Summon-a-car service Uber courts Portland with ice cream Friday

Summon-a-car service Uber courts Portland with ice cream Friday

Uber’s website.

Uber, a California-based startup on a crusade to make taxis and towncars better, is the latest company lining up to serve low-car Portlanders.

Uber’s basic product, which it calls Uber Black, lets users book a nearby towncar using a smartphone, then electronically pay the driver and privately leave him or her a rating, without opening their wallets. In exchange, it costs about 30 percent more than a taxi, though fare-splitting is allowed.

But with this company, there’s a catch: as Uber’s employees will be the first to tell you, the basic service their company provides is currently illegal in Portland, due to the city’s complicated body of codes that regulate for-hire transportation. Those laws require taxis to accept any ride, however unprofitable. In exchange for that requirement, the city limits the supply of taxis and protects them from competition by requiring limos and towncars to book all rides at least 60 minutes in advance.

For Uber to launch in Portland, it’ll need to convince the city to change these laws. That’s where the hand-delivered ice cream comes in.

As part of a one-day national campaign on Friday, Uber’s iOS and Android mobile apps will be able to summon ice cream trucks instead of towncars. In Portland, ice cream deliveries will cost $20 for five servings.

Uber currently operates in 35 cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In most of its U.S. cities, it’s faced entrenched opposition from the local taxi industry — and if KATU’s report on Tuesday is any indication, the story in Portland will be similar.

There’s wide agreement among transportation policy experts that cities would be better off if they didn’t artificially restrict the supply of taxis. Doing so tends to drive up their price, reduce the competitive pressure to offer good service and generally increase the pressure on everyone to own a personal car. In 2011, Seattle’s Sightline Institute found that Portland had one of the country’s smallest supplies of taxis per resident, despite being in the middle of the pack on taxi price.

“The demand [for taxis and towncars] is there, but people just haven’t had high-quality, reliable and quick solutions.”
— Uber spokesman Andrew Noyes

“Taxi service in Portland is unreliable, difficult to order, and has insanely long wait times,” wrote Lillian Karabaic, a BikePortland contributor and local bike activist who’s used Uber in other cities, as she signed a petition the company’s government affairs firm helped line up to show support for Uber. (There’s also a local Twitter feed.) “I want Uber because I’ll pay a little more to not wait an hour in the pouring rain for a 2 mile ride!”

Karabaic is right that Portland taxis can be unreliable. Uber has a real argument that its slick, upscale service could keep more drunk drivers off the road while also making it more pleasant to live in Portland without owning a car.

“The demand is there, but people just haven’t had high-quality, reliable and quick solutions,” Uber spokesman Andrew Noyes said Thursday. He added that Uber “would do everything in our power to accommodate bikes” and that the company has been talking about the subject locally.

On the other hand, taxi politics are complicated. Noyes is happy to attack local taxi companies such as Broadway Cab (whose president, Raye Miles, has been quick to criticize Uber) for “making millions” on the labor of low-paid cab drivers — but it’s not as if Uber isn’t trying to do the same thing. And while state campaign finance records show Miles and his company contributed a total of $4,700 to the campaign of Mayor Charlie Hales (plus $2,000 more to his opponents, just in case), Uber’s lobbying firm Gallatin Public Affairs and its local partner, Greg Peden, chipped Hales $2,125 themselves, plus $500 to future Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick.

However this political battle plays out, the best thing about this news may be that multiple companies are fiercely competing to provide services to Portlanders who are getting around without cars of their own.

That, or the ice cream.

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