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Photo via Flickr user Stuart Seeger.
Photo via Flickr user Stuart Seeger.

Uber first met with city officials in Portland 18 months ago to help develop new regulations that would allow the $40 billion company to operate legally.

uberportland333Since then, no new laws have been created — and now Uber is done waiting.

As we noted earlier today, the on-demand transportation startup launched operations in Portland this afternoon, despite not having the permits and inspections required by the city for a taxi service.

The city has already conducted “enforcement action” against Uber drivers and is certainly not happy with Uber doing business on its streets.

“We have told Uber and Lyft that they are welcome to offer ideas for regulatory changes,” City Commissioner Steve Novick said in a statement. “Uber has chosen instead to break the law.”

But this is nothing really new for Uber, which has launched in several cities without agreeing to some type of regulation. It did so in Seattle before laws were put into place this past June. However, the strategy didn’t quite work so well in Nevada, where Uber suspended operations last month after pushback from government regulators.

We caught up with Uber Seattle General Manager Brooke Steger to find out why the company launched in Portland today. She noted the “outcry” from both drivers and riders who want Uber in the Rose City.

“I think launching is not an act of aggression on our part; it’s actually a hope to serve those people’s needs,” Steger said.

Read on for a quick Q&A. Steger’s answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

GeekWire: Can you explain why you launched today?

Brooke Steger: “We first engaged with the city a year and a half ago. We’ve spent quite some time attempting to engage the city to write regulations for the TNCs (transportation network companies). We launched in the surrounding areas of Portland and in Vancouver, Wash., and since then we’ve seen a lot of trips coming into Portland. These people weren’t able to get a ride home. That was definitely a difficult situation for us to be in — to not be able to get someone home in a reliable way when they needed a ride. People were stranded in Portland late at night and we didn’t feel that was a safe or just thing to do.

Launching in the surrounding areas prompted so much outcry — we’ve seen a pretty steady state of outcry for the past year, but it has picked up in the past couple of weeks. Thousands of people have reached out, including 40 influential restaurant and hotel owners. They were frustrated that their patrons aren’t able to receive a safe ride home.

All of this outcry prompted us to pull the trigger and launch.”

Brooke Steger
Brooke Steger at the 2014 GeekWire Summit.

GeekWire: But why now? Why not six months ago, when there was already outcry from people who wanted Uber in Portland?

Steger: It’s just a combination of all those things I mentioned. The mayors in the cities where we launched — Beaverton, Tigard, Hillsboro, Gresham — actually reached out to us because they wanted us to launch. That just created so much momentum and support in the area that we felt like it was the right time to launch at this point, with uberX first.

We’ve also seen a huge interest from drivers we’ve partnered with in the area. It’s pretty amazing. Portland’s unemployment rate is 2 percent higher than Seattle. I think there’s just a definite need here for more opportunities and income for a lot of people. Our drivers also are wasting gas and hurting the environment when they pick someone up in Beaverton, drop them off in Portland, and drive back with no one in the vehicle.”

GeekWire: Why not wait to work on regulations with the city, and then launch after that?

Steger: “We engaged with the city for the first time one-and-a-half years ago. I know that our competitors have engaged with them too, about six to eight months ago. That’s a long time for them to be able to take action. I do believe Mayor Hales has actually embraced a lot of technology and I think that Portland is very much growing as a tech hub. We saw what happened with Airbnb here — he definitely has an innovative side to him and I think this will help move things along. While one-and-a-half years is a very long time to take no action, we do believe Mayor Hales will come through. I think he does want to support innovation and technology in the city.”

uberxGeekWire: Your CEO just wrote a blog post that noted how he wants Uber to be a “smarter and more humble company.” How does your entrance into Portland reflect that?

Steger: “We’ve been meeting with regulators here in Portland and I want to continue having those meetings. There are a lot of questions that Uber sometimes raises in cities. If there are city officials that have never used Uber, they don’t understand what it brings to a city. It helps to have the product operating and showing that we are very safe and that we are offering opportunities. There are more people coming out of their personal cars and relying on these forms of transportation.

Also, with this time of the year, DUIs are a huge problem. I think it’s a good time to launch to make sure there are people getting home safe.

As a company, we are very proud of what we’ve created. I think we’ve done a lot of very positive things and I’m very proud of that. We’ve heard so much outcry that I think this is a proactive thing for Portland.

This isn’t about us not being humble. It’s certainly humbling to have a driver struggling to make a living and wants Uber to be here. That’s a humbling moment. It’s humbling to hear about a rider that is stuck late a night with no ride home. Those instances are very humbling.

I think launching is not an act of aggression on our part; it’s actually a hope to serve those people’s needs.”

GeekWire: What’s your plan if the city penalizes your drivers like it says it will?

Steger: “We definitely will support our drivers 100 percent. We hope that the city would never take any action against the drivers, especially since [Novick] is supposedly very supportive of the drivers. Should anything happen, we have full support of drivers.”

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