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Portland lays groundwork to regulate Uber, Lyft

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Pilot program may allow test of new taxi model here.


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Dozens of off-duty taxis packed Pioneer Courthouse Square to protest Uber at a Jan. 13 demonstration.The city of Portland is laying the groundwork to legalize and regulate Uber, Lyft and other new-style taxi services.

The Portland City Council amended the city’s taxi regulations Thursday to include a new category of companies called Transportation Network Services. That’s the city’s preferred term for Uber and Lyft, which enable citizens to turn their cars into taxis and allow customers to “hail” rides by dialing their smartphones.

City Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees transportation-related services, said city officials believe they already had the legal authority to regulate Uber and Lyft, but wanted to change the city ordinance to leave no doubt.

The amended ordinance requires those who operate or drive for Transportation Network Services to obtain a city permit before providing rides. The ordinance doesn’t specify which regulations such companies must meet.

The debate over Uber and Lyft moves to the next phase on April 9, when the City Council hears preliminary ideas from a citizen task force asked to make suggestions on how the city might accommodate the new taxi services.

Shortly after that, the city expects to launch a pilot program for Transportation Network Services to operate legally in the city, said Bryan Hockaday, Novick’s policy adviser for taxi issues.

The city now caps the number of taxis that can legally roam Portland streets and fixes their prices. The city also conducts background checks on drivers, requires them to carry commercial-level insurance, and requires that at least one-fifth of each taxi fleet be equipped to accommodate people in wheelchairs, so that disabled people are not stranded.

The freewheeling Uber/Lyft model is sharply at odds with that regulatory scheme.

Uber started serving Portland last year but suspended operations after being sued by the city for not following existing taxi regulations.

The San Francisco-based company has threatened to begin offering rides in Portland again as of April 9. However, the city is in discussions with Uber and the existing taxi companies, Hockaday said. It’s possible that Uber will agree to participate in the pilot project, under the city’s terms.

Lyft has said it will wait to see what regulations the council adopts before deciding on whether to enter the Portland market.

Novick has hinted the city might reconsider its price-setting policy and limits on the number of cabs. That may be what the city has in mind for the pilot project, to test the impact on the overall taxi market.

Novick, Mayor Charlie Hales and traditional taxi drivers have stated they don’t think Uber and Lyft should be treated differently from existing taxi companies.

However, Novick said Thursday that he doesn’t think Uber could comply with the wheelchair-access rules, and he tossed out a possible alternative: charging the company a fee in lieu of that requirement, with funds used to provide other handicapped-access services.

The Transportation Fairness Alliance, a coalition of six of Portland's traditional taxi companies, released a statement Friday complaining they aren't getting the same access as Uber to city officials.

"We are not opposed to competition nor new technology," they stated. "We are hindered, however, by our inability to sit down and discuss problems and options with the two City Council members who are spearheading the effort — Mayor Hales and Commissioner Novick. This is despite Commissioner Novick's admission that they are negotiating directly with Uber.

At Thursday's council meeting, Commissioner Nick Fish said he’s concerned that current taxis must provide service to anyone who calls, even when it’s not going to generate a profit. That’s in contrast, he said, to “people inclined to cherry-pick which rides they would take,” an apparent reference to Uber.

The city's Private For Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force, led by veteran retired state manager Mike Greenfield, expects to keep meeting after April 9, Hockaday said, and devise more formal recommendations this summer.

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@SteveLawTrib

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@SteveLawTrib