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Reinventing taxis, part 2: A Q&A with Uber’s #1 critic, Steve Entler of Radio Cab

Posted by on September 17th, 2014 at 9:50 am

steve-entler

Radio Cab general manager Steve Entler.
(Photo: KOIN)

Second of two Q&As about the issues preventing car-summoning mobile apps like Uber from operating in Portland.

The 14-person stakeholder committee that advises Portland City Council on taxi regulations has one representative of a taxi company: Steve Entler.

Entler is the general manager of Radio Cab, the city’s oldest and largest taxi company and the only one operated as a collective by its drivers. After talking to the regional manager for Uber, which now operates in almost every major U.S. city except Portland, we sat down with Entler for a frank discussion about the taxi business and what it feels like to watch a startup willfully ignore a set of regulations he’s spent decades navigating and helping create.

What’s your basic problem with Uber?

It seems like everybody wants to target a certain portion of the business. If it was up to us, we’d be doing exactly the same thing they are: We’d just target the rich community. We’re just going to go from hotels to train station, what they did in the early turn of the century. But the municipalities got into the game and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…”

So little by little by little, they started foisting the regulations onto us. It just grew over time. We’re mostly the most extreme form of regulation there is right now.

Well, Uber would tell you they can’t discriminate by income because their drivers don’t know anything about the nature of the trip until they decide to accept it. And they’d say overregulation is what they’re trying to change.

They blatantly ignore all the laws anywhere they go, so I suspect it’ll be a matter of time before they’re ignoring them here. If that’s the way it’s going to be, maybe we should all be selling cocaine off the street corner.

What do you think about Uber?

I guess I personally think there are probably some problems with it, but that people seem to love the service, and that there ought to be some way to solve the problems. What do you think the city should require Uber to do?

Adhere to the same laws I have to.

That’d also require increasing the number of licensed taxis, which Portland caps at 460. Why do we limit the taxi supply? It seems like it takes forever for a taxi to show up when I call for one.

Okay, Saturday night at 1 in the morning, it might be a temporary lull. Cabs have to go through a process where they do a “demand for need study.”

But why is that necessary? When somebody wants to open a food cart, the city doesn’t do a demand study, they just let the business take the risk.

Ten to 20 percent of our vehicles have to be wheelchair-accessible vehicles to provide access to the disabled community. Uber, their target audience, of course, is (holds up his smartphone). How old is your mother?

She’s 64.

Does she have one of these?

She does, actually. But my dad doesn’t.

She’d be one in 50. [Editor’s note: the current rate of smartphone ownership by seniors is actually about one in four. Two years ago, it was one in 10.] An awful lot of the rest of the population depends on this. (Nods at landline phone on desk.) I have 27, 28 people in dispatch answering phones and doing stuff like that because City of Portland wants to have this. Uber doesn’t have any of that.

Do you see a role for taxis in a multimodal transportation network — like, you go somewhere on the bus, then somewhere with bike share, then somewhere in a cab?

What’s bike share?

We don’t have it in Portland yet, but in other cities they put kiosks in the street with bikes where you can swipe your credit card, rent a bike for half an hour and drop it off at a different station.

Oh, those. It will for a while. Probably won’t involve me. Hell, I’m 70. We’ve been survivors for a long time, and Radio Cab is the fittest of those survivors. The whole Uber thing will probably take its toll on the industry.

Is that what you’ve seen in other cities?

I’ve heard that San Francisco Yellow or something, it’s 10 or 20 percent of their fleet just sitting there because they haven’t got enough drivers to put in them or enough business to support them.

Where Uber’s taken off is in places where the cab service was already a cesspool. It’s a corrupt, stinky business other places. And it’s not here. It really isn’t.

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What if the city gave Uber all the same requirements as cabs and then lifted the restriction on the number of cabs that can operate?

You would find the downtown area completely swamped out with cars. There wouldn’t be parking for anybody else.

You’re saying the city should cap the number of taxis in order to make sure there are enough places to park?

Sure.

If people were just sitting in cabs on the curb all day, wouldn’t they all be losing money?

You have to be there to find out. These guys always take path of least resistance.

What’ll happen with these rideshare companies is they’ll kind of seek their own level after a while. You know, all the drivers from cab companies, they’ll gradually switch to that, thinking “That’s a cheaper deal, I can make a few extra bucks,” that sort of thing.

You think drivers would switch to Uber to make more money?

Right.

