A truly diverse array of automobiles assembled outside of One Texas Center last Wednesday night for the first in what should be many stakeholder meetings to determine the terms of a pilot program for Austin's future with Transportation Networking Companies (TNCs): taxi cabs, Carma cars, mustachioed Lyft-mobiles, and SuperShuttles.
Inside, roughly 25 members representing various stakeholding entities – including the city's uninvited but fully operating guests of honor Lyft and Uber – gathered to answer the question of how exactly the city will fit TNCs into its admittedly inefficient transportation system. Together with three members of the Austin Transportation Department, including ATD Assistant Director Gordon Derr, they set out to round up a working group of participants in future discussions as well as form an agenda for what those discussions will exactly entail.
The main issue, ATD said, will be ensuring proper representation among the working group the Transportation Department intends to assemble during a series of meetings, which ATD Public Information Manager Sam Alexander explained "are going to be intense, and are going to be frequent." Already they'd brainstormed 19 different participants for the conversation, with representatives hailing from taxi franchises, vehicle-for-hire organizations, public safety groups, and the insurance industry. Other suggestions rolled in: people from the visitor's bureau; those involved in the nightlife industry; Movability Austin; a designated spot for pedicab drivers. ATD plans to whittle that list down and propose a working group soon, with the first meeting to occur in the next two or three weeks. Status reports are due Aug. 23.
More suggestions came from the gallery, when Alexander opened the field to ideas about which topics the working group should cover. Some proposed legal liabilities, auto ownership standards, and insurance plans, while others sought regulations on fleet sizes, driver ratings, and vehicle markings for TNC drivers. No doubt it's a lot to cover, but it's all deserving of proper shakeouts. Such was made abundantly clear during a 40-minute Statement-of-Interest session in which, via a series of three-minute stump speeches, attendees spoke to the issues they thought should be most relevant in the 90 days moving forward – and again on Dec. 2, 90 days after the status report comes in, when pilot program recommendations are due to City Council.
After Derr expressed the city's premium on ensuring safety, equity, and reliability, others spoke about the need for TNCs as a result of insufficient cab numbers and a general lack of rule-following from that industry. Two teachers addressed TNCs' ability to offer supplemental income to those who may need it. Boone Blocker, with the Urban Transportation Commission and Capital Metro Access Advisory Committee, said that TNCs need to find a way to cater to all residents, including those disabled, while Joe Woods, vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, directed attention toward potential gaps in coverage that may exist with TNC drivers.
"There are going to be legal questions as to whether, when you're patrolling for rides, you're actually in a commercial endeavor, or if you're only in a commercial endeavor when you have somebody sitting in your car," he explained when we spoke on the phone last week. "You don't have personal insurance when you're carrying a paying passenger."
The most memorable offering came from Joan Means Khabele, a representative of the Austin Cab Company and the daughter of the longtime Huston-Tillotson University educator Dr. James Means and civic activist Bertha Means. She spoke of the targeted pickups that may occur when private drivers become paid chauffeurs around the city.
"They say these will be nice cars: BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus," she said. "Do you think somebody with a nice car will pick up somebody who's stinking drunk? They don't want to clean that mess."
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