Why Uber ain’t so uber

Roberto Chicas, 35, a San Francisco bartender, was attacked with a hammer by an Uber driver and left unconscious on the sidewalk for telling the driver he was taking the wrong route.

Roberto Chicas, 35, a San Francisco bartender, was attacked with a hammer by an Uber driver and left unconscious on the sidewalk for telling the driver he was taking the wrong route.

When I first heard about the driving service, Uber, coming to Portland, something just didn’t sound right. I had heard of Uber, and companies like it before, but never really given it much thought. After a quick Google search to see how their business model breaks down, red flags immediately went off in the “these workers are being exploited” zone.

There are countless stories out there on the internet of Uber drivers being taken advantage of in the name of corporate profits, but the typical story line goes something like this:

-Uber announces they’re coming to town, then runs a huge hiring campaign in search of drivers.

-During the hiring campaign, Uber claims that drivers will make upwards of $20 an hour, then encourages people desperate for a living wage to take out leases on cars to become drivers.

-After the initial buzz wears off and demand plummets, Uber cuts their rates, which can result in drivers making less than $1 (yes, one dollar) per hour.

-Whether a driver leased a new car or just used one they already had, before long the wear and tear results in an expensive date at the auto body shop- and Uber sure as heck isn’t covering the bill.

-The same can be said if a driver gets into an accident, regardless of the potential injuries or damages Uber will not be there to help cover the costs. Which means that in many cases the victim has no way of receiving compensation for medical costs, etc.

Several months ago, fellow BDN blogger Alex Steed and I collaborated on a piece which exposed Abraham Lembarra, former owner of Yellow Cab Company, for a slew of egregious offenses committed from behind the wheel of his taxi cab.

Lembarra, whose actions had first been called to Steed’s attention by a Portland woman named Amber Dorcus from her personal blog page, ultimately was fined and suspended by the City of Portland following the coverage.

In my work for the piece on Lembarra, I spoke extensively with the owners of 207 Taxi, which is currently one of the most popular cab companies in Portland.

So after researching online for the past few days, I gave 207 Taxi another call, and was able to get the company’s owner, Craig Cobbett, on the phone to get his take on Uber coming to town.

It turned out to be quite an interesting interview.

See, while my focus was initially on the treatment of the Uber drivers, Cobbett’s focus was on customer’s safety and the unfair advantages that Uber has over the local cab companies.

Here are several quotes by Cobbett from our conversation:
“The city right now, they make taxi drivers and livery drivers pay for a license to drive and with that comes a background check. So you know who you’re getting, there’s many people that apply for licenses and are unable to get them because they either have a violent past, or they have felonies on their record.”

“As long as you meet the requirements of a vehicle that’s 2003 or newer and having insurance, Uber will put you on the road. I hate to think that it’s going to come to somebody getting hurt for Uber to finally take a look at their business model and make some adjustments.”

“Uber’s big thing is ‘free enterprise’, but they’re avoiding licensing in general. I have to pay to license all my vehicles through the city and the drivers also have to pay a separate fee. Now Uber wants to come in and not pay for any of the licensing or follow any of the guidelines that the city has set up. Those guidelines are there to protect the riders as far as insurance issues may go, but they’re also there to make sure that the driver checks out and doesn’t pose a potential safety risk.”

“My drivers have been recruited by Uber through their local hiring campaign. So I told all of them that if they want to drive for Uber they’re more than welcome, I even told them that it’d be fine if they wanted to stay with me and just drive for Uber in their spare time. I mean I just wanted to make it clear that they’re all free to do what they want. But the general response from my drivers has been, ‘absolutely not, I’m not gonna put my own vehicle out there to get puked in or damaged.'”

“The Portland CIty Council has already said that they see some barriers, but that they’re willing to work through them. Well, it’s not fair to all the other cab drivers in town, and all the other businesses that have been following the rules and regulations in place. So to have a company come to town and say ‘hey, we’re not gonna follow any of those rules. We’re gonna do what we want because it’s free enterprise,’ that puts all the rest of us who are doing it the right way at a clear competitive disadvantage.”

“Background checks are first and foremost the most important thing. People need to know they’re getting into a car with somebody they can trust.”

“What’s it gonna take for somebody to get raped or abducted before the city puts a stop to it? I fear for people’s safety, I really do.”

I’ll admit, I was surprised to hear such deep concerns for safety coming from Cobbett, so after the interview I went back to Google and searched for some validation for his fears.

What I found was shocking.

There are stories of harassment and assault, of robbery, abduction, and rape- even manslaughter (an Uber driver with a history of reckless driving ran over a six year old girl).

And those are just the stories that have been reported, imagine what’s happened under the radar.

Of course, there is a flip side to all of this. There are drivers and riders who have nothing but glowing reviews for Uber, and companies like it such as Lyft.

And there are plenty of awful stories stemming from experiences with licensed Portland cab drivers (case in point, Lembarra).

The difference is that when a licensed driver like Lembarra slips through the cracks, the city can bring him up for review and punitive action once he pulls a stunt like the one he pulled on Amber Dorcus.

But once a driver like Lembarra is suspended, he’s free to sign up for Uber and begin driving unwitting passengers around under the veil that the company provides. Uber does claim that they require an extensive background check of their drivers, but there are simple ways of getting around the screening for drivers with bad histories.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Cobbett:

“Just a few weeks ago a woman came in looking for a driving job who was visibly intoxicated. She was slurring her speech and couldn’t walk straight. I asked around to my drivers, and a few of them knew her and told me she has a drug problem. So as bad as I felt for the woman, I had to tell her no. Now that Uber’s in town, there’s nothing stopping someone like that from driving passengers around, and Uber doesn’t have a community network of drivers to report a problem like that either.”


Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.