OK, last thing: you’ve obviously got a lot of problems with Uber’s proposal, but we’re trying to get at possible solutions. What changes do you see that would make it fair for them to operate?

Number-one thing would be to have them provide the same exact commercial insurance that I have to. They won’t do it, because it’s expensive. Or conversely, they could require you as a driver to access the commercial type of insurance that we have.

What else?

If you have a vehicle for hire business, you cannot put that vehicle for hire in service until you have a vehicle for hire permit, and on average it takes us about three months. You wouldn’t believe all the fees and hoops I have to jump through to just put a vehicle in service. And to totally ignore it on the other side just drives me crazy.

Have you read their contract? There’s 31 pages of “We ain’t responsible for nothing. And anything that happens is between you and the person that’s driving the car. Which we’ve selected for you.” They’re hiring somebody without even so much as shaking hands with the guy, right? The concept is a little bit off. They’ll tell you they do background checks, but there’s background checks and then there’s background checks.

What’s the difference?

I don’t know. It’s not a level playing field, the whole thing. But I tell you what. Give me the same regulations to follow as them, which is basically none, I’ll out-Uber them. I’ll give you a better program than they’ve got.

Qs & As edited for brevity and clarity. Since Uber’s unsuccessful effort last year to legalize its upmarket Uber Black service in Portland, we’re not aware of any formal effort to change Portland’s laws to allow either Uber Black or the more popular peer-to-peer service UberX to operate legally. But we assume it’s just a matter of time until the next such proposal.

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Alex Reed
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Alex Reed

I’d like to note that although taxi companies only have one seat, the 14-person stakeholder committee has fully half of its members (7 people, #’s 8-14 below) from the current industry (inc. limos, pedicabs, etc.) which I believe all have an interest in keeping out competition. There are two people representing the public (#’s 4 and 5). No wonder Portland isn’t open to Uber and Lyft like pretty much every other major city….

1) Revenue Bureau (Board Chair)

2) Bureau of Transportation Management

3) Tourism Industry

4) Persons with Disabilities

5) Riding Public

6) Port of Portland

7) Tri Met

8) Taxicab companies

9) Non-limousine LPT companies

10) SAT companies

11) Limousine companies

12) Pedicab companies

13) Taxicab drivers

14) LPT drivers

http://www.portlandoregon.gov/Oni/article/84822

tridork
Guest
tridork

TriMet represents the public…

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

Extremely indirectly, via a governor-appointed board, yes. I imagine that that representative, after first advocating for for-hire transportation that doesn’t interfere with TriMet operations, has a secondary goal of having for-hire transport mesh well with the TriMet system to offer a good suite of transportation options for Portland-area residents.

TonyT
Guest
TonyT

No they don’t. They represent their business.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Thanks for the list…don’t most advisory committees / commissions like an odd number of voting stakeholders…so it sounds like an opportunity for a rotating seat represented by the technology service of the hour (Portland Carsharing, Uber, …and taxi drones or Google taxis in the future). And if they cannot decide on a vested interest to sit in the 15th seat then add another customer representative (smart phone owner who is under 50 years old and does not own a car, etc.)

tedder42
Guest

“What’s bike share?” HAHAHAH

Radio Cab is such a nice company. Everyone has such a great experience using them, their drivers ALWAYS obey all laws. Yeah, I’m being slightly sarcastic. Entler and Radio Cab wouldn’t have to worry about Uber if they were, you know, good.

AMA
Guest
AMA

I was sympathetic to the cab company’s arguments (or so I thought) until I read this interview. He’s making Uber’s arguments for them! His business is tough because of a ton of regulation. Wouldn’t he WANT less regulation in that case?

William Henderson
Guest

Right. He and everyone else knows that there is no way cab companies could compete in a deregulated environment. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Uber can succeed in a regulated environment – their business model is built around letting anyone become a cab and then driving the cost to zero.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

No expert on the regulations, but I will bet a beer that the regulations are in place to”assure” safe vehicles, competent drivers, accommodations for the disabled and generally to protect the rider and citizenry. Of course businesses of all stripes would love to have no regulations but they are in place for the greater good.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Yes Portland’s historically stronger taxi commission enforcement of the rules meant that the taxi cabs south of the Columbia were in much better shape than those from Clark County (except the old Vancouver Cab)…things got better here 10+ years ago and now they could go back to worse due to contracts expiring and no active enforcement by our City (CoV).

