Confessions of an Uber economist: Politicians and their crazy contradictions on crime and safety

Portland, Oregon is a contradiction wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

We are transportation innovators. We began the streetcar revival that has infected cities throughout the US. But, we still can’t pump our own gas—too dangerous, you know.

We have mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. But, if certain legislators and city commissioners have their way, it will be illegal for employers to ask job applicants if they’ve been convicted of a crime.

We are a high tech hub—the self-proclaimed home of the Silicon Forest. We bent over backward to get Google Fiber in our city. We even made our own Google Fiber beer. But, until a week or so ago, we couldn’t use the Uber or Lyft ridesharing services, because several city commissioners admitted that they didn’t understand the technology. (And, it’s well known that one commissioner still doesn’t have a smartphone.)

All these contradictions played out in the small space of one week. Last week, in fact.

Monday of last week I applied to be an Uber driver. The first step was to submit my background check. I also had to submit a copy of my driver’s license, my vehicle registration, my insurance information, and my City of Portland business license.

Oh, and I had to get my vehicle inspected to make sure it was safe and that there was no visible damage.

Now the background check is important, or so it seems. In fact, one of Portland’s city commissioners explained her fear of ridesharing by remarking that her mother always told her not to take a ride from a stranger. Yes, she really said that.

The car inspection was a snap. In fact, it took about 30 minutes and Uber paid for it.

The background check happened to be the biggest bottleneck. Turns out that the third party vendor Uber uses has a bit of a backlog from all the people who want to drive.

Nevertheless, just after noon on Friday of that week, I received text message from Uber saying that I was approved. Yes … a text message.

Fifteen minutes later, I picked up my first fare, which I detailed earlier on the Econ Minute blog.

That same day, a community activist and one of my former students was thrown off the Portland Streetcar for complaining that a vent in the streetcar was leaking water and smelled of smoke.

After complaining a few more times, the rider was thrown off the streetcar for making a disturbance and issued a citation.

Streetcar management dismissed the rider’s complaint as a disturbance to the driver and other riders. They explained that the leak was due to the aging car, which gets smoky and leaks when it’s hot outside. But streetcar management said even their smoky leaky cars are safe to ride in.

Keep in mind that the oldest car in the fleet is about 15 years old. (By the way, the average age of the planes used by Southwest Airlines is 19 years.) Also keep in mind that it wasn’t that hot outside. The high that day was 73 degrees. If that’s “hot,” then Portland’s streetcar would be expected to smoke and leak about five months out of the year.

Now let’s get to the contradictions.

We have a city commissioner who is afraid that Uber drivers might commit some sort of violence against their passengers.

At the same time, the city commission and the state legislature are pushing “ban the box” laws that would make it illegal for a business like Uber to ask whether their drivers have ever been convicted of a crime.

We have rules that require all rideshare car to pass a safety inspection. Yet the city runs streetcars that would fail the same sort of inspection to which Uber cars are subjected.

And we have a city in which African Americans complain that they can’t get a cab or get thrown off the streetcar, yet my first two Uber customers were young African American men—both Five Star riders.

And that is this week’s visit to the contradiction wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is Portland, Oregon.

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