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City makes deal to legalize Uber, sharpening deadline for safety requirements

Posted by on December 18th, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Riding Portland's urban highways-8

Uber inside?
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

If Portland’s street safety advocates hope to put special requirements on Uber drivers, they’d better move fast.

On Thursday afternoon, city officials reached a deal that will make Uber and similar ride-summoning services legal by April 9. In exchange, Uber promised to suspend its service in the city starting on Sunday.

According to Willamette Week, the first local outlet to report on the city’s deal:

Uber has informed Hales that it will suspend operations in the late evening hours of Sunday, Dec. 21.

In return, Hales has pledged to write new taxi regulations — or give Uber and other ride-sharing companies a temporary agreement to operate — by April 9, 2015.

“They have agreed to a three-month timeline,” says Brooke Steger, general manager for Uber. “We will be stopping pickups in Portland for the duration of that time. This is a temporary pause. We will be back.”

Hales will announce later today that the city is convening a task force to examine possible revisions to four city rules on cabs and ride-sharing. Those issues are the cap on the number of taxi licenses, the set fees taxis must charge riders, the number of cars available to people with disabilities, and safety requirements, including that drivers carry commercial insurance and receive thorough background checks.

Hales’ staffers tell WW the last item — safety assurances for passengers — will be the city’s top priority during the next three months.

The city’s transportation bureau will also oversee a study period, lasting one or two months, to see how Uber’s arrival changes the taxi market.

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Mayoral spokesman Dana Haynes said Thursday that the task force “hasn’t been put together yet. When we do have one, we’re going to tell them to move fast.” Haynes said Chris Warner, chief of staff to Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick, is leading this process for the moment.

Bicycle Transportation Alliance Executive Director Rob Sadowsky said Thursday that he planned to contact Warner and also Hales’ lead transportation staffer, Josh Alpert, about the issue.

“Is Uber willing to do some of the things that the Taxi Drivers Association of New York are doing? Those that have high levels of crashes are getting their medallions removed.”
— Rob Sadowsky, Bicycle Transportation Alliance

Sadowsky said the BTA would “love to see” the city require Uber and similar companies such as Lyft provide strong contingent insurance coverage for Uber drivers who might cause a collision on their way to pick up a fare. This requirement was a major part of the deal struck by Seattle last summer to legalize Uber.

Sadowsky also suggested that Uber drivers might be required to have commercial drivers’ licenses, or that the city might have some way of directly receiving complaints from passengers about Uber-style services — for example, if drivers are failing to pick people up in certain neighborhoods. And he raised the idea that private for-hire vehicles might be required to autodetect whether they’re speeding, or to pay into the state’s new per-mile tax instead of the gas tax.

“It’s interesting, when I was at the New York Vision Zero conference, how much people were talking about Uber,” Sadowsky said. “Is Uber willing to do some of the things that the Taxi Drivers Association of New York are doing? … Those that have high levels of crashes are getting their medallions removed.”

Sadowsky added that he feels there is “a really valid use to this model” in helping people lead low-car lives or get home safely after drinking.

“I used Uber when I was in Pittsburgh and it was so easy,” Sadowsky said. “It’s not like this is black and white, Uber’s horrible or Uber’s great. It’s a new industry.”

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30 Comments
  • Avatar
    Nicholas Skaggs December 18, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Great precedent!

    Step 1: Start operating a business illegally in Portland
    Step 2: Receive concessions to operate from the City
    Step 3: ???
    Step 4: Profit!

    On the flipside, if this means that drivers will be insured, that’s a great thing for pedestrian and cyclist safety.

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      kittens December 18, 2014 at 6:26 pm

      Sounds like when Lamar outdoor (the billboard people) installed a couple of signs on HWY 26, in clear violation of the code. The business plan is simply “screw you we can do anything we want”.

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        kittens December 18, 2014 at 6:26 pm

        LED billboards…

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          Nick Skaggs December 19, 2014 at 11:54 am

          Even on a bike, trying to ignore them, those LED billboards command my attention. They seem like a terribly dangerous thing- one more screen to distract drivers.

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    • kiel johnson
      kiel johnson December 18, 2014 at 11:11 pm

      I just hope they don’t start collecting our underpants

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      Spiffy December 19, 2014 at 12:30 am

      the drivers have always been insured…

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        John Lascurettes December 19, 2014 at 10:29 am

        Not with commercial insurance while en route to pick you up. They’re only covered by commercial grade insurance while a fair is in the car. This is one of the things NYC negotiated that they had to fix to operate there (IIRC).

