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Taxi drivers give earful to City Council about impact of deregulation

Out with the old taxi workers, in with the new.

That’s the apparent impact of Portland’s move to deregulate its taxi industry, at least according to much of the testimony delivered to the Portland City Council on Wednesday afternoon in a three-and-a-half-hour hearing.

A string of veteran taxi drivers said their income had been slashed 30 to 50 percent since late-April, when the city allowed Uber and Lyft and their low-cost, do-it-yourself taxi network into the once heavily regulated Portland taxi market for a four-month pilot project. An equal number of Uber and Lyft drivers who are new to the field testified that they’ve found lucrative and enjoyable new work when they had little, and are quite happy with the money they’re making since turning their personal cars into taxis hailed via smartphones.

City Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees transportation and is leading the charge to deregulate the taxi industry here, said the city’s experiment seems to be paying off, at least for some.

“It seems to be working pretty well for consumers,” Novick said at the onset of Wednesday’s hearing. “I want to have more information about the impact on and welfare of drivers.”

Then he got an earful on that subject — glowing reports from Uber and Lyft drivers and angry complaints from traditional taxi drivers.

Jeanette, a Radio Cab taxi driver who declined to give her last name, said she’s considering applying for food stamps because of reduced income. To cut her living expenses, she's now living with three other adults in a one-bedroom home.

Heather Dunn, in contrast, said she was able to get off of food stamps after landing a driving job with Uber.

Raye Miles, president of Broadway Cab, said her company’s ridership in June was down 30 percent from the prior year.

Brooke Steger, Uber’s Northwest general manager, said her drivers in Portland are taking home close to $20 an hour on average.

One of those drivers, David Holmquist, said he made $885 last week and is averaging $23 an hour the first two months of his new job.

Jan Weston, who’s driving for both Uber and Lyft, said he’s making around $35 an hour.

But some taxi drivers said they are seeing some Uber and Lyft drivers violate the rules and try to pick off passengers at hotel stands, which are reserved for regular taxi companies under the pilot project.

Wynde Dyer, a Green Cab driver, urged the City Council to reinstate some sort of cap on the number of taxi drivers after the four-month pilot is done.

“I understand taxi drivers have taken a hit,” Novick said at the close of the hearing. “I think a lesson that I get from this session is how hard things are for working people in this economy.”

Even Weston, who’s doing quite well driving for Uber and Lyft, expressed sympathy for longtime taxi drivers after hearing how they’ve been affected.

“My biggest concern is there’s something going on here that is not working well for the cab drivers,” Weston said. He called for the city to establish a “level playing field.”

That could be a huge challenge for the city. Uber and Lyft drivers have relatively little cost to enter the market, and their use of smart phones appears far cheaper than traditional taxi dispatch systems. Regular taxi companies also are burdened by past city caps on the number of vehicles they could provide and limits on what they can charge customers. The cab companies also have plenty of fixed costs not borne by Uber and Lift, including city requirements to paint and detail their cars, install a video camera in every vehicle, and fit 20 percent of their fleets with wheelchair lifts.

The pilot program will last another two months. Then the City Council will take up the issue in August of how to regulate — or not — the taxi industry into the future.