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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.