver July 15, 2014 at 10:02 am

      You could also refuse to patronize these businesses. I don’t have the budget of these companies, I do my part by refusing to give them my money. It’s one of the points of buying local. Besides, slamming a company in a public forum is likely at least as valuable as trying to out talk their lobbyists in Congress. I can’t remember the last time I spent 1000 bucks to attend a dinner.

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  • paikiala July 15, 2014 at 9:26 am

    “WalMart, Amazon.com, Uber, these giants are gobbling up every last shred of marketshare and human dignity and give little in return. Yes, present taxi services can suck. There should be more customer service checks in the system. But these can be rectified through the same technology.”

    Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to achieve the highest return on investment possible, it is literally the law. Slamming a company that is working within the law is pointless.
    If you don’t like the rules, change the rules the corporations have to play by. This means you have to change those that make the laws, or petition for new laws.

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    • Jonathan Gordon July 15, 2014 at 11:18 am

      Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to achieve the highest return on investment possible, it is literally the law. Slamming a company that is working within the law is pointless.

      This sounds like the Shareholder Value Myth to me.

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  • SteveG July 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    We need to take a collective deep breath and stop thinking of Portland as a “leader” in transportation innovation — and thinking of bikes as a silver bullet. Bikes are awesome, but they don’t work for everyone, all the time.

    Let’s refocus on considering and promoting a full range of alternative transportation options. If we create a multi-modal transportation “mesh,” we realistically take on the real problem: private cars and all of their negative impacts.

    IMO we should thoughtfully embrace TNCs like Lyft and Uber, carsharing in all of its flavors (Zipcar, Car2go, Getaround, RelayRides), bike-sharing, long-distance ridesharing like BlaBlaCar, Trimet, Amtrak, the Bolt Bus and various other app-enabled alternatives to reliance on private, personal cars.

    The sooner we all stop navel-gazing and thinking that Portland is still a transportation leader, the sooner we’ll reclaim our place at the front of the pack, next to cities like Helsinki, which has lots of bicyclists, and just announced a goal of making private cars obsolete in ten years:


    Bikes are a very important piece of the puzzle, but they’re not the only piece.

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    • 9watts July 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      Lots of good points, SteveG.

      My only quibble is that I see all the variations on carsharing as methadone. Elegant transitional institutions, but a means not an end. Carsharing and bikes aren’t really equal alternatives to the private car. The one provides virtually the same service we can’t collectively afford anymore, just more efficiently, which as we know can *increase* car use under the right circumstances, whereas the other *is* the alternative. Human (and probably animal) powered transport is where this is all heading, and any strategies we are considering should keep this in focus.

      The implicit theory here seems to be that we can wean ourselves off cars by (simply) not owning them. But what if the affordability and convenience of all these many brilliant carsharing options increases reliance on cars? Further cements our reliance on them’? I’ve noticed that the local Zipcar fleet turns over faster than any of the cars my neighbors drive. What happens with all those two- or three-year old cars from these fleets?

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  • Paul July 16, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    I’ve used Uber in a bunch of different cities, and they were all much better experiences than in “pro” taxis which tended to break the speed limit, run stop signs/lights and push through groups of pedestrians. NYC cabs are the worst offenders by far. Uber drivers have always been extremely law-abiding in my short experience with them. Maybe that’ll change once they get more experience, who knows?

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  • Geoff July 18, 2014 at 5:50 am

    This is a huge can of worms based of corporate greed, intentionally ignoring local laws, Insurance requirement violations, licensing violations and much more. UberX, UberXL and LYFY are nothing more then illegal unlicensed cabs. When these companies are actually issued cease and desist orders, they will close doors to their local office and continue business via the internet. Once in town they will not go away! Uber claims that they’re only a technology company, not a car service. Which leaves their drivers in a bad spot. Most don’t understand what they are doing is illegal as it’s presented to them in a way that it’s not. Then the driver ends up with a $2500-5000 fine and criminal charges to deal with.

    Uber Black and Uber SUV on the other hand fall under different laws, but are for established private car companies. To use these services operators required to have commercial insurance, a business license, drug testing, dot medical exam, background checks and so on. Uber would do just fine sticking with these vehicles but their push for money brings a lot if unsuspecting people into uberX using their personal vehicles to make an extra few dollars. Watch facebook; you will be seeing a lot of ads pop up saying make $50k-70k extra per year. Ugh!

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    • TJ August 25, 2014 at 6:53 am

      Can you name a city where a carsharing company like Uber is operating illegally? As far an I understand they are only currently operating in cities were there are no current laws outlawing them or cities that have made exceptions for them. Claiming someone is braking the law seems very offensive without the evidence to back up the claim.

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  • SteveG July 18, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Many of the same issues arose in Seattle. They opted to regulate but legalize Lyft and Uber. Seems sensible to me:


    Maintaining the current system, which is basically a “taxi cartel” that mostly benefits medallion owners (vs. the actual drivers) and ignoring technology innovation seems short-sighted and reactionary. Other cities will end up with this new option to help more residents get off the car ownership treadmill, while Portland will be left behind.

    IMO we should do what we did with Airbnb: proceed with caution, but proceed. As anyone living car-free knows, it’s great to have a full range of options. Also, having TNCs to augment the taxi supply will probably keep a lot more drunks off the road.

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