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Lyft And Uber Continue to Battle With The City of Austin

Sifting through the twists and turns of Austin’s ridesharing battle.

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AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

The City of Austin and the transportation apps Lyft and Uber have been engaged in tense, ongoing negotiations over how those services should operate in the city basically since they launched. All of that came to a head recently as Austin’s city council passed an ordinance dictating new requirements for drivers: fingerprinting, vehicle inspections, and additional background checks. Lyft and Uber both insisted that these regulations would make it impossible for them to offer services in Austin, leading to a political action campaign from Ridesharing Works For Austin, a coalition started by the companies with the support of much of Austin’s music and nightlife industries urging city council to repeal the ordinance.

As a result of both the city’s ordinance and the hissy fit thrown by the transportation app companies, the stakes have gotten very high here. Ridesharing Works For Austin has apparently collected 65,000 signatures, which could force a vote to possibly repeal the ordinance.

It’s not great public policy for a city’s government to pass an ordinance, then for out-of-state companies to fund a campaign urging that the ordinance be repealed immediately. That may be why Austin Mayor Steve Adler proposed a compromise regulation: Rather than mandating the additional background checks and fingerprinting, Adler’s plan would allow drivers to opt-in to those security features, and reward them with a “verified” mark in the app that lets potential passengers know which drivers have volunteered for the additional screening.

It’s a good idea, and one that’s flexible enough to be interesting—non-transportation apps that involve strangers offering services to strangers (say, Airbnb hosts and guests) could earn the checkmark too. It’s also the mayor of one U.S. city proposing a major change in the user interface of two global, multi-billion dollar technology companies, so you can guess how well that went over with Lyft and Uber.

The mayor’s badge proposal is a solution without a problem. It would effectively mandate duplicative background checks for drivers to access the busiest parts of the city where Austinites and visitors need a ride,” said Uber, which announced an expansion in Austin just hours before Thursday’s City Council meeting began. “Removing drivers’ access to the airport, the entertainment district, and major events such as ACL and SXSW would cause increased congestion and limit transportation options where they are needed most. This is not about choices or incentives, but about protecting incumbent transportation providers. It’s weird, even for Austin.”

“It’s weird, even for Austin” is a good burn, but “a solution without a problem” is a curious way to describe a situation in which multiple Uber and Lyft passengers in Austin have reported being raped by their driver.

Uber’s response was condescending and dismissive of people who’ve reported being raped by their Uber driver, but Lyft’s response was the weirder—even for Austin—of the two. Lyft, it seems, has strong feelings about how Austin’s city government should be structured. Down with representative democracy, declares Lyft, up with direct democracy!

“We believe the City Council’s action should be guided by the over 65,000 Austinites who trust their voice of disapproval will be heard,” Lyft said, referencing a petition drive to undo the recent revisions to Austin’s TNC rules. “Segregating rideshare drivers into different groups, with different economic opportunities — all without any benefit to public safety — hurts drivers, consumers and the city of Austin. The badge proposal on the table makes it harder for the people of Austin to find a safe, reliable and affordable ride.”

It’s unclear precisely how many beliefs Lyft has regarding the function of Austin City Council. The city did, after all, recently opt for a “10-1” in which each member represents a different part of town—but nobody bothered to check with Lyft if that was OK first, so it may have been shortsighted of voters. Fortunately, Lyft is here to save Austinites from themselves and their foolish decision to elect a representative city council. (It’s also unclear at the moment who at Lyft concerned Austinites should contact about trash pickup, flood management, or parking variances for small businesses.)

It’s one thing for Lyft to say, “We don’t want to be regulated”—that’s a rational position. It’s another thing for Lyft to frame all of this in the righteous rhetoric that the company uses here. There’s no reason why a company based out of San Francisco should have any opinion whatsoever about how Austin’s city government operates. (Having to explain that makes a person feel a little bit like how Neil DeGrasse Tyson must have felt when he explained to B.o.B. that the earth was round.) But the framing around the issue here has been disingenuous for a long time.

