Uber and Portland: “The Future and Its Enemies” Clash in the Rose City

The Portland City Council has voted 3-2 to let ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft operate permanently in the city. The normally “progressive” council members’ split decision revealed a conflict of visions that does not fall along ideological lines as much as it falls along lines revealing how they view the future.

Author Virginia Postrel wrote a book in 1998 that virtually foresaw the conflict Portlanders and others around the world are wrestling with in the new sharing/app economy – an economy that didn’t even exist until 2008. In The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Postrel argued that the opposing world views of “stasis” and “dynamism” are replacing “left” and “right” as we struggle to define our cultural and political debate in the twenty-first century.

Many large cities, including Portland, have regulated the taxicab industry for over 100 years. Regulating prices and limiting the number of taxis on the road has resulted in a small group of crony capitalist companies benefitting at the expense of their passengers, and often at the expense of their own drivers.

It got so bad in Portland, that for over twenty years beginning in 1976 not one new taxi company was allowed to enter the market. And regulators wouldn’t even let one new cab on the streets unless an owner could prove the demand existed for that vehicle; something that was almost impossible to do even as the city’s population grew.

In 1998, Cascade Policy Institute helped a group of Ethiopian immigrants win approval from the city to start Green Cab, the first new Portland cab company allowed in more than two decades. Regulators agreed, not because the proposal made sense (which it did), but likely because they knew that the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice would go to federal court to protect the economic liberty rights of those wanting to earn an honest living by providing transportation services to consumers.

Once smartphone apps emerged in 2008, the “stasis” of the transportation marketplace began giving way to the “dynamic” future that Uber pioneered in 2010. Thanks to the mobile devices most of us now carry in our pockets, the future of transportation and many other fields are quickly changing for the better…at least in the minds of the dynamists.

Once Uber entered Portland without city approval on December 5, 2014 and thousands of Portlanders put the app on their smartphones, city officials may have realized that most of these folks were also voters. They struck a temporary deal with Uber and agreed to develop new rules that would let it operate permanently in the city.

Even the city commissioner once seen as Uber’s biggest foe, Steve Novick, now says he never understood why the city should have a limited-entry system in which a small number of taxi companies were given a sharply restricted number of permits to operate cabs. He says the taxi companies had a sense of “entitlement” after being treated like a city utility for the past century. After being given authority for taxi regulation by the Mayor, Novick ended the strict limits on taxi permits, and the city increased the number of permits by 64 percent.

Novick set up a Task Force to suggest rules for both taxi companies and ridesharing firms like Uber. Traditional taxi drivers quickly became disappointed that “The Future” wasn’t going to include protections for them and strict limits on their new competitors. On December 2, 2015 Novick joined two other commissioners in voting Yes for dynamism, while two voted to keep the stasis that is quickly becoming transportation’s past.

The foremost opponent of the plan to let Uber operate permanently was commissioner Amanda Fritz. She prepared and read a ten-minute statement before voting No. She delineated several issues she believed were unfair to existing taxi companies and that could be harmful to Portlanders, including relatively low insurance limits for ridesharing drivers when passengers aren’t in their cars. One part of her statement clearly puts her on the side of “stasis” and denies the liberating power that the free market and technology provide for drivers and passengers alike:

“New taxi companies will no longer be scrutinized by the grueling public vetting and approval by City Council in an open public hearing. I feel so sad for my friends in Union Cab, supported by the Communication Workers of America Local 7901. You worked so hard to win approval. You offer dozens of immigrant families not only a chance at the American Dream, but an opportunity to belong to an American union, part of the united American Federation of Labor movement. You achieved the dream, in winning approval of your franchise. And now the majority of Council is telling you you’re an expendable casualty in the free market – the free market that is grinding the working class and the middle class into the servants of the billionaire corporations.”

Contrary to Fritz’s charges, the free market is liberating people worldwide from grinding poverty. In Portland it is allowing several thousand people to work for themselves as full- or part-time Uber and Lyft drivers. It is giving passengers new, cheaper, and quicker options to travel around the city.

