Yesterday evening Uber, the ride service that is to cars what AirBnB is to houses, announced that it was starting to operate in Portland without waiting for official permission that it would likely never get. Uber started accepting ride requests at 5:00 p.m. At 5:10 City Hall started to try to find and cite Uber drivers, but couldn't -- the demand for Uber's cars was so high that the City's enforcer couldn't get a ride.
Portland has a complicated set of licensing rules for transportation for hire. Buried within the rules is a loophole that Uber can exploit to remain unlicensed. But first some background.
Portland issues three general types of licenses. It licenses transport vehicles, it licenses transport companies, and it licenses the vehicle operators. Within these three licensing categories are some subtypes. For example, "transport vehicles" is a term that includes taxicabs, shuttle buses, pedicabs, and horse-drawn carriages. When you summon a taxi in Portland, the City has issued three licenses to make your trip possible. It has licensed the driver, the vehicle, and the taxi company. Anyone who qualifies can get a taxi driver's license, but the City strictly limits the number of vehicle licenses (a New Yorker would call them medallions), the plates that let a vehicle be used as a taxicab. Anyone who drives a vehicle for hire must have an operator's license, any vehicle that is used as a taxicab must have a vehicle license, and any company that operates taxicabs (including cabs owned by their drivers but dispatched through the company) must have a taxi company license. It's illegal for a company to operate taxicabs without a taxi company license.
But are Uber's vehicles taxicabs? This is where the City Code has a delightful loophole ready-made for Uber. City code section 16.40.030.PP defines "taxicab" as a for-hire vehicle where the destination AND route traveled can be controlled by the passenger. "And" means "and" and not "and/or." So a for-hire vehicle in which the passenger can select the destination but not the route is not a "taxicab." If Uber says that passengers originating in Portland may select their destination but may not choose the route traveled, then the Uber vehicles are not "taxicabs" and the City Code does not prohibit those vehicles from carrying passengers for hire without a medallion.
Similarly and deliciously, the code defines "taxicab company" to be a company that operates taxicabs. Because Uber's vehicles would not be taxicabs, Uber would not be a taxicab company and would not need a Portland taxicab company license.
The loophole doesn't extend down to the individual drivers, because section 16.40.090 requires a driver who carries passengers in a vehicle for hire, which includes not just taxicabs but any vehicle, to hold a Portland operator's license to pick up passengers in the city. As Portland will license any number of drivers, Uber's Portland solution can be simply to require its Portland drivers to obtain a Portland operator's permit and to tell their passengers that the passengers can't select the route: if a passenger asks an Uber driver to take him from downtown to Memorial Coliseum, the driver will use the Broadway Bridge whether the passenger likes it or not.