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Bumpy ride

Summoning Uber driver Brian Savage and his tidy Toyota Prius for a ride to the Medford airport from downtown took just two minutes.

After a few clicks, Uber's app provided Savage's photo, license plate, vehicle description and an estimated ETA with a map of his GPS coordinates updated in real time.

For Savage, the ride-sharing app gives the stay-at-home father a flexible income while still being available for his 8-, 10- and 12-year-old kids when they get home.

"When they're at school, I do this," said Savage, who has a Medford business license to drive for both Uber and Lyft.

Users seem to like the flexibility, too. Since ride-sharing was allowed Dec. 1 by the Medford City Council, Uber has facilitated more than 10,000 trips here involving 140 active drivers, according to Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley.

Its competitor, Lyft, has provided "hundreds" of rides involving "hundreds" of drivers in the Medford area, Lyft spokeswoman Darci Nenni said in an email.

But like in many other markets where Uber and Lyft have operated, not everything’s been a smooth ride.

A check with the city of Medford shows a fraction of Uber and Lyft drivers are legal to operate within the city. Of Uber’s 140 active drivers, only 50 have business licenses as required by law, according to Kristina Johnsen in the city manager’s office.

Of Lyft’s “hundreds” of drivers, only 20 have obtained licenses, city records show.

Cab companies, naturally, have fought Uber and Lyft in nearly every market they’ve entered, fearing loss of business and inability to compete with companies that don’t have the same operation and personnel costs. The smaller taxi companies, particularly, say Uber and Lyft are costing them business.

Cab company owner-operators describe waiting hours in the taxi line at the Medford airport for a fare while watching Uber drivers picking up passengers.

Medford airport Director Jerry Brienza confirmed that an increasing number of travelers are using Uber and Lyft in fares that once would’ve belonged to taxi companies.

Compounding cab drivers’ frustration is that individual taxicabs have to pay a minimum of $30 a month per car to be at the airport, while Uber and Lyft drivers aren't directly charged.

Cab companies are charged $1 per visit per car, with a minimum of $30 a month.

“If my car goes through the airport gate it’s $30,” said Craig Owen, who's been a taxi driver since 2005 and has owned Valley Cab since 2013. If another Valley Cab car comes through the gates, it's a separate $30, he said.

Depending on the season, Owen said he pays the airport between $200 and $400 a month.

"It doesn't sound like much, but it adds up," Owen said. "That's out of my pocket, not the driver's."

Brienza said Uber and Lyft do get charged for visits to the airport. He didn’t have specifics, but the fees were less than cab companies pay. He said the minimum $30 monthly fees for cabs cover renovations made for taxi drivers, such as outdoor screens with real-time flight information and front-row pickup.

"They have certain amenities that Uber and Lyft drivers don't have," Brienza said. "They can even park their cars and leave them."

Some taxi companies said there are Uber drivers soliciting passengers inside the terminal, which Brienza said is against the rules.

One particularly vigilant taxi driver had a clipboard with blank Jackson County Airport Authority incident report forms, on the lookout for a specific person he described as a repeat offender, but Brienza said he hasn't heard any formal complaints.

Brienza described the problem as "more of a learning curve" issue, and airport security issues warnings rather than fines. He likened it to new hotel employees parking shuttles in the wrong spot or cab drivers parking at the wrong curb.

"If they're repeat offenders we take their privileges away," Brienza said.

Taxi companies with dedicated dispatchers, such as Valley Cab and 5-Star Taxi, are faring better because they can offer true 24-hour service and serve a wider area than ride-sharing apps can.

Alex Bargé, owner of 5-Star Taxi, said he's less concerned about ride-sharing apps than he is about the roughly 35 single-operator cab companies, which he calls "illegal cab companies" because they fail to provide 24-hour service as required under Medford's ordinance.

“Honestly that guy, he should not be working his own cab company,” Bargé said of sole owner-operators. “He should be licensed to work with a legitimate cab company.”

Bargé said his business still has enough work to support the four to five drivers on his fleet and a dispatcher at any given time. His numbers remain in line with the range of 3,500 to 3,800 rides monthly that preceded Dec. 1.

"I haven't really noticed anything," Bargé said. "My numbers are up."

Valley Cab, Southern Oregon's largest taxi company, still has plenty of its 12 drivers and five cars on the road at any given time, Owen said. Contract rides and cash fares haven't been affected yet. Owen, however, understands his business success is at the expense of other cab companies, not Uber's.

“We are doing as well or better than before they got here,” Owen said. “That’s because so many of the cab companies have gone out of business.” Prior to the ordinance allowing ride sharing, Medford had roughly 50 taxi companies.

Owen anticipates that of the 130 drivers who had taxi licenses before ride-sharing services came into Medford's transportation mix, only "about 70" are on the road now.

"If we had been the only cab company here, it would've definitely affected us," Owen said.

Owen said his night drivers notice the change the most.

"Sometimes they're not seeing any other (taxi) drivers on the road except us," Owen said.

Smaller cab operators wouldn't talk publicly about their businesses, though some have griped on business Facebook pages, such as Deluxe Cab LLC owner Neil Gralnick, who posted Dec. 6:

"It's now winter time, and Uber is here. We need all of the people around the Rogue Valley to start helping the cab companies out of this mess that the Medford city council has done. It's a tough time to make a living without the competition of the unqualified drivers taking the public to where they want to go. 'Don't Take The Ride-Share' Tell all your customers. PLEASE!"

A dispatcher at 5-Star Taxi said the business got an Eagle Point airport pickup after "Uber just wouldn't accept the ride." And it wasn't the first taxi company called.

Uber and Lyft are currently only allowed to start rides in Medford. Ashland is tentatively set to discuss a proposed ordinance allowing the services during its March 6 meeting, according to City Attorney David Lohman. The meeting will continue earlier discussions from November.

Bargé described Uber coverage issues as an opportunity, fortifying his service at off hours and far-reaches, such as Willy's Tavern outside Eagle Point.

"There's plenty of business out there for everybody," Bargé said.

Owen said he's still able to serve senior riders who after a lifetime without computers and smartphones aren't ready to start learning to use them. More generally, Owen said his focus is on keeping his cabs clean and staff friendly.

"I'm not anti-Uber whatsoever," Owen said. "I'm all for competition."

Uber driver Brian Savage drives to the Medford airport on Thursday. Savage, who has a business license to drive for both Uber and Lyft, says his work provides income and a flexible schedule. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]
Taxis wait at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport on Thursday. Some cab drivers say they've waited for hours for fares while Uber and Lyft pick up passengers. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]