The free market and technology are combining to help mold a dynamic future. Those trying to stop this future, including city commissioners who voted against it, are clinging to a stasis that cannot and should not prevail. “The Future and Its Enemies” is playing out right now in the City of Roses. Thankfully, The Future is winning.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

 

Steve was interviewed about this topic on KUIK’s The Jayne Carroll Show on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. You can listen to his interview here.

New Transportation Funding Bill: Going Nowhere FAST

Last week Congress passed H.R. 22, a five-year transportation funding bill known as Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST.

Under the terms of FAST, the federal Highway Trust Fund will take in about $208 billion in federal gas taxes, while sending $280 billion back to the states by 2020. The $70 billion deficit will be made up from income taxes.

Essentially, this is the same thing Congress has been doing for decades. Since 1993 we’ve paid a federal gas tax of $18.4 cents/gallon; the money flows to Washington; then it gets sent back to the states after a chunk of it has been diverted into a wasteful transit account.

There is no policy rationale for this circular travel of dollars. Most auto, transit, and truck trips are local. Therefore, the operational money should be collected locally as well.

What Congress should have done is repeal the federal gas tax and shut down the federal transportation agencies.

The FAST Act was an expensive band-aid for a problem that needs a new approach. We have the technology to collect mileage-based user fees from motorists, truck operators, and transit customers. We should use that technology to pay for the roads and transit facilities that consumers are willing to pay for, and stop waiting to be saved by a federal transportation Santa Claus.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

The Futility of Public Hearings

Over the past four years, TriMet and Metro have been planning something called the SW Corridor Project. Metro describes it as a multi-modal project featuring new transit capacity, local street improvements, and enhancements to trails, sidewalks, and bike lanes. The project will begin at Portland State, travel along Barbur Boulevard, and terminate somewhere near Tualatin.

The exact nature of the transit element has never been disclosed; ostensibly, the choice is between light rail and bus-rapid transit. The Project Steering Committee insists that final decisions on the technology, route, terminus, and financial plan are still open for discussion, with some preliminary decisions scheduled for 2016.

Curiously, however, at the November 11 TriMet Board of Directors planning retreat, the Board was informed (at 3:17:05) by project staff that opening day for the project has already been set: September 12, 2025.

How is it that TriMet already knows the exact day that operations will commence, if it doesn’t even know any of the particulars – including a proposed, $250 million tunnel to PCC-Sylvania that would only be built if light rail is chosen?

Apparently, all decisions have actually been made, and future public hearings will be just as fake as the past ones.

All aboard for light rail to Bridgeport Village. Only 3,581 days till the opening ceremony!

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

 

Transit Policy: Kryptonite for Business Leaders

By John A. Charles, Jr.

During September, the Portland regional transit monopoly, TriMet, voted to raise the payroll tax rate by 1/10th of a percent, beginning January 2016. The rate increase will be phased in over a ten-year period, as required by the state legislature.

Politically, the only reason TriMet was able to do this was that none of the major business associations objected. The question is, “why?”

A number of issues should have raised red flags for business representatives. First, the payroll tax pays for more than half the cost of all transit operations. That ratio seems far out of balance. The primary beneficiaries of transit are transit riders, yet they only pay about 24% of operations cost. It would seem far more equitable to insist that passenger fares pay for at least 50% of the operational cost.

Second, there is no reason for businesses to pay more if TriMet is unwilling to impose discipline on the expenditure side. The transit district has failed miserably to do this for decades. TriMet has approved so many lucrative labor contracts that the total cost of benefits now routinely exceeds the cost of wages. In FY 2014, the ratio was $1.49 in benefits for every $1.00 in wages; in FY 2015, it was $1.19. It’s hard to imagine any private sector company paying that much in total benefits.

