Uber Stakes Its Austin Claim
City attempts to solve rideshare conundrum
The circus surrounding the uninvited arrival of "transportation networking companies" grew another ring last week when Uber – the San Francisco-based company valued last week at $18 billion – rolled into town, throwing its ceremonial first ride to the celebrated local chef Paul Qui.
"We're on," Uber Senior Communications Associate Lauren Altmin told the Chronicle shortly after the first pickup was made. "There's been such an overwhelming response from riders and driver partners that we're really excited to be out on the road." Like Lyft, which launched two weeks ago, Uber will operate 24 hours a day. The company plans to offer free rides through a regularly scheduled 16-day promotional period, ending June 19, with payments to each driver being made through the company. Asked how much the company is paying for each ride, Altmin said, "We cannot disclose the specifics of our independent contractor agreements." Here's guessing it's higher than the Comptroller's accepted reimbursement rate (for depreciation purposes) of $0.56/mile.
That ambiguity is the latest in what's fast becoming a hot-button issue mired in a bevy of big, blotchy gray areas. Both Lyft and Uber have indicated repeatedly that they're excited to be working with the city on bringing TNCs to Austin, but the two companies' arrivals run in direct contrast to requests from City Council, which has essentially asked for a bit more time – perhaps even seven months – to figure the whole TNC system out, during which time TNCs are not allowed to take payment for rides. The city, meanwhile, has received informal accusations of entrapment from Lyft, which claims that city staffers have engaged in sting operations to nab violators. In one case, Lyft alleges, a staffer "purposely left cash behind."
To those accusations, Department of Transportation Public Information Manager Samantha Alexander said flatly that staffers may not issue citations unless they "witness a driver actively accepting payment." As for the TNCs' rogue invasion, Alexander allowed that it's all a part of the process of both sides looking into what works. "It's not stifling efforts," she said, adding that the city will continue issuing citations even though it knows payments will continue being made out of Uber and Lyft's deep-pocketed piggy banks. "We, as a department, are in charge of enforcing code, and must do due diligence on our part."
Sounds like the makings of a hot, fun summer. In the meantime, on Wednesday evening after the Chronicle went to press, the city held its first stakeholder meeting as part of City Manager Marc Ott's effort to consider short- and long-term options for meeting taxi or rideshare demand. For an update, check austinchronicle.com/daily.