Portland City Hall vs. Ride-sharing: The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

by Tom Dale

Last Friday, Uber started operating in Portland despite the city government’s stance that ride-sharing services remain illegal.

One of the loudest voices of fear, uncertainty and doubt coming out of City Hall about Uber has been Steve Novick. Mr. Novick is a City Commissioner, and, unfortunately, in charge of the transportation board here.

Let me start by acknowledging that Uber does not make a compelling victim. Their take-no-prisoners attitude serves them well when dealing with local bureaucrats in the pockets of special interests like Mr. Novick, but it can also manifest in much more sinister ways.

But this isn’t about Uber. It’s just as much about other services like Lyft, Sidecar, etc. More importantly, it’s about the right of Portland residents to have a choice in who provides their transportation. Uber happens to be fighting the fight, so it’s inevitable that the unsavoriness of that company becomes part of the conversation, but from my perspective this battle is about unshackling Portland from its antiquated and corrupt taxi system.

Mr. Novick’s feigned outrage that Uber has started operating without government say-so is made all the more hilarious by his assertion that, had they just been a little more patient, the regulations would have been updated to accommodate them.

“We have told Uber and Lyft that they are welcome to offer ideas for regulatory changes. Uber has chosen instead to break the law,” Mr. Novick is quoted as saying.

Mr. Novick, and Mayor Hales, the onus is on you to fix the regulations, not the people you are regulating. And you’ve had plenty of time. I’ve been using Uber in San Francisco since 2010; these services did not suddenly take you by surprise. I travel frequently and Portland is the only city where I can’t rely on Lyft or Uber to get a reliable ride.

“It’s difficult to understand why Portland is now the largest city in the country where ride sharing companies are not able to operate,” said over 40 local restaurant, bar, and hotel owners in a letter to City Hall, “At Feast Portland this year, the number one complaint among the 12,000 attendees from 50 different states and provinces was, ‘lack of reliable taxi service.’”

Cities that value the needs of their citizens over preserving taxi monopolies have already found ways to adjust regulations to protect riders while still offering them the convenience, availability, and reliability of phone-hailed car services.

In New York City, for example, drivers must have a special driver’s license, licensed vehicle, and insurance. If your concern is actually about the welfare of passengers and not just protecting your taxi company cronies, it turns out there are solutions that don’t involve wholesale bans.

While Mr. Novick claims this is about safety, I have never felt unsafe in an Uber or a Lyft. I have had some very sketchy taxi rides, including one where the cabbie nearly got out and engaged in a fist fight with another driver.

The taxi regulation in Portland is a disaster, with demand far exceeding supply on weekends. The number of cabs is capped at 460, or approximately one taxi for every 1,269 people. (Seattle’s ratio is about one taxi per 890 people; San Francisco, one per 533.)

There is a reason every other major city has welcomed these services. Being able to reliably call for a car, even on busy nights, reduces drunk driving, means fewer cars on the road, and improves access to underserved communities.

Mr. Novick says he’s going to throw the book at drivers, impounding the cars of hard-working Americans who are looking to make a little extra cash doing what Americans do best: responding to market demand.

Let him. Once Portland residents get a taste for how transformative services like Uber and Lyft can be, they’ll find it hard to stomach the image of authoritative thugs putting their boot down on middle-class Americans trying to make a buck, all because unions happen to be Mr. Novick’s biggest donors.

Oh, did I mention that Mr. Novick is in the pocket of the Oregon AFL-CIO? Forget all the blustering about doing what’s best for Portland residents; it’s just theater to please his union masters and protect his political base.

While I wish City Hall had had the foresight to deal with this before it became a legal battle, I’m grateful that, in the story of Portland vs. ride-sharing, we have someone coming out looking like a bigger villain than Uber.