Just as Uber appeared ready to roll back into Portland, City Hall hit the brakes again Thursday.
A six-hour hearing ended last night with the City Council delaying a vote on whether to legalize ride-hailing app Uber and its competitor Lyft. Instead, commissioners scheduled a work session for April 21—nearly two weeks after Uber drivers expected to return to Portland.
The delay is a temporary victory for Portland cabbies who argued the new technology was getting favored treatment on rules ranging from insurance to pricing.
"It does strike me that we are potentially creating a separate but unequal system," said City Commissioner Nick Fish, "if we allow someone to set the price and another is regulated."
A council vote might have formalized a deal struck with Uber by Mayor Charlie Hales in December. The expectation going into Thursday's hearing was that the City Council would move toward approving a three-month test drive for Uber, and a deregulation of the cab industry that City Commissioner Steve Novick dubbed "Taxis Gone Wild."
Instead, Commissioners Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman—none of whom had taken a public stance on Uber's return—poked dozens of holes in the plan.
The one certainty coming out of Thursday's hearing: After 22 months of Uber's banging on the door of City Hall, Portland government still has no road map for how to deal with the company.
Here are the five biggest questions raised by Thursday's hearing:
1. How long will Uber wait on City Hall?
It's not clear when the City Council will let Uber return. Delaying the next discussion until April 21 means a vote isn't likely until May. That's nearly two years after Uber first asked to enter the Portland market. And city transportation officials have refused to answer WW's questions about how long it would take to set up a test program for Uber and Lyft once the City Council gives the green light. Uber general manager Brooke Steger told commissioners last night the company would wait for Portland's approval. But the company defied City Hall last December when the process stretched on too long—and Thursday's delay places Uber in roughly the same limbo it faced then.
2. Can the City Council level the playing field for taxis?
Here's a fun drinking game that would have shortened last night's hearing: Do a shot every time a cabbie or commissioner asked for a "level playing field" for taxis and Uber. (Everybody would have been asleep under the table halfway through.) On dozens of issues, the city task force appears to have given Uber less regulation than taxis: insurance, price caps, and vehicles accessible to people with disabilities. "The task force has not even begun to address the broader issue of whether equal access is still an ideal that Portland strives to uphold," the coalition of six cab companies told the City Council in its testimony—a sentiment Fish and Fritz echoed.
3. Does City Hall want more regulation for Uber, or less regulation for cabs?
Taxi representatives hammered at their traditional themes last night: the process was too rushed, Uber was getting special treatment, small cab companies would go out of business. But they continued to dodge the question of what rules for Uber would be sufficient. Meanwhile, Fish and Novick debated whether the City Council should release cabbies into the free market, or force Uber to meet existing taxi regulations. To get out of its current mess, City Hall will have to pick one of these paths.
4. Will Uber and Lyft provide the city with data on its riders?
This question is crucial because City Hall can't measure the effects of its regulations without knowing how much Uber is charging, and whether it's serving all neighborhoods. Steger told commissioners Uber would be happy to provide some data. "We do want to supply data to help the city better plan their transportation system and also plan their accessibility," she said. But she didn't want drivers—who each independently contract with Uber—to be required to apply for individual business licenses, or give the city their driver's license numbers. Fish smelled a rat, describing Uber's vague assurances as having "shades of short term rentals." (He was referring to the room-rental company Airbnb not supplying City Hall with the addresses of scofflaws not getting city permits.)
5. Do Hales and Novick have a third vote?
This question may sound familiar, because Hales and Novick faced it repeatedly while trying to pass a $46 million annual "street fee" to fund transportation projects. The answer then? Nope. Fritz, Saltzman and Fish balked on the street fee—and all of them sounded skeptical about Uber. Actually, "skeptical" is underselling Fritz's position. "I am never going to use Uber," Fritz said—and reminded her colleagues they don't have to vote for Uber's return at all.