News / The Diaspora

An Immigrant’s Fare Fight: Taxi drivers hit by Uber and Lyft

By   ANNA WALTERS, Willamette Week  JUNE 3, 2015

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Robel Berhan, who immigrated from Ethiopia nearly two decades ago, has been driving a cab in Portland since 2009. He says business is off since Uber and Lyft entered the city.

 Christopher Onstott

 

R

obel Berhan steers his blue and orange Union Cab with its empty backseat to Hotel Lucia on Southwest Broadway. Nothing. He heads to the Marriott. A line of other cabs blocks his way. He knows a guy at the Nines who sometimes helps him out. It’s nearly 7 pm on a Wednesday, and Berhan needs a customer.

Cars jam the Nines’ loading zone on Southwest Morrison Street, so Berhan double parks his Prius.

“What’s up?” a doorman calls out as Berhan rolls down the window.

“You have any customer?” Berhan asks.

“No,” the doorman says. He smacks his gum, impatient.

“Uber and Lyft?”

“Oh yeah,” the doorman says. “Big time.” He says eight people in the past few hours have jumped into Uber cars.

“Eight taxi could have had a fare,” Berhan says as he pulls away. “I bet they were all going to the airport.” That’s the fare every cab driver wants—about $35, plus tip.

Berhan, 41, came from Ethiopia nearly two decades ago and has driven a cab in Portland since 2009. For years he got by driving five days a week in 12-hour shifts. Now he’s thinking he might have to work seven days a week if he’s to have any hope of covering his costs. “I don’t think I can rob people,” Berhan says, “so I have to do something.”

The arrival of ride-hailing monolith Uber and its competitor Lyft have been met with celebration in Portland, as a triumph of new technology over an outdated taxi industry.

The city’s taxi companies report a drop in business since Uber and Lyft rolled in, and that’s hit Portland’s Ethiopian community like no other. Immigrants from Ethiopia make up about one-third of taxi drivers in the city, based on interviews with cab drivers and company managers.

Ethiopians run two of the city’s six major taxi companies, Green Transportation and Union Cab. At driver-owned Union Cab, four of every five drivers come from Ethiopia, and managers say revenues are off by as much as 30 percent.

Berhan owns his taxi and likes being his own boss. Quitting would be a last resort.

“I’m here to fight,” Berhan says. “I’m here to stay. I don’t care if I make a dollar a day, I’m not going to stop. This is my baby. This is my company.”

Read the full story on Willamette Week

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Copyright © 2015 Willamette Week Newspaper & WWEEK.COM. All rights reserved

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