STEVE ENTLER'S THUMBS went to work right away.
The general manager of Radio Cab had just looked on, agog, as the board that regulates Portland's taxi market decided to flood city streets with hundreds of new cabs in coming months. It was, in Entler's mind, a hasty decision—one he opposed as a voting member of the Private for-Hire Transportation Board of Review.
But the vote last Wednesday, February 11, also amounted to an opportunity: It gave Entler's company its first new taxi permits in years. He began texting.
"While we were still sitting there in the room, I was messaging the van order," Entler told the Mercury two days after the vote. "I'll have three new cabs next week."
It's a modest number, but at a telling speed. As ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft plot a re-entry into Portland in April, threatening to upend the way Portland's done business for decades, the city's long-cautious taxi industry is moving with unprecedented agility in hopes of holding its place in line.
"It was done in a 'kaboom' sort of fashion," says Raye Miles, president of Broadway Cab, which was awarded 30 new taxi permits in the board's vote. "[Broadway hasn't] had new permits since the '70s."
There are a lot of big questions wrapped up in the frenzy. For many Portlanders, though, one thing stands out: It's about to be a lot easier to get a cab in this city.
The dramatic shift embodied in the February 11 decision is hard to overstate. Quietly, and with only brief debate, two votes by the taxi board reversed decades of miserly regulation of cab permits.
With the first vote, the board injected 242 permits into the system—a more than 50 percent increase over the 460 cabs already allowed to prowl city streets. With the second, board members recommended the creation of an entirely new cab company, EcoCab, which wants to put a fleet of 51 electric taxis onto city streets in coming years. (Portland City Council still must agree.)
Both votes passed easily, but the speed and scope of the first met vocal opposition from two board members.
Entler told the taxi board it was acting in undue haste.
"The process before was to demonstrate there was need for the actual permits," he said. "You really need to see whether there's any support for these numbers that are thrown out there."
The second bit of naysaying came from Darin Campbell, another Radio Cab employee, tasked with representing drivers to the taxi board. Campbell's argument was familiar—it's been used in past attempts to create new companies or increase taxi permits. He thinks the increase will hurt drivers' livelihoods.
"If you did this to the taxi industry, it would kill a lot of day drivers' incomes and ability to make a living," Campbell said. "At night you're going to see a lot of relief, but this is just complete overkill."
Portland's taxi deficiencies are well known. While it's typically no trouble to get a cab in the middle of the day, there aren't nearly enough to go around on weekend nights, when demand is at its highest. A recent study of Portland and 10 comparable cities found the Rose City had fewer cabs per resident than nine of its peers.
"We haven't built a cab culture in this city," said Frank Dufay, the city's private-for-hire transportation manager, who was the driving force behind approval of the new permits. "We know there aren't enough vehicles out there."
But this rapid expansion is about more than correcting Portland's existing cab culture. It's aimed at bracing for an entirely new one.
Since the ride-hailing service Uber began operating illegally within city limits in December, officials have scrambled to adapt. So far, that's involved an unlikely victory, when city leaders persuaded Uber to suspend operations for several months while they rework regulations for cabs and similar services.
Then, in process-loving Portland fashion, a new "innovation task force" was convened to recommend changes by April.
The permit approvals are the most meaningful steps to date, and they're partly aimed at helping cab companies marshal enough resources to compete when Uber—and presumably similar companies—return as promised.
"It's a very uncertain economic environment right now for them," Dufay said of taxi companies, before the vote. "Maybe it's time to let them have the permits they asked for."
Those permits are here, but it will be a little while before your red-eyed Saturday night pleas are answered with haste. As part of its blessing, the taxi board is finally forcing each of Portland's seven cab companies to meet a requirement that one fifth of their fleet must accommodate wheelchairs.
No company currently meets that standard, and a few are more than 15 vehicles shy of the mark, meaning expensive acquisitions are on the horizon.
If Entler's thumbs are any indication, though, change—now that it's here—might be prompt.
"I have a lot of drivers waiting to work," says Tesfaye Aleme, a manager at Green Cab, which was granted a whopping 82 new permits in the recent vote. "I'm working with banks. I'm working with everybody."