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Portland, tear down this wall

In November, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Gresham and Tigard welcomed ride-sharing juggernaut Uber to operate legally in their cities.

Conspicuously absent from this list was the region’s largest city, Portland, which became virtually surrounded by the smartphone app transit economy. Then, on the evening of Dec. 5, Uber began operating without permission in Portland — in effect daring the authorities to stop it.

If Soviet East Berlin couldn’t keep Western freedom out by building its infamous wall, what chance does Portland have keeping its residents from exercising their freedom to choose ridesharing within arbitrary lines on a map?

Until now, most major cities have granted virtual monopolies to a few taxicab companies on the assumption that government must protect the livelihoods of drivers and the safety and convenience of passengers within their jurisdictions. In this case, the taxicab companies end up influencing government regulators to protect them from competition at the expense of the public.

The new app economy has sprung up over a few short years, thanks to the creativity and productivity unleashed after another “Berlin Wall” was torn down: The mandated breakup of the government-protected monopoly Bell Telephone System in 1982, and the rise of the Internet a few years later, led to the smartphones we all hold in our hands today. Going from no mobile applications in 2007, some 2 billion people worldwide now use them to improve their lives.

Uber requires that drivers pass background checks, carry the proper insurance, own relatively new cars, etc. The beauty of ridesharing apps is that they can let drivers and passengers know something about who they’re riding with through instant feedback on the app. You can see your driver’s name, photo, car, license plate number and rating by other passengers before ever getting into his or her car. Likewise, the driver can know your name and reputation assigned by your previous Uber drivers. Such feedback encourages everyone to be on their best behavior.

Uber requires that you pay with a previously enrolled credit card. No cash changes hands in the car, which may mean speedier and safer transactions. And, before ordering a ride, the app can estimate the cost of your trip — often lower than a taxi — and how many minutes it will be before your car arrives. Note that nothing stops current taxicab companies from doing these same things.

Beyond opening up transportation options for the public, ridesharing companies open up income-generating opportunities for car owners. In a truly free economy, we should celebrate the technological innovation that allows people with cars to make money by giving rides to people who want them.

In city after city, people recognize the benefits of allowing ridesharing companies to operate. Rather than imposing anachronistic regulations on ridesharing companies, remove them from the taxi industry and let everyone earn a living by offering customers more and better service.

It’s time for Portland to live up to its hype and let young (and not so young) creatives do what they do best — create services the rest of us want. It’s time to legalize transit freedom and bring us out of the Transportation Dark Ages. 

Steve Buckstein is founder and senior policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute.

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