William Henderson
Guest

Radio Cab clearly doesn’t train employees engaging in PR to give the kind of polished non-answers that Uber does.

On the one hand we have Uber making things sound rosy and keeping our eyes all trained on a utopian future, on the other we have an old crank complaining about the state of things and clearly wanting to go back to the past. Interesting interviews, but not a very helpful or balanced (whatever that means) set of perspectives.

If these are the voices in the conversation it is easy to see why things are currently going nowhere.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

I do appreciate Steve Entler’s willingness to venture actual opinions. This was a much more entertaining interview than the Uber one! 🙂

William Henderson
Guest

For sure. It’s clear to me who I’d rather have a beer with =).

joel
Guest
joel

agree

scott
Guest
scott

Cab companies are still operating under an entitlement business model which is about 40 years out of date. Get with the times or get steamrolled.

William Henderson
Guest

Never thought I’d see the day where people on Bike Portland are complaining about entitlement and advocating for deregulation.

Psyfalcon
Guest
Psyfalcon

We complain about that quite a bit. Usually its about subsidies for cars and the entitled people who drive them without realizing how much work and money went into building the roads for a seamless driving experience.

scott
Guest
scott

My comment was about an entitlement business model, as in “we are the cab companies so we deserve the business of moving people around town in spite of the competition born of capitalism”. It’s a very different perspective to what I believe that you are referencing which is “my chosen form of transportation is a viable form of transportation so I would like my city/state/federal government to recognize it and treat it as so”.

Yet the tone of my comments on Bike Portland has been for people who choose to commute by bicycle to always be prepared for the worst and not to expect anything your city/state/federal governing body puts in place to protect you even 50% of the time.

Phil
Guest
Phil

Wow, I agree with him, but he makes it tough by being a defensive prick about the whole thing. Radio Cab needs to find someone else to talk to the press.

joel
Guest
joel

i think the commercial insurance point is valid for sure. do uber drivers have to let their car insurance companies know, and provide proof of valid insurance in their cars?

J
Guest
J

Uber drivers have recently gone on strike in NYC: http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/how-ubers-efforts-squeeze-drivers-have-compelled-them-fight. Uber just seems like a great way to destroy a decent, flexible gig, and turn it into another low paying, crappy service alternative. I’ve scheduled plenty of cabs here in Portland over the last 25 years and never had a problem. http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/5-traits-uber-shares-exploitative-old-school-capitalist.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

Almost the same article could be written about Portland’s current taxi industry (excluding Union Cab). Of the cab drivers I’ve talked to, those who own their own vehicles are making good money and seemed pretty happy. The majority who are “contractors” (scare-quotes because I think they should be treated as full employees) who in effect rent others’ vehicles and taxi licenses for the privilege of driving were barely scraping by and were very unhappy with the system. My diagnosis is that the “contractors” have very little bargaining power with which to demand a better deal in a Portland with many potential drivers and few licensed vehicles for them to drive. The owners and companies seemingly get most of the money from the current system. Our per-mile price is quite high; that money must be going somewhere, but it’s not going to the drivers.

At least in an Uber/Lyft world drivers wouldn’t have to compete with each other (lowering wages) for the pleasure of driving at all. They would have to compete with each other for customers, but so does anyone in the private sector.

Maybe the Uber/Lyft advent could be an opportunity for the City to put in a system that actually protects workers in the for-hire transportation industry.

resopmok
Guest
resopmok

“If that’s the way it’s going to be, maybe we should all be selling cocaine off the street corner.”

“but there’s background checks and then there’s background checks.”
“What’s the difference?
I don’t know.”

These sort of statements reveal to me Entler’s real position, that he’s afraid and is responding emotionally to a real situation he isn’t willing to face. When self-driving cars come along, his business will suffer even more so in conjunction with sharing apps that will allow car owners to rent out their self driving cars while they aren’t using it themselves. What regulations will he need to worry about then, since anything that drives itself won’t need a background check and would be insured at a rate consistent with such. Theoretically, anyway.

Point is, this is a serious conversation he needs to have with himself about the future of his business before he starts pointing the finger at everything else.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

How about the much sought after entitlement of not having to stop at octagonal red STOP signs?

Cheif
Guest
Cheif

This could be an article on the onion. Headline: Old Man Cranky About Young People, New Things.

Seriously though one of the biggest problems with society in general is that so many people are so entrenched in doing things the same way they were 50-75-100 years ago. Time to look forward.

