In Travis County, the number of misdemeanor DWI cases prosecuted in 2014 dropped by 25 percent from the previous year. Drunk driving in Austin, as in most car-dependent cities, has long been an epidemic, and a reduction that dramatic is a pretty big deal. If those numbers hold for 2015 (the official data hasn’t been released yet) then it’s likely that at least one of the reasons for that dip corresponds to increased transportation options provided by companies such as Lyft, Uber, and other services that make getting a ride as fast and easy as pushing a button on your phone.
That’s significant enough that it may help explain why Austin Music People—a coalition of Austin club owners, promoters, and other music industry professionals—hosted a press conference Wednesday to ensure that such ridesharing companies get to stay in the city. The coalition gathered patrons at Red River venue Mohawk and urged them to sign a petition asking Austin’s city council to repeal a controversial ordinance it passed in December regarding the companies.
It seems that the companies’ main concern with the new regulations is a requirement that all drivers be fingerprinted. As the Texas Tribune reports:
Just over a year ago, Austin passed a temporary ordinance allowing vehicle-for-hire apps to operate legally with few restrictions. Over several months, Councilwoman Ann Kitchen has led an effort to pass a permanent ordinance requiring the vehicle-for-hire apps to follow similar regulations as traditional taxi companies. The most contentious issue has been the kind of background checks drivers for both types of companies must undergo.
In most Texas cities where Uber and Lyft operate, the cities allow the companies to handle the background checks of their drivers. Officials with both companies have criticized fingerprint requirements as overly burdensome and unnecessary. Drivers working fewer than 20 hours a week are critical to the reliability of their services, they say, and requiring them to visit an office to be fingerprinted dissuades many from signing up.
The argument in favor of the provision is simple: Lyft and Uber drivers are taking people into their cars, often times taking them to where they live. That’s presented very real safety problems in other cities, particularly for women. As of last November, seven cases involving Uber drivers and sexual assault were being investigated in Austin. (No arrests have been made, which isn’t uncommon in such cases.) Anything that the city can do to guarantee that the people accepting passengers into their cars are vetted and safe makes sense.
Lyft and Uber don’t seem to see it that way, though. An incident in Dallas in which an Uber driver was arrested for rape left the company insisting that its current background checks were sufficient, and that the problem was on the city’s end of the approval process. And if fingerprinting is part of the process in Austin going forward, both companies warn that they won’t be offering rides there anymore.
There are reasons to be suspicious of fingerprinting, of course. The Austin NAACP and the Austin Urban League co-authored a letter to Austin City Council explaining the potential unintended consequences: That fingerprint-based background checks can be discriminatory in that they can flag people who’ve been arrested but never prosecuted or convicted, which is a group that disproportionately includes minority drivers.
But it’s unlikely that Uber and Lyft have suddenly decided to take on fingerprinting as a civil rights issue. Rather, it’s probably the companies protecting a win-win situation for (almost) everyone. Uber and Lyft don’t pay for the car, insurance, or gas used in providing rides, so there only value for the driver is that it’s easy to get started and make money. Most of what they can offer to passengers, meanwhile, is that there are a lot of drivers on the road that they can access through the service. The current situation, in other words, is good for everybody—except those who’d like to see more stringent regulations on who shows up when you request a ride.
The ordinance’s critics point to other aspects of the new regulatory process for drivers, too. A post on Medium from an Austin Lyft driver outlines the “Procedural hassles” involved: They include a six-step process of signing up, ensuring that your vehicle complies with inspection requirements, scheduling an additional inspection, adding a sticker to your windshield that affirms that you’re a verified driver, meeting a representative from the company that you’re working with, and getting fingerprinted—a process that the driver says could take up to a week. That certainly is more complicated than the current system, which can mostly be done from a phone, but it’d be hard to describe it as an onerous burden—most jobs require some amount of paperwork, after all, and there’s usually a delay between beginning the application process and starting work.
The threat that Uber and Lyft might leave Austin is significant, and whether their reasons for wanting the ordinance to change are “it doesn’t increase passenger safety, it just discriminates against certain kinds of drivers” or “We just don’t want to deal with any additional regulation,” it puts people such as the bar owners at Wednesday’s press conference in a tough spot: Those companies have changed their businesses in ways that have helped reduce one of the biggest problems their customers face—getting on unsafe roads—and losing that would be a real blow. Whether Uber and Lyft are right or wrong to threaten to leave, Austin needs them.
Still, it doesn’t seem that this situation is particularly unique. Fingerprinting is the major restriction that the companies seem to take issue with, but it’s hardly the first thing that’s led them to threaten to take their ball and go home. Lyft pulled out of Kansas City in April after the city required either the company’s drivers to pay a fee to be licensed, or the company to pay a $45,000 annual fee; both companies said they would leave Hawaii over insurance regulations; both warned that they would pull out of Salt Lake City over proposed background checks and inspections in November 2014; both threatened to pull out of Minnesota in March over a proposed insurance requirement; fingerprints were again the bone of contention in Broward County, Florida in April; and a $62 background check that involved fingerprinting in Houston led Lyft to make good on its promise to leave (Uber still offers services). Both companies left San Antonio, briefly, until the city backed down on its requirements.
As of press time, neither Uber or Lyft have responded to a request for comment. But it seems the companies hate being regulated, in other words, and given the demand for their services, they’re happy to play the “we’ll-just-leave-town” game—which means folks like Austin Music People are left to do the work of creating petitions to give them another alternative. But it’s fair to ask: Why aren’t local businesses urging Uber and Lyft to operate within a framework that, while slightly more burdensome for drivers than the current one, is still reasonable?
Ultimately, Lyft and Uber are playing from a position of strength here. The demand for transportation options is great, and as the leading companies in those industries they’ve seen their threats to leave other cities result in them being allowed to help craft their own regulations. Whether that’s sufficient to keep their passengers safe, though, is another question. For now, it seems, cities that attempt to address the legitimate safety concerns that come with sending people who signed up via an app to strangers’ homes late at night are met with grassroots campaigns from locals who seem happy to represent the issue as “*Insert city here* is forcing Lyft and Uber out.” It’s significantly more complicated than that—but as long as ridesharing enthusiasts are holding the press conferences, that’s how it tends to get framed.