uberxOn 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.

Here’s the message Portlanders see when trying to open the Uber app.

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.

Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick.
Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick.

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.

Photo via Uber.
Photo via Uber.

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.”

The beautiful Rose City. Photo via Flickr user Stuart Seeger.
Photo via Flickr user Stuart Seeger.

“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.”

Via Radio Cab's Facebook page.
Via Radio Cab’s Facebook page.

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.”

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  • Rob

    No sane person would consider privatization of municipal public transportation by multi-billion dollar foreign tax-evading mega-corporation – a priority.

    • http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/ Randal L. Schwartz

      “privatization of municipal public transportation”. WTF. Cabs are not *municipal public transportation*. They too are private companies. Uber just wants in. Let them in.

      • Rob

        That’s not entire correct, Randal. You see regulated small taxicab businesses are paying for their permits, their business licenses, their municipal fees, local taxes… That, in turn – is municipal revenue.
        It’s that revenue that MANY cities across the states are using to build
        bridges, construct new schools. pay local municipal pensions for
        retirees, and improve that same infrastructure that ride-“sharing” offshore-based tax-evading multi-BILLION dollar LLCs are abusing free of any charges. Uber or dUper can want it – no problem – let them compete fairly. If a 2 man small transportation business can bare
        such payments, then sure can a multibillion dollar mega-corporation.
        Law and regulations must be made equal for all, a 12 hours a day
        business owner, and ride-sharing thousands drivers strong fleet.

        • http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/ Randal L. Schwartz

          But taxi companies are not any different from any business located within a city, except that the government forces them to pay access to taxi stand parking, and manages their reputation, which Uber already does by privatization and insurance.

          And I’m sure Uber is already paying their fair share of taxes and business licenses. They aren’t asking for limited resources, like being able to park in Taxi Stands. They’re just cars, driving around. It’s just that the taxis do not want more competition, and are doing it by government fiat, not any fair business practices.

          I’m clearly in favor of Uber, as a potential rider. I get better service, cheaper. I wonder what your agenda is.

          • Rob

            Thing is that they are not just cars driving around. They are a part of public transportation. There are rules and regulations that govern existing businesses operating in the same exact market niche. To say that ride-sharing mega-corporations are above the law and regulatory requirements just because “an iPhone app” is short-sighted, in my humble opinion. If we have Jim & Jon Inc. managing their small transportation business,working hard, following the letter of the law to the t, paying all their taxes, dues and surcharges; having paid local municipality for the right to use our local streets and provide safe and reliable regulated service, and then you have offshore-based ride-sharing multi-Billion dollar mega-corporations refusing to follow same rules, refusing to pay all the dues, refusing to pay for the same right, yet – operating in the same exact marketplace, then that basic premise of fairness in this economic model is flawed. And as the recent court ruling in Germany proved – is also illegal. You see, competition has got to be legal and fair… and ride-sharing is not that.

          • http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/ Randal L. Schwartz

            “They are a part of public transportation.” You keep saying that, but it’s not true. “Public” transportation is owned and run by the city, or at least subsidized by the city (like Tri-Met in Portland). Cab companies are profit-based, and figure the cost of paying income taxes, and licenses to use public space (taxi stands) for private good. Radio Cab can go bust next year. Tri-Met can’t. Uber is as much at risk for going bust as Radio Cab is, but has a much better (more efficient) dispatching system. I’m also pretty sure Radio Cab isn’t paying more road-use taxes than a private vehicle.

            So the only thing that really distinguishes Uber from Radio Cab in principle is that Portland can hand out only so many accesses to the Airport Taxi Queue and Taxi Stands. But Uber wouldn’t use those… it doesn’t need them, because its dispatch mechanism is entirely different.

            If Radio Cab is the same as Tri-Met, how come it needs to pay to have access to limited spaces? Does Tri-Met pay similar access fees? And Uber doesn’t *want* those limited spaces. It wants no more access than any other private vehicle on the road.

            Again, your agenda is in question. Are you a cabbie, or work for a taxi company? I think disclosure here is a must, or I will consider anything else you say as automatically tainted, using the evidence presented already.

          • Rob

            Uber is a taxi. We have taxi rules. Let them follow same rules.
            Uber is NOT a technology, it’s a taxi operation.
            Efficient? Good. Even more so reason to have an equal playing field for all – small taxicab businesses and offshore tax-evading mega-corporation with a funky imaginary name such as “ride-sharing”.

          • http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/ Randal L. Schwartz

            The rules for taxis are different, because Uber doesn’t require “taxi spots” to park in the city to obtain riders. They get their riders through an app. So they are not like traditional taxis.

          • Rob

            Uber wasn’t tehe first vehicle dispatch smartphone app. True pioneers of app-dispatch worked with taxicabs companies and regulators to define what e-hail is.

