It’s two in the morning. You and three friends are stumbling out of a bar somewhere deep in southeast Portland. The MAX is closed for the night and the lone man at the bus stop is beckoning you over with a silver-toothed grin and grimy fingernails.
Taxi cab concessions
It’s two in the morning. You and three friends are stumbling out of a bar somewhere deep in southeast Portland. The MAX is closed for the night and the lone man at the bus stop is beckoning you over with a silver-toothed grin and grimy fingernails. You decide that this situation calls for a taxi. You hop into the yellow cab, unaware of the battle that the driver just fought to pick you up.
Portland’s not a big taxi town. You notice them lined up near boutique hotels or parked by food carts, but rarely do you see one actually moving. For a starving student, cabs are a luxury when the MAX, a bus or even a bicycle would serve just as well. The taxi industry in Portland is dying if it isn’t dead already. There are hundreds of new applicants for permits and not enough business to go around.
As a result, drivers are forced to pay kickbacks to hotel doormen and valets that set them up with the ever-elusive airport fare. Portland taxis are required by the city to pick up anyone for any destination no matter how short the ride is. The only trip that really makes any money is the long ride to the airport, which is also being serviced by private town cars and shuttles.
Drivers are paying doormen a $10–15 gratuity to secure airport fares ahead of other drivers. Drivers who pay are shuffled to the head of the line. Drivers who refuse to be shaken down are forced to wait hours in line while others pass them.
Recent articles have demonized the cab drivers, like the Portland Tribune‘s “Is it a bribe, is it a tip?” It’s neither—it’s extortion. Cab drivers charge about $40 to go to the airport. Subtract the payoff, the $2 fee they have to pay each time they enter the airport area, and the cut that goes to their company, and drivers are barely left with enough to cover expenses. And this is their most lucrative trip!
Portland isn’t New York or Las Vegas. Downtown is easily navigable and about 20 minutes across. In other cities, the drivers hold the power. Cab companies in Las Vegas are under review because drivers divert passengers only to strip clubs that pay them kickbacks—up to $100 a person. Considering the ludicrous amount of money club owners make a night, it’s hard to feel bad for them. Payoffs between drivers and doormen is a common practice in other large cities and the amount of tourists with large pocketbooks means that a bribe guarantees a return.
But Portland isn’t a large city. We have strip clubs, but club owners prefer to advertise $4 steak dinners rather than pay drivers to sway customers. Anyone who goes to a strip club for dinner isn’t going to be dropping enough cash to warrant a payoff. Maybe we’re too perfect. Maybe our urban planning garners too many great options in an easily navigable small area. My car got towed from southeast Portland the other night and it took me about five minutes to get to Northwest Quimby to get it out. Try getting from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Central Park West in five minutes. Fogettaboudit.
The city’s For Hire Transportation board conducted a sting last year and fined town car drivers and a hotel for taking away airport fares from cab drivers. By law, taxis are supposed to receive airport fares. What can the board do now?
The previous issue wasn’t about the kickback, it was about stealing rides. Taxi drivers who compete with other drivers aren’t technically breaking any laws. Their payoffs to doormen are considered gratuities and are a common courtesy in other cities like Seattle. Politicians and cab owners who cite Seattle’s business practices as a model for our own are ignoring the bleak economic situation we have here. Seattle’s unemployment rate is about 9 percent. Portland’s hovers around 11 percent with a smaller population. Drivers here make about $100–150 a day. But that’s after working a 12-hour shift. Paying off doormen multiple times a day severely reduces their income.
For most of us, getting into a taxi immediately feels like we’re being ripped off. The $2.50 minimum flag drop could be breakfast at the Cheerful Tortoise. Each consecutive mile is another grande Americano from Starbucks. It’s easy to blame the driver, but the reality is, you might be costing them.