Officials want more time to consider allowing mobile apps linking riders, drivers

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Eric Hansen drives around downtown Vancouver, Wash., on a Friday afternoon to demonstrate the experience he provides to riders as an UberX driver. Mobile ride-hailing applications such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are getting rave reviews from users in cities across the globe. 

But Uber drivers are not navigating the streets of Portland just yet.

Portland is the largest U.S. city without the service, despite the company’s efforts to drum up public support here. Already the Uber Portland Twitter account has more than 1,600 followers — and people are talking. Just look up the hashtag #wewantuberpdx or #pdxneedsuber.

But for city officials, it is not as easy as hitting “follow” to voice their approval.

With just 460 taxicabs legally permitted by the city to provide rides for hire, and costly penalties in place for nonlaw-abiding drivers, Portland officials have opted to take their time to consider adding more competition into the mix. They could eventually allow, but not exclusively, companies like Uber to legally operate in the Rose City.

“This discussion has just started,” says Dylan Rivera, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, calling it an “opportunity to take a thoughtful look at our regulation.”

He emphasizes it will take months, not weeks.

While Rivera says change is not imminent, he thinks “it is highly likely (the city) can accommodate more competitors.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEFANIE DONAHUE - A smartphone screen shot shows information about an UberX ride through parts of Vancouver, including the drivers photo and type of vehicle.San Francisco’s Uber is just one of a handful of smartphone apps available on the market that connect users looking for a ride with company-authorized drivers in the area. In the past five years it has expanded to more than 90 cities in the United States, including Eugene, Salem and Vancouver, Wash.

Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick and Portland’s Private-for-Hire Transportation Board of Review are looking at the ridesharing services safety, customer service, disability access, limits on the number of permitted taxicabs and treatment of drivers.

At the end of the day, “everyone needs to play by the same rules,” Rivera says.

But Uber doesn’t want to wait months.

Current regulations do not keep to pace with innovation, says Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend. She says the company has worked with cities across the country to provide its services. Many cities, including some near Portland, are trying to determine the future and legality of Uber’s services. After months of public debate, the Seattle City Council voted last July to legalize Uber and similar applications to operate in the city with no caps on the number of drivers.

Within the Rose City

Uber representatives came to Portland’s Private-for-Hire Transportation Board of Review last September. They pointed to what they called barriers in the city code, which they said hindered operation of one of their high-end services called Uber Black that offers users a ride in an executive sedan, driven by a licensed chauffeur.

The company was critical of Portland’s executive sedan and limousine regulations that require a rider to make a reservation at least one hour in advance of the trip. They also wanted to see changes made to what qualifies as an executive sedan or limousine and their requirement to charge 35 percent above existing taxicab fare.

Frank Dufay, the city’s regulatory division manager and member of the Private-for-Hire Transportation Board of Review, says following Uber’s visit, the board voted unanimously to maintain existing regulations and nothing went to City Council.

The city has nothing against mobile applications, he says. However, Portland regulations implement “a very important model,” which is to serve everyone, he says. Portland cabs cannot legally refuse service and at least 20 percent of a fleet must be wheelchair accessible.

Uber only provides services to those with a credit card through their smartphone, Dufay says.

But Uber representatives say their services provide an alternative to taxis, including being able to reach underserved locations. Uber says they are a technology company rather than a transportation company, simply providing information and connecting drivers to the marketplace.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A Union Cab leaving the downtown Hilton Portland and Executive Tower is one of dozens of taxis that must have a city license to operate. Portland officials have moved slowly on allowing ridesharing programs because of city licensing requirements.

Local law

As city officials ponder what is next for the tech-savvy applications, Portland taxicab companies are trying to remind them that fairness is key.

“Taxicab regulations go way beyond safety,” says Raye Miles, president of Portland’s Broadway Cab. Regulating the taxi industry has not been about technology, she says, but instead about protecting and

supporting the values of the community.

However, Miles says it’s “a good conversation to have,” and she appreciates that the city is taking its time. In five to 10 years, she says, Portland will be ahead of the game because officials “slowed down enough to do it right.”

In Portland, all for-hire transportation companies and vehicles must acquire company, vehicle and driver permits from the Revenue Bureau’s Regulatory Division. Operating without a permit can lead to a $1,500 fine and up to six months in prison. Vehicles can be towed and impounded.  

Local companies also have little flexibility with price and number of taxicabs that can provide a legal for-hire service. In Portland, taxicabs cannot legally charge more than a $2.50 initial fee, $2.60 per mile and $1 per additional passenger. While increasing cabs on the road would help “meet supply and demand on the fly,” Miles says they just do not have that flexibility — noting that the city permitted an additional 78 taxicabs last year.

Unlike Portland cab companies, Uber adjusts its own fare and does not require UberX drivers to purchase commercial auto insurance or acquire a commercial license.

Uber’s more expensive services, including Uber Black, Uber SUV and Uber Taxi rides are commercially licensed and covered by commercial insurance policies. The company provides $1 million of liability coverage per incident. And while the company encourages UberX drivers to purchase liability, collision and health insurance, it is not required.

Because Uber says they are a technology company, drivers agree to take complete responsibility for the services provided. According to their terms and conditions, by using the application, passengers enter at their own risk.

