An Immigrant’s Fare Fight

Taxi drivers have been hit by the arrival of Uber and Lyft—including many who are Ethiopian immigrants.

Robel 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Uber and its competitor Lyft have been met with celebration in Portland, as a triumph of new technology over an outdated taxi industry.

Photo: DRIVEN: 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. – IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

Read more at: Willamette Week