The owners of Pendleton’s only taxi service couldn’t stop the city from starting to offer ride-hailing services like Uber. But they claimed that the brand name was first used by their new competitors.
Elite Taxi owners Matthew and Rod Joelke registered Let’er Uber LLC with the Oregon Secretary of State on August 8. A father-and-son team’s new limited liability company shares a name with a group of startup drivers who hope that technology like Uber will increase transportation options in the area.
Whatever the motive, the creation of Leer Uber LLC is the latest development in the controversial process of bringing ride-hailing services to Pendleton.
The move has left Uber members confused, and the Joholses have not publicly disclosed the reasoning behind their new company. The owners did not return a message left at the Pendleton office.
All this takes place before the Pendleton Roundup, the region’s biggest tourism event of the year. In mid-September, thousands of tourists from around the world come to Pendleton for the festival, and most of them want to drive around town.
In the spring, a group of Pendleton drivers led by couple Alicia and Jesse Reinen lobbied the city to change its taxi numbers to allow Uber. Companies like Uber haven’t met the city’s requirements for a taxi service, but a group of local residents argued that Pendle would expand transportation options and choices.
The request drew immediate opposition from Jolx, who said they would have to maintain their status as the only taxi business that offers cash fares to survive. Pendleton City Council wanted to keep Elite Taxi alive.
Pendleton City Councilman Dale Primer said Elite contracts with the city to operate its public transportation services.
“They provide drivers for buses, they do dial-a-rides, they do non-emergency medical transportation,” he said. “The fear for people is that if they cut the toll road, will it damage its sustainability and lose some essential services to those who are most vulnerable and most dependent on those services?”
In late April, Primer and the rest of the City Council agreed to a compromise: Uber drivers would get a five-month trial period to make sure they could work without putting Elite out of business.
The Ryans founded Layer Uber following the council’s decision, and Becky Ramirez joined shortly after. Ramirez works as a tour guide and gift shop worker as her day jobs, but also drives for Uber as a “side hustle.”
Ramirez said Uber started with an informal group to coordinate schedules and promote their service. The team’s core membership consists of less than 20 drivers.
Unlike taxi drivers who work for a company, all Uber drivers are independent contractors who use the Uber app to book trips and process fares. While Uber has struggled with efforts to recruit drivers, Ramirez said the informal group Let’er Uber didn’t attract attention from the San Francisco-based company because it was just locals who wanted to help each other.
Ramirez says her first few months working for Uber have been good. She occasionally hears complaints from clients about Elite services, but says she doesn’t get involved and tries to focus on her own work.
That’s why Elite Action is a secret to Literary Uber members.
“I’m not necessarily shocked that they did that,” she said. “I don’t understand why you do that. What is the value of buying that? What are your plans with him? It just doesn’t seem like a good thing. No matter what it looks like, it’s going to end in evil.”
The city of Pendleton appears to be out of the fray for now.
Linda Carter, who oversees Pendleton’s transportation programs as the city’s finance director, said about 25 people have received snowmobiling permits since the city opened the process in late April.
Carter heard complaints from Leer Uber about Johlkes’ limited liability company, but assumed it was a privately resolved conflict between drivers and elites.
Primer said he has heard nothing but good things since the council approved the driving test period. On a recent trip to Bend, he spoke with an Uber driver interested in working at the Pendleton Roundup for additional fares.
Leer said the situation between Uber and Elite reminded him of the companies’ dotcom rush in the 1990s. But he did not know much about the situation and did not think about his council work.
“Whatever the name is, I think it’s still going to be relevant to anyone when you go to your Uber app and tap the button,” he said.
Ramirez said Uber was largely present during Pendleton’s policy-making process.
Hermiston is finding itself in the same boat. The same day Jolkx registered Let’er Uber LLC, Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan told the Hermiston City Council that Uber has no interest in getting involved in the local debate about ride-hailing.
“Uber is clearly not interested in engaging in algorithmic or similar changes based on any code or discipline,” he said. “It seems like people who want to have Uber basically ignore us until they ask.”
A “taxi code driver” has been driving for Uber in Hermiston despite Morgan not meeting the city’s taxi code, and the city council will soon hear more about the issue.
Pendleton’s experiment with services like Uber will end after the grant.
The massive event marks the unofficial end of Pendleton’s tourism season, drying up the well of patrons for ride-hailing and taxis.
Despite a recent drop in customer traffic, Ramirez said she thinks Uber has enough local customers to continue operating beyond the end of the trial.