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    Christopher Sanderson December 18, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Bishop to knight 2… check… the chess game continues. While Uber opened up illegally, it certainly forced the city to make a resolution about this. I say good.

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    Anne Hawley December 18, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    It’s hard for me to believe that the City hadn’t already convened a task force in anticipation of having to deal with Uber and Lyft one way or another. The lack of foresight is pretty stunning. And if they can write and pass new code/regulations in the stated time frame, I’ll be amazed.

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      meh December 19, 2014 at 7:38 am

      Why the need for a task force? Uber was quite aware of the requirements to run a taxi business in Portland and chose to ignore those requirements. Is the city to assume that every business that wishes to operate in Portland will break the law? In that case there needs to be a full time task force in place. Oh that’s right bylaw enforcement already exists.

      And yes it’s a taxi service, it’s not ride share. Ride share is finding someone else who is going the same place and sharing the costs, Uber is people driving around trying to snag a fare. That is a taxi not a ride share.

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        Anne Hawley December 19, 2014 at 1:54 pm

        Well, I’m not even sure what a taskforce is, in the Mind of the City, but they convene them, and committees, and work groups, as a mind bogglingly regular part of their SOP. I’m merely deploring the failure to plan for an encounter with Uber. Everyone knew it was coming. It was a special case, a disruptive force, and City Hall seems to have fallen back on the magic of the Portland bubble to keep the disruption at bay.

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          paikiala December 23, 2014 at 11:41 am

          Never presume a conspiracy when laziness or incompetence will suffice.

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    michweek December 18, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    I’ll be amazed and expect more from the city… wish they’d move this quickly regarding Barbour, Clinton, other city codes, etc. But those who don’t generate any money are worthless to the city so it makes sense our lives are allowed to be put in jeopardy.

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    Eastsider December 18, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    If Uber’s behavior is a precedent for changing transportation policy, the guerrilla diverters on Clinton (and hopefully other locations to come) seem like an effective strategy.

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      davemess December 19, 2014 at 8:55 am

      If they were backed by a billions dollars company that was successful in a lot of other cities…..

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    Chris I December 18, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    Countless NYC cabbies that have killed pedestrians and cyclists still have their medallions.

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    Zaphod December 18, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Hey PDX bikey citizens… note the rogue Clinton Street diverter and the tiny buzz it generated. Let us consider uber’s success and apply that logic to re-inspire acts like said diverter and keep it going. It’d be nice to see things like livability and common sense get a win once in awhile.

    The diverter in specific is an extremely good target because the community wants it, a focused group. Meanwhile any opposition comes from those who wish to use Ankeney as a cut through… an unfocused group with little sympathy from anyone.

    Tangential from uber to be sure but their tactics seem to have gotten them a seat at the table.

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      Rob December 19, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      Uber has tens of $$millions in lawyers on ready.

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    redhippie December 19, 2014 at 8:58 am

    In other words…The city has three months to figure out how to get their cut from Uber a la Air B&B

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      meh December 19, 2014 at 9:06 am

      A la AirBNB means nada, since the number of AirBnB users who have complied with getting registered with the city is pretty close to zero.

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    JAT in Seattle December 19, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Uber corporate is counting its money with a rake while drivers scrape by. (bear in mind it was drivers facing massive fines, not the corporate officers in San Francisco and Amsterdam)

    What other regulated industry can I enter illegally and then bully local governments into allowing? Looks like there’s a lot of valuable timber in Forest Park – time to sharpen the chainsaw!

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    gutterbunnybikes December 19, 2014 at 10:03 am

    It’s all cool and new, but in the long run Uber and their competitors will will basically end up at the same service level of the existing taxi companies.

    People get frustrated over not getting immediate service, but this city isn’t a 24 hour town. Having driven a taxi in Portland awhile back, I can’t tell you how many hours at a time I spent waiting for a call while first up in some pretty “busy” zones.

    After a year or so in the business I relied less and less on dispatch and had my own personal customers (mostly bar tenders, strippers, and other service industry types that needed rides on a fairly set schedule) that directly called me, this was a much more constant business and better for me as well because at a certain point I wasn’t sitting for hours on end in some parking lot waiting for a call.

    And there is nothing keeping Uber drivers from doing this as well. At some point Uber will start loosing profits as their drivers start side stepping them and their cut on rides.

    The big problem that few ever bring up is that demand for ride services have a definite (couple hours a day -morning/evening rush hours and bar rush) peek times all usually centered in a couple areas of town. The rest of the time there is often nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing in the way of orders.

