WHEN SUE STAHL reserves a ride with a local taxi company, she often waits hours for pickup.
Dependent on a rolling walker/wheelchair to help her get around, Stahl calls for one of Portland's limited supply of vehicles compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For Stahl and other Portlanders reliant on the specialty fleet, patience is a must.
"It's not uncommon to see wait times between two and four hours," says Beth Kaye, coordinator for the city's Disability Equity Program. "It's unbelievable. It's second-class service."
This has been the case for years. But now, as Uber and other so-called "transportation network companies" prepare to enter Portland—bringing with them concerns over handicapped accessibility—the city's finally paying attention.
Stahl is a member of Portland's Private For-Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force—a stakeholder group convened by Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick to review and evaluate regulations for cabs and incoming companies like Uber.
Portland City Code currently requires that 20 percent of cab companies' vehicles offer storage for wheelchairs, and comply with other standards for accessibility set by the ADA. At a moment when cabbies are insisting Uber and others play by the rules, that's a potential sticking point: Since Uber doesn't have a fleet of its own to regulate, it may be impossible to make the same requirement.
As part of its work, the task force is brainstorming options to avoid giving ride-share drivers an unfair competitive advantage by not paying for expensive ADA-compliant vans. And at a March 19 meeting, the group tossed around a possibility that would allow Uber to essentially hand off code requirements: Ride-share drivers could opt to contract with companies that own ADA-accessible vehicles, passing riders along to them.
It's potentially a start, but Stahl says it isn't enough.
"We're talking about basic civil rights here," she said at the meeting, in an admonition that got audience applause. "With all due respect, we're doing 20 percent now and it's not working... this is a huge issue with the community, with transportation, and with society."
Long wait times are an old problem, says Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman for Novick's office. He says the 20 percent requirement is an imperfect solution.
"We've known since 2012, when we did a study of for-hire transportation in Portland, that there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed," Hockaday says. "The 20 percent, from everything I know to be true, is a pretty arbitrary number."
Stahl says it's "time to change our way of thinking and start focusing on response times."
At the meeting, she introduced a new report issued by Lewis and Clark Law School students who studied more than 100 jurisdictions that are either already regulating, or considering how to regulate, web-based services that connect drivers with fares—like Uber.
The report suggests allowing taxi and ride-share companies a 24-month period to determine and correct the disparity in response times between non-handicap and handicap ride requests. If any company fails, the group suggests the city yank its business license.
"We propose a heavy penalty for non-compliance: a 12-month suspension of the offending company's license to operate in the city," the report says. "License suspension is a more effective enforcement mechanism than a financial penalty that may incentivize larger and more financially secure companies to 'pay-away' their offenses."
The report also suggests allowing ride-sharing companies to contract with existing companies that already own ADA-accessible vehicles—something cabbies oppose.
Wynde Dyer, a driver with Green Transportation, worries that the ride-share companies would get an unfair advantage by not having to invest in expensive specialty vehicles, and by saving money on gas by operating only economy cars.
"It's a federal regulation," she said. "How would it be if someone opened up a new restaurant downtown and said, 'I don't want to put in wheelchair ramps, but I'll pay this other restaurant owner some money and they can go there'?"
For now, answers are months off. Uber has agreed to stay out of Portland until April, and the task force is scrambling to make some decisions before they take to city streets. Those initial recommendations won't solve the ADA inequity. Hockaday says the committee plans to arrive at an answer by July.