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L&C Helped Craft Uber Regulatory Standards in Portland

May 13, 2015

On December 8, 2014 the City of Portland sought an injunction to enjoin the rideshare company Uber from operating within the city. Today, Uber and Lyft are operating under a regulatory framework that was heavily influenced by the policy research and recommendations of six Lewis & Clark law students. The students’ transportation policy recommendations included a novel regulatory standard of service adopted by the city that ensures wheelchair users have equal access to transportation options offered in Portland by Uber and Lyft.

After reading about Uber’s rogue launch and swift shutdown last December, Associate Dean Libby Davis and law school alum Michael Schultz recognized an opportunity for students to become engaged in the regulation of an emerging economic sector. Conversations between Davis and Schultz resulted in an invitation from Career Services for students to form an independent policy research group. In January, John Peckler ’17, Sun Kim ’15, Stephanie Grant ’15, Leslie Hallan ’17, Jared Banta ’17 and Tom Walsh ’17, formed the research group supervised by Schultz. The group focused on the relationship between the economic efficiency promised by transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft and the regulatory oversight of the traditional taxi industry. The group started by surveying TNC regulations considered by jurisdictions nationwide, then identified key common issues, and finally crafted a regulatory framework that allowed TNCs and taxi companies to operate on an equal playing field.  

Each member of the group was assigned to certain jurisdictions and was then responsible for uploading relevant legislative materials to a cloud-based worksheet. The group met weekly and crafted a timeline for each stage of completed work product. Meanwhile, Schultz arranged for representatives from Uber, Lyft, Portland taxi companies, disability rights associations, industry lobbyists, the City Attorney’s Office, and City Hall to meet with the law students on campus each week. “My goal was to make certain the students developed complete information and then had the opportunity to evaluate that information against input from the full range of interests,” said Schultz, “this was not a normative process, this was a fact driven process designed to glean the appropriate relationship between efficiency and regulation.” Because the students had done the research, they were able to evaluate actual costs of proposed regulatory obligations and consider the positions advocated by invited representatives during their weekly meetings.

“This experience provided opportunities not only to meet with some of the most influential people regarding a controversial issue governing tech companies, but also to make an impact on a soon-to-be new law,” said Kim, one of the group members.

After identifying common issues in the regulatory terrain contained in the students’ transportation policy database and considering input from industry and public representatives, the group crafted their policy recommendations. Each student was responsible for developing a specific policy recommendation to address a specific issue. “I worked to inspire dissent,” said Schultz “but the law students worked very well together and on every single policy recommendation, they eventually reached unanimous consent.” A central component of the students’ recommendations is the Portland Equal Access Plan (PEAP). PEAP is an innovative regulatory standard because it is the first plan in the nation to establish a wheelchair-accessible-vehicle (WAV) service level for both TNCs and taxi companies and because it relies upon the free market to determine the most efficient way to meet that standard. After the group submitted their policy recommendations, members of the group drafted editorials, met with reporters and worked with interest groups to ensure the Portland City Council adopted PEAP.

In late April, the Portland City Council passed a resolution giving the green light to TNCs to operate in the city for a 120-day pilot period. One of the requirements of TNCs operating during this period is wheelchair access. According to Schultz, “Portland was the first market globally where Uber launched their core product simultaneously with WAV access to that product. That was a tremendous result and it is one for which the law students deserve great credit.”

 If you open an Uber or a Lyft app on your smart phone in Portland today, you have the option to select a wheelchair accessible vehicle. “Critical to PEAP’s success was the fact that the Portland Commission on Disability endorsed the plan after meeting with the students on campus,” said Schultz, “the students advocated an innovative public policy solution and that attracted a coalition.”

“I’m glad that the TNCs are operating in Portland and I think they will help to push the whole ride-for-hire business to provide better service to lots of people,” says Peckler, one of the students in the group.

When research group member, Grant, learned the Portland City Council adopted the policy priorities the group drafted she said, “It certainly felt validating to know our work had been useful, as we intended. It was great to know that we had contributed positively to the process, and it was inspiring to see how possible it was to have an impact.”

Another member, Hallan, says she feels the market is now more free and fair, and is grateful to have participated in the process. “I feel our research paid off tremendously in helping make this happen and can’t wait to see how this will all develop in the next few months.”

Portland’s administrative rules governing TNCs will continue to develop over the next few months because the administrative oversight and enforcement mechanisms for the City’s transportation policies are incomplete. “This is a nascent regulatory sector,” said Schultz, “Associate Dean Davis recognized the educational opportunity for law students, and the law students delivered by making a very important contribution to the evolution of TNC regulations. Interest groups and trade organizations have enquired whether Lewis & Clark law students will assist with the next stage of oversight and enforcement. Associate Dean Davis and Schultz are discussing how a second project over the summer may be structured to provide law students with an opportunity to draft model administrative rules. 

Update: Aug, 28, 2015: OregonLive publishes oped piece by law students Tessa Copeland and Leslie Hallan regarding laws surrounding transportation companies like Uber. 

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