Union Cab Members Pack City Hall

After more than four years of effort, members of the cabbie-run start-up Union Cab Cooperative finally got the thumbs up they needed from city hall: Yesterday, November 7, Mayor Sam Adams and Portland City Council approved the creation of a new cab company and added new permits to Portland's taxi fleet for the first time in over a decade.

The decision increases Portland's taxi fleet by 35 percent to 514 cabs and grants the cooperative Union Cab 50 permits to get their business started.

Correction, Nov 9, 11:40: The decision is part of a larger plan on the city’s part to increase Portland’s taxi fleet by 35 percent to 514 cabs. So far only Union Cab’s 50 permits have been approved. The Private for Hire Board, which regulates cab permits, plans to vote on whether to add an additional 28 cabs for three existing Portland cab companies at its December 12 meeting. And tentatively plans to add the 54 remaining permits following an assessment on the economic impacts of the new permits after one year.

The process to allow new taxis in Portland has been surprisingly controversial and has divided the city's roughly 900 drivers. During yesterday’s council meeting, wearing orange t-shirts and buttons displaying their new company’s name, members of Union Cab and their families packed the council chambers in anticipation of the city’s decision. Following over two hours of public testimony, Mayor Adams and council unanimously rubber-stamped the new company and—breaking from the normal rules about keeping quiet in the council chambers—Adams let the gathered crowd clap and cheer when the permits were approved. These permits will be phased in over the next three years, with a promise by the city to study whether the new permits are helping or hurting the city’s drivers. But, as we reported earlier, not every cab driver is happy with Union Cab and the city's plans to add 132 new permits to the city.

The lead critic of the new permits is Portland cab driver Red Diamond. At yesterday’s meeting, Diamond testified that he felt the 35 percent increase would “over-saturate the market,” making it harder for him and other cab drivers to earn a living. To bolster his argument, Diamond submitted a petition to the council signed by 300 Portland cab drivers concerned about the increase. And, true to an earlier statement he made to the Mercury about taking legal action, Diamond has lawyered up.

Diamond is getting legal help from the law firm Dolan and Griggs. At yesterday’s meeting, lawyer Martin Dolan testified alongside Diamond that the city broke its own rules by not giving the drivers enough time to adequately respond to the proposed new permits. Dolan’s argument for Diamond gets a little wonky, but basically it says that drivers were denied due process because the city did not follow correct steps to notify drivers of the proposed permit process.

But Portland's City Attorney says the city followed the right steps and is in the clear, so Diamond’s effort to hardball the council with legal arguments didn't get much traction yesterday. Despite the unanimous sign-off on the permits, Diamond says he will continue pursuing the city on legal grounds.

Saddened by the approval of the new cabs, Diamond told the Mercury he’s seriously considering leaving Portland and heading north to his cabin near Olympia, Washington. “I’ll be around for maybe ten weeks,” said Diamond, “I don’t know when the new cabs will hit the streets, but, like I said, my lease is up at the end of January.”

Now the big question becomes whether in fact the new permits will indeed make things harder for Portland’s 900 cab drivers. The controversy Diamond stirred up revolves around data collected by the city showing that Portland has far fewer taxis per person than other comparable cities (see the graph below). Diamond has claimed the Revenue Bureau, which performed the study, cherry-picked these stats to argue its case for more permits. This most likely isn’t true, given that most of the cities on the Bureau’s list are the same cities the city auditor compares Portland to time and time again. But Diamond’s seed of doubt found fertile soil in at least one city commissioner’s mind.

Portlands taxis compared to other cities
  • Portland's taxis compared to other cities

During yesterday’s meeting, Commissioner Dan Saltzman went on the record saying, “I support these changes, but I do have a nagging concern about market saturation.”

In September, Saltzman also expressed that same concerns about taxi market saturation in a letter to the Private for Hire Transportation Board which, along with the Revenue Bureau, regulates the city’s taxi permits. Saltzman’s letter says Portland has a unique public transportation system that isn’t comparable to other cities.

Mayor Adams, a staunch supporter of taxi reforms and Union Cab, took pains to rally against the we-don't-need-more-taxis argument during Wednesday’s meeting.

But while Saltzman's letter expressed concerns about making an “apples to apples comparison” with other cities, to his credit, Saltzman did not attack Union Cab. He even suggested the new company receive its permits before the existing taxi companies receive theirs, a suggestion the Private for Hire Transportation Board is now following.

This kind of subtlety is something Diamond's campaign has sorely lacked in its attack on the new permits. In fact Diamond, who represents all the city’s drivers on the Private for Hire Transportation Board, has gone out of his way to vilify Union Cab as a group of outsiders eager to take jobs away from Portland drivers. That led to a backlash of Union Cab supporters saying Diamond was staging a covert racist attack on the co-op’s largely Ethiopian membership. And this—as well as Diamond’s lukewarm support for a series of arguably commendable reforms of Portland’s cab industry (also passed at yesterday’s meeting)—could be why Diamond and his arguments haven’t managed to catch the ear of city hall.

So when will the new cabs hit the streets? Looks like this winter.

“You will see us soon on the road,” says Union Cab chairman and Ethiopian immigrant Kedir Wako, “I would say at a minimum at the end of February.” Wako told the Mercury that he and the other 49 drivers are currently looking for a place to set up shop. Wako says he hopes very soon to start hiring workers to run the company’s dispatch service. “This is a country where if you work hard you can achieve whatever you want. I’m glad to be in the United States.”