ROUGHLY TWO YEARS ago, Amanda Fritz was irate.
As Portland City Council cast the 3-2 vote that would allow companies like Uber into Portland, the city commissioner compared her colleagues to “the Republican-dominated Congress in Washington, DC” and stopped herself from using what she called “an emphatic swear word.” Fritz didn’t think the new regulations council was passing—hammered out after months of tense debate—were strong enough to rein in a business model she believes treats human life callously.
“This is one of the saddest votes I have cast in almost seven years in office,” Fritz said at the time. Now, it looks like she might be primed for a happier vote.
As Uber’s permit with the City of Portland nears expiration, city council is signaling a willingness to more severely regulate it and other so-called transportation network companies (TNCs). And with two avowed enemies on the council in Fritz and Commissioner Nick Fish—and two new councilmembers open to dropping the hammer—Uber’s future in Portland might not be guaranteed.
As Fritz tells the Mercury: “I think it’s in the public interest to make Uber go away.”
The council most recently aired its gripes about Uber in an executive session last week. Those sessions aren’t public and, though members of the media are allowed to attend, can’t be reported on. Following the meeting, though, Fritz, Fish, and Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office all described a conversation about whether TNCs—and particularly Uber—should be more strictly regulated. Officials say the company has been a persistent bad actor.
“If we renew their permit, I think we should put them on probation,” Fish said. He described “broad support” among his colleagues for taking a “harder line” with the ride-share company.
Fritz—who refuses to use TNCs and believes they are dangerous and contribute to traffic congestion—is on board. Both Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly have been publicly critical of the company.
Interestingly, though, one voice was left out of the recent discussion. Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation, didn’t attend the executive session. He’s the lone remaining member of council to have voted to approve the current regulations, and he’s been described as skeptical that wide-ranging new regulations are necessary.
Uber’s relationship with the city has always been rocky. In December 2014, the company began operating in Portland without getting the permission of regulators. After about two weeks, it pulled back in the face of a lawsuit, creating space for a heated debate about what regulations TNCs would need to follow. Central to those discussions were questions about parity between taxi companies and TNCs—particularly with regard to insurance policies each would be required to carry.
The fight ended with the December 2015 vote that inspired Fritz’s fiery speech—and also established one of the more robust sets of regulations TNCs face anywhere in the country.
It might have ended there if not for a revelation earlier this year. In March, the New York Times reported that Uber had used a software tool called Greyball to foil Portland regulators during its weeks-long incursion in 2014.
The extent of the program’s use appears to have been minor. An audit released in April 2017 suggested Uber turned down 29 requests from 17 accounts flagged as possibly belonging to city regulators. There’s no evidence the company has used the tool to skirt regulation since reaching an accord with the city.
Still, the Greyball news put a fresh target on Uber, causing officials to subpoena records and launch an investigation. It didn’t help that Uber also unsuccessfully pushed a law in Salem this year that would have dismantled the city’s regulations.
“The Greyball playbook... and the conduct that they’ve acknowledged is way, way, way over the top,” Fish tells the Mercury. “It reflected a corporate culture that had utter disregard for the communities they were involved in.”
Both Fish and Fritz point out that London recently revoked Uber’s permits, finding that the company was not “fit and proper.”
Exactly what all this amounts to remains to be seen. There’s at least some notion of tying regulations to a renewal Uber is expected to seek when its current permit expires on January 31, though it’s unclear legislation could be passed in time. And without Saltzman’s support, some other councilmember will need to take the lead.
There are also lots of ideas for bolstering regulation.
Fish, still irked that the company wasn’t penalized for its Greyball scheme, speaks of a “one strike and you’re out” policy that could lead to revocation of Uber’s permit. He also wants explicit safeguards against the company using the tool again.
Fritz and Fish also bring up a suggestion that could be more meaningful: They want to require Uber to get the same insurance policies as cabbies.
Currently, TNC drivers have less insurance coverage when they are cruising around but haven’t accepted a request for a ride. Once they’re en route to a fare or transporting a passenger, their coverage kicks up to the same $1 million liability coverage taxi drivers have.
“They said if we required them to have proper insurance they would leave,” Fritz says of Uber. Uber’s competitor, Lyft, which city officials are inclined to look on more favorably (and which even Fish will use on occasion), would also be affected.
Other issues that could be brought up: security cameras in TNC vehicles, steeper fines, and a push to treat drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. The city’s cab companies, fierce opponents of the TNC industry, would certainly be supportive.
When asked by the Mercury about potential new regulations, Uber stuck to a perfunctory statement.
“We are unaware of any imminent private for-hire regulatory changes being considered by the city,” spokesperson Nathan Hambley said. “We would expect any new proposals to be thoroughly vetted by the PBOT private for-hire advisory committee.”
Of course, TNCs aren’t the only ones who might bristle at greater regulation. Uber and Lyft are popular in Portland, and credited with dramatically increasing the city’s “private-for-hire” transportation market, which also includes cabs.
Asked about the political fallout of limiting Portlanders’ choices, neither Fish nor Fritz blinked.
“If they choose not to operate in a safe manner,” Fritz says, “then it’s my responsibility to make them go away.”