By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor
Kedir Wako never imagined he’d one day share a stage with Broadway Cab general manager Raye Miles at a Pioneer Courthouse Square political rally. Wako was a leading member of a group of Broadway Cab drivers who protested exploitive conditions, formed a driver self-help association, and ultimately broke away to form a new union-affiliated cab co-op. Now Wako is president of that co-op, Union Cab. But on Jan. 13, Wako put aside bygones for a common cause: Getting the City of Portland to insist that companies like Uber play by the same rules as the taxi companies they compete with.
Portland, like many other cities, regulates taxi rates, caps the number of vehicles, and requires driver background checks, vehicle inspections and proof of insurance, among other rules. But on Dec. 5, Uber launched its app-based ride service in Portland in violation of those regulations. Two weeks later, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced the City would propose a new set of taxi rules by April 9 that would allow companies like Uber to operate legally. And Uber announced it would suspend its service until then.
The City has a long-established volunteer citizen review board known as the Private For-Hire Transportation Board of Review. The board includes an elected taxi driver representative, a taxi industry representative, a disability advocate, an airport representative, a tourism official, and others. But instead of turning to that board, which has decades of collective experience with taxi rules, Hales and City Commissioner Steve Novick appointed a brand-new Private For-Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force, with no representative from taxi drivers or companies, and no real familiarity with the industry.
We don’t usually in the context of American capitalism regulate rates and limit entry into markets.” — City of Portland Commissioner Steve Novick
“We welcome competition, as long as everyone plays by the same rules,” Radio Cab superintendent Noah Ernst told rally participants. Despite the current cap on the number of City permits (460), Ernst said the industry is quite competitive. Existing companies and would-be competitors have applied for over 100 additional permits, only to encounter a protracted and perplexing decision process by city bureaucrats.
“We are as frustrated as anybody when you can’t get a cab at peak hours,” Ernst said.
The day after the rally, members of the new task force met for the first time for an orientation led by City officials and taxi regulators. The 12-member task force includes representatives from the Portland Business Alliance, the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, and a software and technology trade association, as well as a night club owner, an insurance consultant, and disability, environmental and immigrants rights advocates.
“We don’t usually in the context of American capitalism regulate rates and limit entry into markets,” Novick, who is in charge of the Bureau of Transportation, told the group. So, Novick said, the task force should consider whether or not the City should continue to do those things.
The task force heard a presentation from taxi companies Feb. 4, and will hear from taxi drivers Feb. 10, from “transportation network companies” like Uber on Feb. 19, and from the public on Feb. 25. In March, they’ll work to come up with regulations, which would be presented to City Council April 9.