    The further you get from the city core, the less inherent demand there is as well, so many of the out laying areas quite frankly don’t have enough requests for services to make it worth while to work. Who would work in say Hillsboro where dispatch might get 3 calls a night – two of which are grocery store calls (usually a couple blocks, and lots of loading/unloading time).

    The problems with on demand ride services isn’t so much a problem of the industry, but the fact that this city doesn’t have enough demand for the services to make the industry as a whole particularly profitable for the drivers. And in the end , Uber and the like will fall prey to this very real industry wide problem here too. Though it won’t be Uber that suffers, it will be the drivers that take the hit.

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      Oliver December 19, 2014 at 11:50 am

      I think that as soon as someone here realizes that UBER charges $30 a mile during exactly the hours that people are complaining they can’t get taxis, people are going to realize that they didn’t really want what they are asking for.

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      Alex Reed December 19, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      I think the demand depends on the prices and level of service. In Portland, those are both very bad compared to other cities I’ve lived in. I wouldn’t be surprised if miles traveled by for-hire vehicles doubled if the City opts for on regulations truly open to Lyft-style transport (i.e. no cap on # of vehicles, City does not set prices. Insurance, disability access, all those other things are reasonable to regulate).

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        gutterbunnybikes December 19, 2014 at 7:12 pm

        Go try working for a taxi company for a few nights and come back to me. They’re (Radio and Broadway anyway) always hiring, why….becuase it’s really freaking hard to make any money in on demand driving services. And it’s probably worse now than when I left with Smart car and the likes.

        You’re level of service depends largely on where you live. Like I said the level of service in say city center is much better than say in the Burbs or outlaying areas in town, because this city as a whole doesn’t have the demand for these services except in a few core areas.

        And mind you the competition out there is fierce even between drivers within the same company. People call the company then flag down the next cab driving by. Few drivers would call out of a zone (which they are suppose to do) on a flag call to preserve their place in line for orders.

        Anyone that thinks it’s easy money should really try it. I drove nights for nearly 6 years, and Taxi Cab Confessions barely tips the scale on what goes on out there. If there was any money in it, I’d still be doing it. It was dangerous, and crazy, and a lot of fun too. And unlike the cops or EMT’s I was saving lives nearly every night before it was too late.

        But in the end by the time I paid for the gas, the Kitty (cab company fees), there were nights that after a 12 hour shift I was lucky if I had $50.00 in my pocket. Set aside the fact you drove enough miles to need an oi change every two or three weeks, and other expenses. You do the math.

        Quite frankly most the time I worked in the cab I was sitting either downtown on a hotel stand, or in a parking lot waiting for the next ride. I never did like the airport stand, where the wait times are often even worse, and you can’t leave the line.

        Have things changed since I left – sure. But I left the same time shuttle services were expanded, Town cars were let loose, and two burb taxi (Green and Sassy) companies were allowed to pick up in Portland. There have always been plenty of options and drivers on the streets. The problem once again is there isn’t enough riders.

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          Alex Reed December 20, 2014 at 5:25 am

          Not saying drivers are cleaning up, they’re clearly not ($6.22 an hour per the City). I am saying the cab companies are absurdly inefficient and must give their drivers a rotten deal. In the DC area – which albeit bigger, is absurdly sprawly so I think comparable- per mile prices were less, drivers were happier and more prosperous from my anecdotal talks with them, cars were always clean ish, and no-shows were unheard of.

          I think the no-shows keep ridership way down here. What’s the point of calling a cab if the companies are so incompetent that they can’t even feed riders to their drivers reliably? People use other options instead.

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          • John Liu
            John Liu December 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm

            Radio Cab drivers make double that, per the city’s study. Still not a lot but better. They have a large fleet (so costs like dispatch get spread over more cars, reducing the kitty burden per car) and are employee owned (so most of the drivers are actually the owners of the company, not just disposable people to be exploited).

            Maybe the city should change its taxi regulations to require taxi companies to be employee owned, to limit the kitty, to encourage small companies to combine.

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          Alejandro Savransky December 24, 2014 at 1:18 pm

          I think you bring up good points about the taxi industry’s struggles. One point I’ll make: you’re assuming the pie of potential customers is fixed. Uber’s biggest advantage is that is can easily reach anyone with a smartphone. Many of these people would never even think of calling a cab, but they will now that Uber, and companies like it, are an option.

          Thus, I’m not sure if your prediction that “Uber and the like will fall prey to this very real industry wide problem here” will actually materialize.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu December 19, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    Three month seems too short a time for the city to make new regulations. I think they should have agreed to six or twelve. Was the city so worried it wouldn’t be able to convince a court that Uber is a ride for hire service?

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