Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Union Cabs pull away from curb


Cooperative company revs up 'new era' in Portland taxi service

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland's newest taxi company, 50-car Union Cab, hits the road this week with its fleet of 50 Prius sedans that company president Kedir Wako says will be more visible in city neighborhoods.Kedir Wako is used to fresh starts. Born in Ethiopia, he moved to the United States in 1990. In 1996, he embarked on a second new beginning when he moved to Portland.

Wako tried his hand at a number of jobs. He worked in a nursing home. Later, he attempted to operate an airport shuttle service that didn’t work out. In 1999, Wako started driving for Broadway Cab, improving his English and learning the city’s streets along the way.

But this week was a third fresh start for the 41-year-old Wako, president and acting manager of Union Cab. This one isn’t quite as dramatic as arriving in the United States, but, he says, it’s connected.

“Coming to the U.S. was a very big opportunity for me. This is a big empowerment for me, and proof that this is a great country,” Wako says.

Portland this week entered what is supposed to be a new era in taxi service, with 50-car Union Cab hitting the streets to join existing cab services in a competitive and occasionally cutthroat taxi environment.

Many existing drivers and officials at the established companies believe the city’s decision to grant 50 new taxi permits to a new company (and 28 additional permits to established companies) is a mistake. This will simply mean less business and revenue for all drivers as the revenue pie gets sliced smaller and smaller, they say.

City officials, who decided last year to grant the new permits, are banking on competition creating better service and eventually leading to more Portlanders taking taxis.

Customer service

Wako, who last week showed off Union Cab’s new Prius sedans, says that is exactly what he expects to happen.

“The demand is there,” Wako says. “If your car is clean, if our driver is clean, if our driver entertains the customer, opens the door for the customer, closes the door for the customer, takes the luggage to their doors — doing good business (will) make us succeed.”

Union’s drivers have had to purchase their own vehicles because the company, much like established Radio Cab, is run as a cooperative. Radio Cab in many ways served as the model for Union.

All of Union’s drivers are African immigrants, though Wako says in time he hopes Union’s ranks become more diverse. Wako says 25 of Union’s 52 drivers have come to the company from Broadway Cab, the city’s largest cab company, two from Radio Cab, two from Rose City Cab and nine or 10 from Green Cab.

Some of the drivers owned their own cabs, generally Ford Crown Victorias, and have sold them to purchase the Toyota Prius sedans that comprise more than half of Unions’ fleet.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -  Josh Hurlbert installs an on-board computer and meter into one of Union Cabs new orange and blue Prius sedans.Wako helped persuade the city to grant Union permits by promising the new company would treat its drivers better. The single most contentious issue between cab companies and drivers has been the kitty — the money drivers are required to pay cab companies to provide dispatch and other services. Wako says that at Broadway Cab, where he worked until last week, the kitty was $580 a week. Union drivers are paying about $300 a week to the Union kitty, Wako says, about half.

Wako says that includes comprehensive collision liability insurance for all Union drivers — something many of the other cab companies in town don’t provide.

Union has hired six dispatchers to handle calls around the clock. That money comes out of the kitty as well. In true co-op fashion, according to Wako, if there is money left in the kitty at the end of the year after Union has paid all its management expenses, it will be returned to the 50 drivers.

Priuses promote policy

Wako says those fuel-efficient hybrid Toyotas will allow Union drivers to better pursue another bit of policy city regulators are seeking. For years, the city has tried to discourage cabdrivers from hanging out at the airport. There, the cabbies can score lucrative rides to downtown hotels, but often sit idle for hours in the airport waiting lot. Once downtown, most sit outside the hotels, waiting for customers heading to the airport. The city wants to get the cabs out into the neighborhoods.

Union drivers, Wako says, won’t be afraid to spend time in the outlying neighborhoods, even in areas like Wilsonville, because they won’t waste as much money on gas.

Wako says the greatest obstacle in the way of Union’s success is cabdrivers from other companies. And he is worried they might try to sabotage Union, possibly by making false complaints to city regulators. Last year, tension between Wako and drivers from the established companies clashed in the lead-up to the City Council vote that granted Union its permits.

Steve Entler, Radio Cab’s general manager and representative to Portland’s Private for Hire Transportation Board, says he’s hoping Union succeeds, but he’s not certain its business plan will work. Primarily, Entler doesn’t agree that even better service will get significantly more people to take taxis.

“For most people, cabs are a luxury,” Entler says.

Entler says he can’t see how $1,200 a month from 50 drivers is going to pay for the type of service Union is claiming to provide its drivers. Radio Cab’s kitty is about $500 a week.

“That will get adjusted, guaranteed,” Entler says. “They’ll find out.”

Raising the bar

Kathleen Butler, who oversees taxis as regulatory division manager in the city’s Revenue Bureau, is hoping Union Cab’s entrance into the market heralds an era of improved taxi service for Portland. New city rules adopted last year promise that all cab companies and drivers will be held to higher standards of service, and that those that don’t meet the standards could have permits revoked.

Butler says the city is looking for quicker response times after calls for taxis, and clean cars in good condition. Companies will score points for having more cabs available for the disabled. She’d also like to see drivers willing to make more short trips. In addition, she says she’ll be looking to see that drivers are making a decent wage and not working 14-hour days, as many have been known to do.

“What we’re putting forward is that taxi service is an integral part of our transit system for tourists, for the elderly, for people who can’t use public transportation, for people who have been out on the weekend and had a few drinks and want a taxi fairly quickly to get them home,” Butler says.

Raye Miles, president of Broadway Cab, hopes Butler notices some of the positives Broadway has going in its favor. Miles says she felt Broadway was left out of the process that resulted in the changes to the cab industry, and that Broadway was unfairly singled out last year as a company providing inferior management services to its drivers.

She notes that Broadway has a diverse group of drivers and that a third of its sedan fleet is hybrids.

But this week, Union Cab feels different to Joshua Henrick, one of the new company’s dispatchers who has dispatched and driven for other companies in Portland.

“The best way I can describe it is it doesn’t feel like everybody is out for themselves,” Henrick says. “It feels like a concerted effort for the greater good.”