On a conference call with reporters Tuesday to discuss the hiring of expert campaigner David Plouffe, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick rattled off some impressive stats. Just four years after launching in San Francisco, his transportation company — which has raised $1.5 billion and is valued at $18 billion — is helping drivers earn money and passengers get around town in 170 cities worldwide across 43 countries.
But Uber is not operating in every big city just yet. One place Kalanick mentioned was Portland, Ore. — a city full of innovative transportation options that is the largest metro on the West Coast without Uber.
“There are a number of places we aren’t in because of their regulations that exist today,” Kalanick said.
While Uber has recently started to offer its service in Oregon cities like Salem and Eugene, in addition to nearby Vancouver, Wash. — where it’s operating illegally — the company has been cautious with Portland.
It made one official petition last September, when Uber head of global policy Corey Owens met with the city’s Private for-Hire Transportation Board of Review this past September and asked that Portland make changes to its city code. Uber wanted to remove two requirements: One that forces customers to arrange a trip with an executive sedan or limousine at least 60 minutes prior to pick-up, and another that requires executive sedans and limousines to charge a 35 percent fixed premium above current taxi rates established by the city.
But the Board unanimously rejected Uber’s requests to make the legal changes that the company said would allow it to operate its Uber Black luxury service effectively. In a blog post written nine days after he testified in front of the Board, Owens criticized Portland’s current regulations and likened them to government forcing Apple to make songs on iTunes cost a minimum of $3.50 or forcing Netflix to require customers to wait an hour before watching TV episodes.
“This laughable scenario is frighteningly real in the fight to revolutionize urban transportation,” Owens wrote.
Since then, Uber hasn’t made another formal pitch in the Rose City, nor has it launched without regard for the law like it has done in many other places. Both Lyft and Sidecar, two other similar transportation startups, tell GeekWire that they have strong interest in launching in Portland but have not made any serious moves to do so.
Meanwhile, city leaders don’t appear to be in a rush to let Uber and others conduct business in Portland. In an interview with GeekWire on Monday, City Commissioner Steve Novick said that solving the Uber issue is not as important for his office as tasks like fixing broken streets, preparing for an earthquake, and reducing unnecessary emergency room visits.
“This would fall into sort of a medium tier,” Novick said of the Uber problem. “But it’s still very interesting, and something we’re not going to forget.”
Novick, who recently began overseeing the city’s Private for-Hire Transportation Board of Review, isn’t necessarily against a company like Uber opening up shop in his town. But he has two main concerns: Having private for-hire companies following different sets of regulations, and protecting the labor rights of drivers.
Novick said it was “goofy” how some cities, like Seattle, have implemented laws that allow companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar to operate without caps while taxi companies are still limited in the number of vehicles they can have.
“It doesn’t make sense to have a regulated industry and then a bunch of other people participating in the same industry, but not abiding by the same regulations,” he said.
Novick is willing to take a bigger look at the entire for-hire system in Portland to see if there’s a way to revamp the regulations “rather than try to shoehorn Uber into the existing system.”
“What’s weird about the taxi cab industry is the idea that we limit the absolute number of people who can participate,” he noted. “In law or medicine, there are lots of hoops to jump through in order to participate, but you don’t say ‘we will not have more than X number of lawyers or doctors.’ That is an odd thing.”
The other worry is what a service like Uber and Lyft might mean for the livelihood of taxi drivers.
“Right now they are treated as independent contractors with no labor protections,” Novick said. “What I haven’t done is meet with them and say, “Listen, it concerns me you don’t have basic worker protections.'”
Kalanick was asked on Tuesday about creating a potential labor union among Uber drivers, who are also treated as independent contractors without worker protections. But the 38-year old CEO didn’t directly address the question, saying instead that it’s Uber’s responsibility to make sure its drivers make a “far better living on our platform than the traditional taxi job.”
“At the end of the day, if folks are making a better living, and we are providing the processes in place so folks feel like they’re getting a fair shake and being fairly treated, I think you address the needs of our partner base,” Kalanick said.
There’s also a question of demand from users in Portland. The city has received about 150 emails on the issue from citizens since last year, and many other complaints on social media. But in January, the city told us that “there hasn’t been much call to action from Portland citizens” who want Uber.
Novick is interested in commissioning a demand study for Portland, similar to what Seattle did last year. He’s also curious to know if people that don’t normally use taxis would start using Uber and Lyft if they had the option.
“I’d like to do a survey of the general public and ask people: ‘Do you drive to work sometimes because you think you’ll need a car, and if you had other options available would you use those instead?'” Novick said.
The commissioner also isn’t concerned about Portland being seen as a city stifling innovation by not allowing companies like Uber to operate. When Seattle legalized Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, Mayor Ed Murray touted his city as one that “embraces this rapidly transforming industry and recognizes that Seattle must stand at the forefront of innovation and not impede new ideas or add the burden of unnecessary regulations.”
“I don’t really care if we’re looked at as an innovate city,” Novick said. “I care about getting the right policies in place.”
Portland’s taxi companies, meanwhile, say they wouldn’t mind competing with the likes of Uber and Lyft — so long as they abide by the city’s laws.
“We’ve always been willing to work with them, as long as they follow the same rules we have been forced to follow for years,” said Radio Cab General Manager Steve Entler. “The way it’s playing out, it looks like they don’t intend to follow any rules.”
Entler, who noted that Portland’s taxi companies are working together to offer an app similar to Uber’s, echoed the thoughts of thousands of other taxi drivers around the nation who have repeatedly wanted a “level playing field.”
“I feel sorry for the guys that have invested their lives here and might have their livelihood trapped by something that isn’t playing by the same rules,” he said.
Entler added that he wouldn’t mind if Portland removes the caps and regulations placed on taxis, but said it would be “utter chaos.”
“What you see with Uber is little by little, the quality of service and drivers will start coming down dramatically as more [drivers] get into the field,” he said.
Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrend told GeekWire that her company plans on meeting with city officials “to share the opportunity ridesharing offers local consumers and entrepreneurs.” And now with Plouffe on board at Uber — he led President Obama’s 2008 campaign — perhaps the startup will join other tech companies like Airbnb and eBay in Portland sooner rather than later.
“Here at Uber it’s about telling the right story, reaching the right people,” Plouffe said during Tuesday’s conference call. “It all flows from the overall mission, which is to make sure this great transportation alternative is available to many people. If there are barriers, we have to have a strategy to eliminate those barriers.”