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Our Opinion: Uber, ride services must play by rules

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Exactly 100 years ago, unregulated drivers were picking up passengers in Portland and charging them a nickel for a ride across town.

Those jitney cabs sprang up in Portland without advance municipal preparation, and they operated for a short period of time with no government oversight. In many ways, their experience — as chronicled by reporter Steve Law in these pages last week — paralleled the current controversy over Uber and similar ride-renting services.

In both instances, a new technology threatened the transportation status quo in Portland. In 1915, it was the scattered emergence of the automobile as an alternative to streetcars. In 2015, it is the efficiency of a digital application — connecting a driver who has an empty back seat to a passenger in need of a lift — that has the potential to upend the taxi industry.

Also in each case, the city correctly concluded that local government has an obligation to ensure a budding enterprise complies with basic standards for safety and liability. In 1915, Portland approved regulations to govern jitney drivers. Those rules got tangled up in legal and political challenges, but they contributed to the demise of the jitney by requiring some basic protections.

Today, Portland again is confronted with the need to establish a legal framework for the operation of an upstart ride service. Uber entered the Portland market without approval, then pulled out after being sued by the city for not following existing taxi regulations. A task force convened by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick has developed recommendations for regulating private for-hire transportation, a phrase that now includes “transportation network” companies such as Uber and Lyft. The task force’s proposed regulations haven’t been adopted by the City Council as of this writing, but the group’s suggestions appear reasonable and responsible — as far as they go.

The new rules, being presented to the council on Thursday, April 9, would barely begin to level the playing field between traditional taxis and ride-renting companies. All vehicles and drivers would be required to meet minimum standards for insurance, inspections and criminal background checks. Drivers would be compelled to obtain city permits, which won’t be granted to people who lack insurance or who’ve had major criminal convictions in recent years.

The proposed rules also address issues of accessibility, although they fall short of requiring Uber and Lyft drivers to accommodate all passengers. In compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Portland dictates that taxi companies make a percentage of their cabs wheelchair accessible.

Freelance drivers for Uber and Lyft still won’t face the same requirements. They’ll only be asked to refer those customers to other companies.

In many ways, the proposed rules aren’t expansive enough to ensure fair competition between technology-based ride services and cabs. They are a start, however, toward enforcing responsible business behavior on an enterprise whose eventual presence in Portland is inevitable.

Proponents of new economic models like to view their innovations as the free market at work, but regulation of the taxi industry isn’t a case of excessive government intrusion. The rules exist for good reason — to make sure the public is protected and that businesses are open to all. It’s true that the regulations also have tended to protect taxis from competition. It would be unfair, however, for Portland to say one type of ride service can operate without oversight, while another must bear the expense of obtaining proper insurance, vetting its drivers, and providing transportation to everyone, regardless of their mobility.

As Portland learned 100 years ago, disruption can be exciting for a moment — after all, people initially were giddy about jitneys. But eventually, the hazards reveal themselves and rational rulemaking is required. Everyone who routinely offers a ride in return for money must be held to consistent standards. The city would be negligent to do anything less than that.