Door-knockers with the Ridesharing Works For Austin campaign have framed the petition around “should Austin keep Uber and Lyft” question, but that’s not what could go on the special election ballot. Rather, the question is really, “Should Austin keep the regulations that City Council voted on, or should it let Uber and Lyft write the regulations?” (You can read the ordinance that Ridesharing Works For Austin proposed here.) You might find that you get fewer signatures on a petition like that.

Of course, you might not. What’s ultimately at issue in the battle between Austin City Council and Lyft/Uber isn’t just if the companies should be able to operate (no one is arguing that they shouldn’t, Lyft and Uber are just arguing that they’ll choose not to) or even if they should write their own regulations.

What’s at issue here is whether you can trust any of the players involved. Austin’s fingerprinting ordinance does have problems; the Austin cab industry—which obviously hates Lyft and Uber—has funded candidates who support the ordinance; Uber and Lyft do threaten to leave cities and states that attempt to regulate them in ways they don’t like all of the time; Adler’s plan is a solution to a problem that actually does exist; Lyft has no business preaching the righteous gospel of direct democracy in Austin, Texas; and there’s no friggin’ way that any of this amounts to “segregation,” as Lyft claimed in the second half of its statement.

Sifting through the immense rivers of bull flowing through the debate around transportation apps is exhausting, though, and it naturally favors the better-funded, negotiating-from-a-place-of-strength parties involved. Uber and Lyft have extremely deep pockets devoted almost solely to ending regulations unfavorable to the companies, and it’s easy enough for them to make threats, then frame them as the oppressive hand of big government. They can hire people to knock on doors throughout Austin with a misleading explanation of what’s on the table; they can couch their desire to make a profit as striking a blow for the people and against “segregation”; they can convince 65,000 people to sign a petition, and probably turn out half of those people to vote (which would almost certainly be enough to swing a special election in May).

None of that is the best way for a city to govern itself, obviously, but it’s where Austin is right now.

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  • jk

    “Sifting through the immense rivers of bull flowing through the debate around transportation apps is exhausting”

    …as is sifting through the immense rivers of bull in this article, but I’ll take a crack at it anyway.

    “Ridesharing Works For Austin, a coalition started by the companies with the support of much of Austin’s music and nightlife industries”

    Actually, it’s the other way around: Ridesharing Works coalesced on its own, and Uber and Lyft subsequently provided it with a comparatively minimal amount of funding.

    “It’s not great public policy for a city’s government to pass an ordinance, then for out-of-state companies to fund a campaign urging that the ordinance be repealed immediately.”

    This would be more accurately framed as, “It’s not great public policy for a city’s government to pass an ordinance, then for 65,000 citizens of that city — a larger number than the voter count in any municipal election to date — to sign a petition seeking a public referendum on the subject.” (At no point has “immediate” repeal of the ordinance been on the table; the earliest date would be in May.)

    “‘It’s weird, even for Austin’ is a good burn, but ‘a solution without a problem’ is a curious way to describe a situation in which multiple Uber and Lyft passengers in Austin have reported being raped by their driver.”

    The part you left out was the even larger number of taxi drivers (as a percentage of total rides) accused of sexually assaulting a passenger during the same period — this despite having been fingerprinted. Consequently, the “solution” of fingerprinting TNC drivers is of dubious value at best. This is particularly the case if you consider that fingerprint checks only check the Texas DPS database, entirely skipping over crimes that someone may have committed in every other state, whereas the TNCs’ electronic checks are nationwide in scope.

    “Lyft, it seems, has strong feelings about how Austin’s city government should be structured. Down with representative democracy, declares Lyft, up with direct democracy!”

