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city’s government to pass an ordinance, then for out-of-state companies to fund a campaign urging that the ordinance be repealed immediately.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.