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

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

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.”