    The “weird” part here is your characterization of Lyft’s position. Austin citizens have had the ability under city code to demand a public referendum with respect to a city council decision — not to mention a recall vote for any elected municipal official — since its inception. In this case, not only did they elect to do so, Ridesharing Works collected three *times* as many signatures than necessary under the law.

    The whole *point* of the referendum, framed with respect to your comment, is that Austin’s elected representatives voted in favor of an ordinance backed almost unilaterally by a single special interest: the Austin taxi industry, which for obvious reasons desperately wants Uber and Lyft to leave town. As such … well, they screwed up.

    “Fortunately, Lyft is here to save Austinites from themselves and their foolish decision to elect a representative city council.”

    Snark much? Lyft is not “saving” Austinites from anything; yet again, neither they nor Uber “orchestrated” the referendum.

    “There’s no reason why a company based out of San Francisco should have any opinion whatsoever about how Austin’s city government operates.”

    I completely agree, which is why I find your characterization of this entire topic to be so odd. Uber and Lyft aren’t deciding anything; Austin voters are.

    “there’s no friggin’ way that any of this amounts to ‘segregation,’ as Lyft claimed in the second half of its statement.”

    Perhaps not, but there’s no friggin’ way any of Adler’s “Thumbs Up!” proposal is truly “voluntary,” either, considering the choice of *not* obtaining a badge will unambiguously have a deleterious effect on a TNC driver’s bona fide livelihood.

    “Should Austin keep the regulations that City Council voted on, or should it let Uber and Lyft write the regulations?”

    Um, no. The *actual* question is, “Should Austin keep the regulations its neophyte City Council voted on, despite them being dictated by the taxi lobby and almost entirely out of sync with every other market where Uber and Lyft operate (excepting Houston), or should it retain its *existing* TNC ordinance — hailed as one of the best and most thorough in the country — passed by its previous, vastly more experienced City Council?”

    “Uber and Lyft have extremely deep pockets devoted almost solely to ending regulations unfavorable to the companies”

    It’s at this point that I finally have to call bullshit on this entire article. Uber and Lyft donated a combined $20,000 in cash to Ridesharing Works. To put that number into perspective: Airbnb donated EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS to defeat San Francisco’s ballot initiative last fall that would’ve banned short-term rentals there. They didn’t pay any of the hundreds of canvassers who collected 65,000+ signatures in under three weeks’ time. They didn’t bribe TechNet or Austin Music People into joining “their” coalition. Despite their background support for the referendum, it was nonetheless almost entirely a grassroots movement brought forth by those who realize that the entire “public safety” argument is a woefully false canard utilized nationwide by taxi interests trying to hinder TNCs in any way possible.

    And no, I do not mean to denigrate any of the victims of sexual assault at the hands of a TNC driver. Such acts are vile and unacceptable under any circumstances. Nonetheless, replacing a good-but-flawed means of checking the backgrounds of prospective drivers with a well-intentioned but considerably *more* flawed verification method is, very simply, *not* the best way forward.

  • Deke

    I’m so sick of hearing Uber and Lyft complain about regulations, especially considering they have built their businesses by taking advantage of loopholes that their competitors have had to abide by for decades. They don’t argue that all the regular taxi businesses should have their regulations and fees lifted, they want the taxi industry to continue to be burdened by these regulations and fees, while they systematically build a workforce with zero rights and protections while at the same time build a business worth over 40 BILLION dollars.
    They argue that they remove congestion in cities but I just moved here from SF where the city is more congested than ever with Uber and Lyft vehicles coming in from far and wide prowling the city waiting for fares.
    I’m okay with Uber and Lyft operating, but they should operate under the same rules as taxis with the same costs. If that means rules and fees are lifted on taxi’s, then that’s okay but it has to be a level playing field.
    But mark my words… when ride sharing forces all taxis into bankruptcy (like Yellow Cab in SF) and there is no regulation on fares we won’t continue to see cheaper fares, we will see higher fares and we’ll also see surge pricing all the time.