And third, TriMet has repeatedly broken promises about how it would spend new payroll tax money. In 2003, when the Legislature approved an earlier tax rate increase, TriMet promised that every penny of new tax revenue would be used for “new service.” Yet over the subsequent decade of tax rate increases – 2004-2014 – TriMet’s total annual operational revenue increased by 80%, while miles of actual transit service declined by nearly 14%, as shown below: 

TriMet Financial Resource Trends

 (000s) 

  2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 % change
Passenger fares $ 55,665 $ 68,464 $ 80,818 $ 93,729 $ 102,240 $ 114,618 +106%
Tax revenue $ 155,705 $ 192,450 $ 215,133 $ 208,933 $ 248,384 $ 275,357 +77%
Total op. resources $ 290,513 $ 342,274 $ 404,481 $ 433,609 $ 488,360 $ 522,155 +80%

  

Annual Fixed Route Revenue Service Trends 

  2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 % chng.
Hours of service 1,698,492 1,653,180 1,712,724 1,682,180 1,561,242 1,608,090 -5.3%
Miles of  service 27,548,927 26,830,124 26,448,873 25,781,480 23,625,960 23,763,420 -13.7%

TriMet claims that service actually increased during this period because several new rail lines were built, and rail cars are bigger than buses. But that is a fallacy. Most transit vehicles are under-utilized most of the time, so seating “capacity” is rarely important.

When bus service was cut throughout the 525-square mile district by 14% over the past decade, the thousands of riders who were inconvenienced were not made better off just because a few new trains were operating in narrow corridors somewhere else. They were made worse off, and may have stopped riding transit altogether as a result.

In fact, transit has lost market share over the past 17 years despite (or because of) the rail building boom. According to the Annual Community Surveys conducted by the Portland Auditor, the transit share of commute travel was 12% in 1997, when TriMet had only one light rail line. By 2014, it had dropped to 11%.

 

Travel Mode Share for Weekday Commuting

Portland citywide, 1997-2014 

Mode 1997 2000 2004 2008 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
               

 

 
SOV 71% 69% 72% 65% 62% 63% 61% 64% 63%
Carpool 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 6% 6% 6% 6%
Transit 12% 14% 13% 15% 12% 12% 12% 10% 11%
Bike 3% 3% 4% 8% 7% 7% 7% 7% 8%
Walk 5% 5% 3% 4% 6% 6% 7% 7% 8%
Other n/a n/a n/a n/a 7% 6% 6% 6% 6%

             Source: Portland Auditor

Transit policy tends to make otherwise rational business leaders do silly things. Instead of defending themselves and demanding that public transit districts operate more efficiently, they feel obliged to “take one (more) for the team.” But this simply enables the dysfunctional behavior by transit districts to continue.

The fact is, public sector monopolies and their unionized employees will take every dollar available for themselves as long as someone keeps putting new dollars on the table.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the September 2015 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Mysteries of Tilikum Crossing

Portland’s newest bridge over the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing, has a few puzzling design features. Apparently, a barrier down the middle of the bridge means that a stalled light rail train or bus would shut down transportation until it was removed, because no vehicle could go around it.

If the bridge is only open to trains, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians, what useful purpose does the barrier serve? (Other than potential MAX and TriMet bus line rush hour chaos, that is.)

And that’s not all….

Syndicated radio host Lars Larson interviewed Cascade’s John Charles on Monday. Click on the Listen link to hear John reveal his observations from Portland’s South Waterfront during Tilikum Crossing’s opening week.

You might be surprised by what he saw bicyclists doing on SW Moody Avenue.

Policy Picnic – October 28, 2015


Please join us for our monthly Policy Picnic led by Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr.


Topic: Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail: Comparing Promises with Reality 

Description: TriMet’s newest MAX line opened on September 12. At $210 million per mile, this was the most expensive light rail line in Portland history. Now that it’s open, is it making the traveling public better off?

In this seminar, we revisit the Utopian predictions made by transit planners in 2008, and measure those against the early performance of the line.

There is no charge for this event, but reservations are required as space is limited.  To reserve your free tickets, click here.

Admission is free. Please feel free to bring your own lunch.
Coffee and cookies will be served. 
 