But Behrend says features on the app, including estimated time of arrival and GPS services help ensure that the service is safe. Riders also receive the photo, name, rating and license plate number of the driver before arrival. Upon conclusion of the ride, both drivers and passengers rate one another to ensure safety and accountability for both parties.

“Uber is the safest ride on the road,” Behrend says.

A modernizing industry

Local taxicab companies have been tracking companies like Uber, and it’s been on Broadway Cab’s radar for about three years, Miles says.

To keep up, Portland-serving companies Radio Cab and Broadway Cab have partnered to create a mobile app that is similar to other ridesharing apps available. Their mobile app Taxi Magic has been available for years. Their latest upgrade, Curb, is available for download.

“They like to make it sound like we are using 30-year-old cars that are dispatched with smoke signals,” Miles says. “We are pretty technologically advanced.”

Radio Cab General Manager Steve Entler says there is one “major difference” between their application and others like Uber — it only contracts licensed taxicab drivers, rather than, what he calls, “any Joe-Shmoe with four wheels.”

“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” says Entler, who has been involved in the industry for 43 years and is a member of Portland’s Private-for-Hire Transportation Board of Review. These companies brand themselves as providing ridesharing services, but really, he says, “It’s a vehicle for-hire transportation.”

To allow another company to come in and grow, while Portland taxicabs continue to be regulated as they are now, is simply off-putting, Miles says. Ultimately, she wants parity.

Making up more than half of the permitted taxicabs on the road in Portland, Broadway has experienced its busiest year in a long time, and if her drivers were able to compete equally, where both companies had the same restrictions and opportunity, Miles says she has no doubt that Broadway “would fare very well.”

For Entler, keeping up with the times is important. That is why all Radio Cab cars now have card readers in the back, so instead of drivers swiping customer cards, they stay in passenger hands, he says.

The driver-owned company, he says, can provide “equally, if not better,” service than Uber, and similar companies, which means properly licensed, professional drivers and fully insured commercial vehicles with no disregard to public safety, he says.

Entler says his company has survived and has done well. He says Radio Cab is “going to beat them at their own game.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - UberX driver Eric Hansen says he can earn about $1,000 a week working full-time for the ridesharing company. He drives in Vancouver, Wash., and Clark County.

Meet Eric, your UberX driver

Fifty-eight-year-old UberX driver Eric Hansen pulled up on Eighth Street in downtown Vancouver, Wash., last week. He said hello with a grin and swiftly clicked opened the trunk of his 2007 Toyota Rav4 to expose a full cooler of bottled ice water and coffee.

It is a service he provides all of his customers, he says, “because it usually starts everything out with a smile.”

Hansen was introduced to Uber just five weeks ago and started operating as an UberX driver in Vancouver on its first day in early July. Since then, he has provided about 150 rides, signed up 30 drivers, and with the help of promotions, says he’s earned about $1,000 per week working full-time.

“I am just so taken with the company concept,” he says. “It’s a real industry.”

Ninety percent of Hansen’s drivers are business people, he says, and he already has regulars. He has given trips to passengers who come all the way from Paris and Dallas, Texas.

Anyone can do this, he says. From a college kid taking a study break to someone who wants to work full time, like himself. For anyone who wants to make some extra money, “it fits,” he says.

Despite Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Brent Boger’s recent memo evaluating the legality of Uber’s services in the city, drivers continue to operate.

So far, for Hansen, it is hard to sense a pattern in how many customers he is going to get in one day — some days its nine, the next 11 and sometimes one. He is retired and lives in Fisher’s Landing; before that he lived in Portland.

He has personal insurance on his car, and it was inspected by Midas prior to him gaining approval to drive. Uber picked up the cost of inspection, his smartphone and carjack, he says.

To help ensure safety, Uber drivers do not have to accept all rider requests, he says. And after a rider requests the service, the driver can contact them via text message or phone, but after the ride, their information is deleted, he says.

“I have seen a lot of trends over the years,” he says. “This is a new generation’s answer

to transportation, to the old system.”

Here's how Uber works

Uber is a mobile application that can be downloaded on a smartphone and is used to hail rides from nearby drivers

approved to operate through the company. Users make payments using a credit card or PayPal account through their phone at a rate established by Uber.

Uber is a ridesharing company and uses a completely different model than a taxicab company, says spokeswoman Eva Behrend. Drivers are not required to operate 24/7, and they use their own vehicle — in essence, they are their own small business, she says.

Drivers can work on their own time, whether that means a few hours on the weekends or 40 hours per week. A driver working full-time in Los Angeles, on average, makes $53,000 per year, and in San Francisco, an estimated $72,000, she says.

If applying in Vancouver, Wash., Salem or Eugene, drivers can provide service through UberX.

Individuals at least 21, with a personal license and personal auto insurance, a vehicle, either mid-size or full-size, with four doors and in excellent condition can become a driver following a successful background, driving record and vehicle inspection check.

Uber collects 20 percent of gathered fares and provides the driver with a smartphone. Fares vary based on location and demand. In nearby Vancouver, Wash., UberX has a minimum $6 fare, and charges $1.65 per mile and 35 cents per minute.

In June, the six-year-old company was valued at $17 billion.

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