            E-hail is a hail.
            Uber is a taxicab corporation that denies the fact.
            Uber must comply to taxicab laws, regulations and standards or face expanding bans.

          • http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/ Randal L. Schwartz

            Only if that means that Uber can then park at taxi-only spaces. This is neither wanted nor needed. Uber is *not* a taxi company, because they don’t need special parking access.

          • Rob

            When Uber car is parked 50 feet away from you any direction you look – it is a taxicab service. A hail or e-hail are the same. If you glance at e-hail plans developed about 10 years ago you would find that e-hail was perceived as a continuation of a hail. Another strong support to the point made is that early vehicle-dispatch apps, and I don;t mean Uber which essentially stole the idea, made a copycat app and added the dimension of lawlessness to it. I mean the true first apps that were up and running in 2008, a full year before uber was even connived. Those app were developed by transportation professionals (ex cab drivers) AND were designed to follow full scope of taxicab laws and regulations.

          • Rob

            Facts remain. Even uber drivers are now protesting and boycotting uber for unethical and highly suspect business
            patterns of behavior.

          • Derek Balling

            I think you are confusing two terms:

            “public transit” – portions of the transit system owned by the public often including bus systems, subways, light rail.
            “mass transit” – all parts of the transit system designed to be used by the masses. It is generally a superset that includes “public transit” but also other transit services, such as taxis, limo/black-car services, privately operated bus services, etc.

  • apache501

    Uber is just another version of Walmart.

  • Have a car.

    Corey Owens sound a like an immature brat to me.

    Perhaps Uber should work more on their apps and less time whining about laws.

  • Guest

    Portland leadership is backwards in its thinking? That’s not really a shocker given it’s been the norm for decades.

  • ClaimsAdjuster

    Uber and Lyft are down in Olympia lobbying state legislators to put their companies under state regulation (which means none) instead of local. The ink is not even dry on the law that the Seattle City Council passed in July and now the TNCs are trying to renege on it. The Mayor, City Council, the Teamsters and Yellow Cab should feel pretty stupid that they thought an agreement with these sleazeballs was worth the paper it was printed on.

  • elbowman

    In REAL Uber News, PandoDaily reports…

    Earlier this week Uber riders in California received a stirring email call to action from “Team Uber”

    It begins…

    Who would have thought California, the cradle for American innovation, would take the lead in killing it. Governor Brown is committed to leading California into the future, but some in the legislature are anonymously doing the bidding of trial lawyers, big taxi and insurance lobbyists. Their bill, AB 2293, will be voted on THIS WEEK and would kill ridesharing in the Golden State.

    A bill to kill ridesharing! What are lawmakers thinking?! That’s terrible!

    If you want to keep uberX in California, now is the time to act. You are voting with your wallets every day – choosing Uber for a safe, reliable ride. Call your senators and tell them to stand up for Uber, your transportation options and the state’s future – not special interests. #CAlovesUber

    At this point, no doubt, many Uber riders will be reaching for their phones. Save Uber! They’ll be shouting. Helpfully, Uber provides a list of senators to call…

    Meanwhile, the more sharp eyed riders might have spotted that at no point in the email does Uber explain what AB 2293 actually does. And that’s likely for good reason: Because if they did then that “safe, reliable ride” line might start to seem a little ironic.

    Assembly Bill 2293, which passed a 7-0 vote in the state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and a 71-0 vote in the California State Assembly seeks to ensure that ridesharing drivers are fully insured whenever they’re logged on to a ridesharing platform, even if they don’t have a passenger in their car.

    The bill would put much of that burden on the ridesharing companies themselves, and comes after Uber denied it was responsible for the death of a child killed by an Uber driver while he was apparently waiting for a new fare.

    By using vague, but scary, language around “trial lawyers, big taxi and insurance lobbyists” trying to “kill” ridesharing rather than simply giving riders the facts, Uber comes across less as a company trying to rally its customers and more like a politician using an attack ad against its opponent. Which, of course, is exactly what Uber’s Travis Kalanicksaid he was planning to do.

    Good to see that David Plouffe’s new gig as Uber’s “campaign manager” is getting off to a good, honest start.

    Paul Carr

    Paul Carr is editorial director of Pando. Previously he was founder and editor in chief of NSFWCORP.

  • ORExtreme

    The only people against Uber are Cab companies/owners and those who have never tried it. Why limit the number of cabs? Or Uber? Why not limit number of hotels, restaurants, cars allowed in the city? The cab business has sucked for decades – poorly maintained vehicles, drivers that are paid dirt, can’t communicate and don’t know where they are going most of the time. Yes – Uber drivers should have insurance – but their cars are 10x better than most cabs. Politicians against it are being bribed in one form or another – in California his brother owns a cab company….posts below are cab companies creating FUD

  • Have cars

    Steve Novick sounds like an immature brat to me.

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