J
Guest
J

Actually, Cheif, a hundred years ago we had small children working long shifts in the meat packing industry, and just about everywhere else, too. Today’s capitalists would love to see things head back in that direction. Check out Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, which exposed this national tragedy in 1906.

TonyT
Guest
TonyT

“They blatantly ignore all the laws anywhere they go, so I suspect it’ll be a matter of time before they’re ignoring them here.”

Ah yes, Radio Cab. Our neighborhood had Radio Cab drivers habitually bypassing the greenway diverter at the entrance to our street again and again and again, and I called and left messages and talked to dispatchers again and again, and on multiple occasions explicitly requested that I get a call back from management. And I NEVER got a call back. The drivers didn’t stop bypassing the diverter until I caught one driver doing it on video, stopped him and told him to get his fellow drivers to stop entering our street where motor vehicles weren’t permitted to enter. Bam, it ended.

So, no sympathy from me. None at all.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Seriously. Holding up cab drivers as a pillar of legal and safe driving is pretty hilarious.

Joseph E
Guest

Our family is car-free, but we have only used a taxi in Portland about once a year (when getting into the airport late, after MAX stops running). It’s too inconvenient to get a cab dispatched, and more expensive than transit or even car share.

But many of my patients have to call cabs to get to my clinic. Just last week, a lovely 75 year old woman told me that she missed her last appointment due to one of the cab companies not showing up, even though it was scheduled 24 hours before. She said that the week before her cab was 2 hours late to take her home from the clinic. These were both with major Portland cab companies (though it took place in Gresham). She pays cash.

I have heard many similar stories of poor dispatching and poor service from existing cab companies, while my friend who use Uber and Lyft report much better results.

Daniel L
Guest
Daniel L

“Okay, Saturday night at 1 in the morning, it might be a temporary lull.”

Problem is that for many people 1am on a Saturday night is the only time they need a cab. The rest of the time there are a lot of other transportation options.

The rest of our transportation system is based heavily around peak demand numbers. The cab system on the other hand is based on keeping the cabs busy at all times, so is basically based around whatever the lowest demand throughout the day is and ignores peaks. It is a ridiculous system and needs to change. Uber & Lyft present a solution, it’s not the only possibly solution out there and opens some issues of its own, but it is better than simply not addressing the problem.

Concordia Cyclist
Guest
Concordia Cyclist

I’ve used the MagicCab/Curb app for a couple of years now and find it has been super helpful in getting & scheduling cabs when I need them in PDX. The only real issue I’ve found has been between the hours of 1AM and 3AM (or anytime during big-night-out holidays like Halloween or New Years). There just aren’t enough taxi’s available – especially once the option of public transportation shuts down.

Maybe Uber can first fix that hole in the system – offer additional services between Midnight and 6 AM (or during holidays) to supplement the lack of options at that time. Make them earn a place at the table by fulfilling what we actually need first. We don’t need another 400 cab drivers during the day time. But night time/early morning options are badly in need of being expanded.

Dave
Guest
Dave

This “sharing economy” horse feces is a reasonable experiment–if it is taxed at a level that can pension off the people made redundant by it.

tedder42
Guest

Is it a requirement that all improvements provide support for the displaced? Buggy whip makers, steam engineers, pager/beeper salesmen..

9watts
Guest
9watts

“Is it a requirement that all improvements provide support for the displaced?”

I guess it depends on how much that service-that-has-been-or-is-in-the-process-of-being-obsoleted was considered a public good. I haven’t asked anyone to put the payphones back, though it would be nice, every now and then, to be able to, you know, make a call from places that used to feature public telephones. Not everyone has, can afford, or wants to own, a cellphone.
Your facile remark about buggywhips notwithstanding, tedder42, I have my doubts that you are in a position to decree these to be unqualified improvements. Improvements to whom?

Jon
Guest
Jon

I think his basic point is excellent: Let us compete on an equal regulatory basis. I’ll bet you would hear people scream bloody murder if the city condemned a block downtown and allowed Walmart to build a store that was except from regulations like minimum wage, workmen’s comp, property taxes, overtime, etc.

If the city allows these services into the city then they need to make sure the playing field is level.

I’ve never been very impressed with the taxi service in Portland. Getting home from the airport is usually far more expensive than I expect, the cars are not particularly clean and the drivers don’t stand out for their great service. The one time that MAX was down it took over an hour just to wait in line for a cab.