Sponsored by:
Dumas Law Group

Tilikum Crossing: More Punishment for Motorists

The new bridge over the Willamette River, TriMet’s Tilikum Crossing, opened for business on Saturday. With beautiful weather and parties at every stop of the Orange MAX line, a good time was had by the thousands of sightseers.

Unfortunately, now that we’ve returned to gray skies and normal weekday travel, it’s clear that the bridge created both winners and losers. The big winners are light rail passengers and bicyclists. The scenic bikeway has already proven immensely popular with local cyclists, who are crossing at a rate 10 times higher than the rate previously observed on the nearby Ross Island Bridge.

The big losers are motorists. The Tilikum Crossing is closed to autos and trucks. In addition, the new traffic signal at the west end of the bridge creates a major bottleneck on SW Moody Avenue, the busiest road within the district.

At both morning and afternoon peak-periods, Moody Avenue traffic is shut down 60% of the time in order to accommodate light rail, the streetcar, and buses leaving or entering the bridge. This gums up all north-south travel, including most of the same bike riders cruising over from east Portland, who must cross Moody Avenue as they exit the bridge.

Moody Avenue motorists have no choice but to wait through red lights that sometime exceed three minutes; but pedestrians and cyclists are rebelling by the hundreds. After losing patience, they simply cross the rail tracks illegally.

In most normal cities, a new bridge makes everyone better off. But in Portland, a bridge simply becomes one more weapon in the political war on mobility.

Oregon Leads the Nation in Passenger Rail Subsidies

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In the waning days of the 2015 legislative session, a much publicized group of eight legislators conducted extensive negotiations with the Governor’s office over a “transportation package” that would have raised fuel taxes, created a new transit tax, repealed most of the “low-carbon fuels standard” enacted earlier in the session, and paid for various highway improvement projects. That package failed, leaving many observers with the impression that Oregon is “underinvesting” in transportation.

But not every mode suffered. For the few riders of ODOT’s Portland-Eugene passenger rail line, the bank vault was open. The legislature approved $18 million in subsidies for the 2015-17 biennium, including $10.4 million in scarce General Fund dollars.

While this may not sound like a lot in the big picture, it’s quite generous given the minimal use of this line. For the most recent year, the line generated a mere $180,000 in passenger fares, but racked up operating expenses of $7,875,409. This worked out to an operating subsidy of $65.70/ride.

However, the reality is actually much worse. Upon vigorous questioning by Ways and Means Subcommittee Co-Chair Betsy Johnson, ODOT admitted that the “all-in” subsidy was closer to $120/ride.

Was this embarrassing to rail advocates? Hardly. When the multi-billion ODOT budget was up for its single public hearing, there were 21 witnesses who testified—and 20 of them spoke for the sole purpose of defending the rail subsidy. This author was the only witness to suggest euthanizing passenger rail.

The problem is that two decades ago, Amtrak began off-loading most short-line runs to states. ODOT and its legislative overseers foolishly agreed to accept this responsibility, and taxpayers have spent more than $300 million since 1994 propping up the line. Bureaucrats and single-issue advocates know that once you let the “camel’s nose under the tent,” the rest of the camel will soon follow—and then it will be too late to cut the program.

So even though the ODOT rail administrator was the subject of withering criticism by various members of the Ways and Means subcommittee during budget hearing, in the end he was still standing—and walking away with the full appropriation.

Coincidentally, as the ODOT budget was being considered, the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution released a new paper showing the extent of passenger rail operating subsidies across the nation. In every case, transit districts lost money last year, but the losses were relatively modest on a per-boarding basis. The biggest loser, the Hampton Roads Transit system of Virginia, had subsidies of $6.63 per ride.

For whatever reason, Brookings ignored the Portland-Eugene line, as well as the TriMet commuter rail line running from Beaverton to Wilsonville, which has operating subsidies of roughly $12/ride. Cascade Policy Institute took the Brookings data and created a new chart showing that Oregon was at the top of the leaderboard in the category of “most wasteful transit lines,” and shared this with various legislators. Predictably, it had no effect.

