AFTER DECADES of strict regulation, and months of jockeying among companies, the plan that will forever change the city's transportation landscape was a hurry-up effort of a couple of days.
Portland city commissioners met April 14 for an hours-long work session to pore over recommendations for how to introduce paradigm-shattering companies like Uber and Lyft to Portland streets.
Just three days later, exhausted aides to Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick announced a plan—a 120-day pilot project that had been bandied about since December, but which contained some interesting twists. The staffers had been working nonstop, they said, to get something before city council within a week.
"We wanted to live up to our end of the agreement that took place in December," said Josh Alpert, director of strategic initiatives in the mayor's office, referring to the city's commitment to allowing Uber and Lyft into Portland in April.
The urgency behind this controversial plan puts the Mercury in a tricky place. Commissioners scheduled a special hearing to discuss the changes on Tuesday evening—after our deadlines for the print issue, but before the paper hits the streets.
But while it's true that a lot can change at council hearings—especially one as fraught as this—the discussion has been ongoing for months. The basics feel safe, even if the nuances and timelines are subject to change.
So here's what we're pretty sure your ride-hailing future looks like, Portland. Get your smartphone ready.
• A (mostly) level playing field: Portland's taxicab companies have been bitter rivals in the past, but they've managed to walk in lockstep since Uber appeared on the horizon last year. The companies' main message: transportation network companies (TNCs) need to be subject to the same regulations as cabbies to create a fair fight.
They've sort of gotten that wish, though it's not quite as they hoped. Rather than lashing TNCs to the regulations cabbies have operated under for years, Hales and Novick want to do away with a bunch of rules for the next four months.
That means no limit on the number of cars that companies can put on the street, no limit on what companies can charge, and not even necessarily a limit on the number of cab companies there are.
There are regulations, too. Uber and Lyft, like cabs, have to run background checks on drivers and ensure employees pass city-mandated tests, like quizzes on map reading and Portland landmarks. But cabbies are furious at the way those hurdles would be cleared under Hales' and Novick's initial plan: The city would essentially trust TNCs to ensure drivers complied, rather than running a check of its own.
"We are giving Uber and Lyft in essence everything they want," said Radio Cab Superintendent Noah Ernst, as he waved signs with supporters outside of city hall hours before the council vote.
• Accessibility is a focus: Equal access for customers in wheelchairs wasn't supposed to be addressed until later this year, but city staffers, under pressure, decided to make it a hallmark of their proposal. Under the pilot project, as drafted, cab companies and TNCs will be held to benchmarks for how swiftly people in wheelchairs get cabs.
Ideally, wait times for those customers would eventually be no more than 10 minutes longer than for anyone else, though there's some wiggle room in the language. The benchmarks represent one way in which Portland's won meaningful concessions from Uber and Lyft, which don't have wheelchair-compatible fleets. The companies have pledged to contract with services that do.
Meanwhile, advocates who helped push accessibility to the forefront of the discussion say the new proposed rules don't go far enough.
"What the city of Portland has put out is very weak, weak wording," said Sue Stahl of the Portland Commission on Disability.
• Pioneering data-sharing agreements: An absolute of the pilot project are data-sharing agreements the city plans to reach with Uber, Lyft, and the cab companies. The specifics of those agreements aren't clear, but city staffers say the early commitments they've gotten from TNCs are groundbreaking, and will help the city analyze how the services are being used so permanent regulations can be hammered out.
• Uber at the airport: While the city has been mired in debate, the Port of Portland has been active around TNCs. Earlier this month, the nine-member port commission passed a resolution formally allowing Uber and Lyft to operate at the airport. That's contingent on city commissioners permitting the companies in Portland, and will become official May 9, says port spokeswoman Kama Simonds.
It won't be like getting a cab after landing. Under the city's draft rules, TNCs can only pick up a customer who's summoned them with an app. You can't legally hail an Uber with a wave of your hand anywhere in town, and it's the same at the airport.
Will TNCs comply with the new rules? Will cab companies be imperiled, and, as Commissioner Amanda Fritz suggested recently, will drivers lose their homes? We'll know in four months or so.
"It's possible we're not going to be able to get this just right," said Commissioner Nick Fish. "The question I have to ask on Tuesday is have we gone far enough?"