It would be great to see the cap on the number of taxis removed and regulations amended to add some fair competition in the city between the traditional taxi business and these newer services.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“…The one time that MAX was down it took over an hour just to wait in line for a cab. …” Jon

In that type situation, do you feel the service an operation such as Uber offers, would have provided you a ride sooner?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

I have lived in Portland 29 years, and have never once used a taxi cab. That’s how bad they are here. I’d rather take the bus.

Reza
Guest
Reza

Until they shut down at night.

I wonder how much public pressure for better late night service will be needed until TriMet finally sees it as a priority.

9watts
Guest
9watts

Reza, why is late night service something that Trimet should ‘see as a priority’? Have you seen the costs per passenger during seriously off-peak times? Do we really want our tax dollars going there? Michael Anderson, in his previous gig right here in Portland, put together a really cool graphic that included among many fascinating bits of info something about that. Public transit is not a good fit for off-peak transportation. Pretty much anything else should come in cheaper.

Reza
Guest
Reza

Hmm, that’s a rather libertarian view of transit that you espouse there, 9watts. Maybe if transit service was a private good, it would only be offered during the peak commute times. But it’s actually a public amenity, and it should not just be available, but actually USABLE for those who would use the service during less profitable hours, such as late nights. Transit service is a huge part of a city’s quality of life, and as we are trying to help enable more people to live without a car, it’s OK to admit that not everyone wants to ride a bicycle, especially if they are going out at night.

And for those that do own cars, do you think that 1-2 hour taxicab waits and $20-40 fares on Friday-Saturday nights push them to driving drunk when they otherwise wouldn’t if they had a more sensible and reasonably-priced option of getting home?

And Michael, how important is frequency and span of bus service to you in supporting a car-free lifestyle?

9watts
Guest
9watts

“it should not just be available, but actually USABLE for those who would use the service during less profitable hours, such as late nights.”

Says who?
I mean, I have a list of things I’d like to see that is a mile long, but what you are proposing makes very little sense given the alternatives we could imagine (like taxis). I have never seen a proposal for how transit, commonly understood, can operate effectively at 1am. There is a reason (several actually) why buses and trams and such don’t run all night.

I used to think that the line I’d been fed all my life: everyone should take the bus and then we’ll all drive less was a useful social and political goal. Then I read Rodney Tolley’s books, and now I no longer think that has any reasonable prospects. And Tolley’s about as far from a libertarian as you’ll likely get.
Walking and bicycling offer comparable flexibility to the private motorcar we can no longer afford as a society. Buses and trams do not, cannot, never will.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-greening-of-urban-transport-rodney-tolley/1114960449?ean=9780471947783

Dave
Guest
Dave

It’s happening faster now. Want taxes, or want riots?

tedder42
Is it a requirement that all improvements provide support for the displaced? Buggy whip makers, steam engineers, pager/beeper salesmen..
Recommended 2

Dwaine Dibbly
Guest
Dwaine Dibbly

Serious question here: by skirting most of the regulations, is Uber putting anyone at risk? I mean, if I’m riding and my Uber driver gets in a wreck, what happens if there’s no insurance? It seems like some of the regulations are good and reasonable, but a lot of it seems like hoop-jumping and revenue-raising. What would happen if the taxi-industry here was mostly de-regulated?

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

If the taxi industry was deregulated:
– The drivers would be anyone, honest or dishonest, legit or fake, safe or criminal
– The fares would be whatever the driver and passenger dicker to, late on a rainy night might be 3X, God help a passenger from out of town
– Your driver might take a credit card, might not, might have change, might not
– A cab might come to NoPo late at night, or maybe not, and maybe they’d charge double because they’d rather be picking up rich hipsters in the Pearl
– The cars would be anything, clean or dirty, comfortable or not, safe or dangerous, smoky or non-smoked
– In short, using a taxi would be a nightmare, although there would be a lot of clapped out old cars with sketchy people calling themselves taxis

Dave
Guest
Dave

Can you say “triangle Shirtwaist Co?”

J
Actually, Cheif, a hundred years ago we had small children working long shifts in the meat packing industry, and just about everywhere else, too. Today’s capitalists would love to see things head back in that direction. Check out Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, which exposed this national tragedy in 1906.
Recommended 1

patrick
Guest
patrick

why can’t they just roll out uber service and not offer uberx?
my impression is that uberx typically lacks insurance and registered drivers but that uber itself demands a level of accountability