THE "SHARING ECONOMY" that threw a monkey wrench into Portland's cab industry last December stands to get the green light to resume operations later this month. But will the rules placed on peer-to-peer ride-sharing services—like Uber and Lyft—be equitable for everyone?
As Portland City Council gears up to vote on rebuilt city code requirements for transportation network companies (TNCs) and cab services, civil-rights advocates and lobbyists for the taxi industry worry they're getting shortchanged.
On April 9, a task force will deliver to city council its final recommendations on rules to allow TNCs to operate in Portland. Commissioners are expected to enact some or all of those recommendations on April 15.
The basic proposal overhauls Portland's heavily regulated "private for-hire transportation" system: For an initial 120-day period (a pilot program, of sorts), the city would remove all regulations on the number of permits issued to cabs and TNCs like Uber. During this window, the task force suggests the city require TNCs and cabs collect and provide data on how customers are using their services in a less-regulated environment.
After the pilot period, the city could choose to reinstate permitting limits, or come up with new rules, says task force chair Mike Greenfield.
"We'll be able to learn more during this pilot program," Greenfield said at a Monday media briefing on the recommendations. "This is an opportunity for us to compare two business systems, so that in phase two we can come up with a more detailed regulatory structure."
Uber drove into Portland late last year without the city's permission—earning itself $67,750 in fines for operating without proper permits. The company paid those fines in late March, according to Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera.
Presumably, Uber made good on its debt to the city in preparation for later this month, when it plans to re-enter Portland lawfully. The ride-hailing giant voluntarily suspended service to allow the task force—convened by Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick in January—to take on the behemoth task of rejiggering city regulations.
The 12-member task force met 10 times over the course of four months, and as the April deadline loomed, members used the phrase "leave it up to staff" more and more when sussing out details.
At the same time, the group grappled with issues that have long plagued Portland's taxi market. Among them: equal access for disabled customers.
Sue Stahl, a task force member representing the Portland Commission on Disability, frequently mentioned the long hours disabled Portlanders spend waiting for cabs because there aren't enough ADA-accessible vehicles available. Portland cab companies are required to have a certain number of wheelchair-accommodating vehicles on duty, but companies like Uber and Lyft—which don't own the cars they access for ride shares—have said such a requirement doesn't fit their business model.
It's one of the toughest questions facing the city as it tries to integrate Uber and others, but it won't be solved at the April 9 council hearing. Instead, the task force anticipates making a recommendation on ADA accessibility later this year.
TNCs in some cities contract with companies that already own specialty vehicles (something Portland is also considering). In cities like Seattle, TNCs are required to pay a 10-cent surcharge per ride to the city; the collected funds are earmarked for equal accessibility. But cab companies say that isn't fair, and disability rights advocates worry separate won't mean equal.
In Portland, the task force's proposal recommends merely requiring cab companies and TNCs to collect data during the four-month pilot period.
That lack of meaningful action has led to criticism from researchers at Lewis & Clark Law School.
"The initial task force plan fails to impose a duty on TNCs to provide wheelchair access and it subjects persons reliant upon wheelchair access to even less service capacity while the city proposes to 'study' a relatively simple, longstanding, and well-known issue," wrote Michael Schultz and Thomas Walsh, members of a group from Lewis & Clark that studied TNCs in more than 100 jurisdictions.
The group developed a plan, which Stahl introduced to the task force as the Portland Equal Access Plan. It suggests imposing a standard for acceptable service rather than a requirement for how many ADA-accessible vans a company must have. The task force implemented some of the group's suggestions into its proposal.
For their part, the TNCs revving their engines in anticipation of getting back on Portland streets say they're committed to providing equal access to all riders, and that they aren't gunning to take away business from traditional cab companies.
"Access for all Portlanders to transportation options is a longstanding issue, and we want to be a partner in determining how to find a solution," said Uber spokeswoman Kate Downen. "Getting more data is crucial to finding out how to increase accessibility, and we are committed to being a part of that process."
Chelsea Wilson, a spokeswoman for Lyft—which is also waiting to cruise into Portland—echoed Downen's statement.
"Lyft was founded with the goal of expanding transportation access and mobility for all," she said.
"We look forward to working with the city to ensure that all Portland residents have access to reliable rides."
But advocates for people with disabilities and lobbyists for the taxi industry claim the ride-sharing companies are more like an exclusive club, choosing customers and flouting rules.
"The playing field isn't fair at this point, and it's not going to be if [TNCs] are able to cherry pick their fares," said Raye Miles, president of Broadway Cab. "It's just been a constantly changing landscape [since December], so we've all been scrambling. And it's hard to get our arms around how we'll compete."