Oregon surface transportation infrastructure continues to deteriorate; but for the privileged few who take the rail line from Eugene to Portland, life is good.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the August 2015 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

The Extinction of Public Transit

By Emma Newman

Uber and Lyft have recently gained over 50 percent of the taxi market in Portland. This is especially notable as Portland was initially hostile to ridesharing companies, to the point of filing a lawsuit against Uber late last year. This industry takeover is just one example of how private market innovation has upended government-regulated transit.

At a recent Metro hearing on the SW Corridor project, one of the main arguments for pursuing a costly light rail tunnel requiring the destruction of several homes was that ten years of disruption is worth 100 years of use. But considering the speed at which the transportation industry is changing, is long-term use of public transit infrastructure likely?

Public transit is rarely anyone’s first choice due to inconvenience, time cost, and lack of reliability—problems that personal vehicles rarely face. Overcoming these factors has made ridesharing companies more popular than traditional taxicabs.

The fact that private market solutions will increasingly outcompete public transit is evident not only with companies like Uber and Lyft, but with future technologies as well. Google’s driverless car being used on a wide scale may seem to be far into the future; but if costly transit projects are being justified by decades of potential future use, transit planners need to consider what the future of transit may actually look like.

Emma Newman is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank. She is a student at George Fox University, where she is studying Economics and Computer Science.

What They Say vs. What They Do: How PCC Students Really Get to School

By Anna Mae Kersey, Emma Newman, and Thomas Tullis

TriMet is considering the construction of a light rail line from Portland State University to Tualatin, at a cost of roughly $2 billion.

One routing option still on the table is to run the train down Barbur Boulevard, then build a tunnel to the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College. The tunnel would add $244 million in capital cost. It also would require moving several dozen homes and take at least two years to build.

To put this in perspective, for the price tag of the proposed tunnel, one could purchase approximately 23,094 Teslas, build 41 aerial trams like the one at OHSU, buy two brand-new cars per PCC-Sylvania student, or pay for 117,200,000 Uber rides from the PCC Sylvania campus to downtown Portland.

Such a hefty sum might be justified if there were a need for “high-capacity” transit at PCC-Sylvania, but such a need does not exist.

According to survey data released by PCC, 58 percent of Sylvania students drive to class, while 32 percent take shuttles or buses. However, travel surveys are notoriously unreliable, in large part because people tend to underreport their reliance on auto travel.

To correct for this, Cascade Policy Institute collected field data by going to PCC-Sylvania and counting every trip to and from the campus, at various times and on various days. The field observations tell a different story. Roughly 84 percent of students drove and only 15 percent took TriMet or the PCC shuttles during our observations, which covered nearly 7,000 trips.

During final exams week, when students really had to be in class, the split was even more skewed: 89% traveled via private automobile.

The difference between what students said in a survey and how they actually traveled is significant because it shows that college students are much less willing to forego cars and take transit than is commonly thought. For TriMet, this means the proposed light rail line likely will not have the increase in ridership that planners assume.

We can also learn from experience elsewhere, because one other PCC campus has been directly served by light rail for the past five years. The PCC Willow Creek campus is a single building located directly next to a light rail station on the west side. This is unlike the spread-out PCC Sylvania campus, where students would still have to walk a significant distance from the proposed light rail station to get to their classes.

Despite the convenience of light rail stopping right at the front door, at Willow Creek the field observations showed that 80 percent of students drove, 14 percent took light rail, and 5 percent took the bus. This is only a slight decrease in automobile use compared with Sylvania. Is it really worth spending $244 million to service a suburban college campus with light rail for this tiny difference?

Driving is the preferred method of travel for the majority of college commuters because it offers versatility that caters to their complicated schedules both in and out of the classroom. It seems that the complexities of student lives and lack of demand for transit are being overlooked in this decision.

PCC-Sylvania is already served by a rich mixture of college shuttles and TriMet buses. Those options are currently underutilized. Thus, there is no reason to spend $244 million and disrupt the serenity of this neighborhood to build a light rail tunnel.

Anna Mae Kersey, Emma Newman, and Thomas Tullis are research associates at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.

1 2 3 4 5 17