PORTLAND, Ore. – The ride-sharing app Uber launched in Portland Friday night without the city's approval.
Uber's regional manager Brooke Steger said the app began working at 5 p.m. and drivers were able to immediately begin offering rides.
The City of Portland, which previously said it wouldn't change its regulations to allow Uber to operate like cabs, has not yet altered the rules. Uber launched anyhow.
"I don't think we're going against the city's wishes," Steger said. "We hope the city embraces this and listens to their constituents, the people of Portland and drivers partnering with us."
Mayor Charlie Hales said the launch was illegal. The mayor's office did not receive any advance notice from Uber about the Dec. 5 launch.
City Commissioner Steve Novick said Uber is choosing to break the law and the city is prepared to issue civil and criminal penalties against drivers and the company. Drivers could get hit with up to $3,750 for first-time offenses.
"There's nothing sharing about this so-called 'sharing economy' company," Novick said. "They want to profit in Portland without playing by the same rules as existing cab companies."
How Uber works
Uber is a company that connects people needing a ride with drivers. Instead of going through a cab or Town Car company, users can connect directly with drivers by using the Uber app.
Drivers often supplement their income by moonlighting with Uber, using their own vehicles. But Portland and other cities have regulations that classify Uber in the Town Car category, meaning riders must wait at least an hour after scheduling a ride before the driver shows up and pay a premium price over what cabs can offer.
Uber is already up and running in 46 countries and more than 200 cities. People who want a ride use the Uber smartphone app to hail a car from a nearby driver. The rides are metered and Uber takes 20 percent of the fare.
Steger said riders are very safe when using Uber – every driver must go through a background check, vehicle inspection and be insured for at least $1 million.
Uber launches without approval in other cities
This isn't the first time Uber has launched in a city where regulations weren't in place. The company started offering service in Eugene, even though lawmakers said the ride-sharing service was illegal.
Eugene told Uber they had to cease operations or be fined up to $2,000 a day. Salem also said the app is operating outside of regulations.
Despite the possible legal ramifications, Steger said she is "extremely excited" for Friday's launch in Portland.
"We feel it's our duty," she said. "It's the holidays, a popular season to go out, there are a lot of DUIs. We really feel like now is the right time, we want to meet the public's demands and meet safety needs of the city and offer one of the safest and reliable rides around."
Uber has been criticized for its pay structure, which spikes due to demand, and for taking away business from established cab companies.
But in neighboring Vancouver, where Uber is up and running (and legal), one driver said it's a great way for Portlanders to make some extra cash.
"I love this model, your neighbors driving you around," said Uber driver Eric Hansen. "That's what this is, anybody with a few hours a day to make some extra money."