News Roundup: Buehler, Bikes, & Uber

Uber hates City Council; bicyclists love it

Students and faculty at the UT Austin Million Student March on Nov. 12, 2015, which demanded tuition-free education
Students and faculty at the UT Austin Million Student March on Nov. 12, 2015, which demanded tuition-free education (Photo by John Anderson)

In this week's News Roundup: The Uber/Lyft alliance battles City Council for the hearts and minds of Austin residents; charges against activist Antonio Buehler are dropped (again); Austin wins recognition for its bike-friendly infrastructure; and more ...

Uber Gets No Brakes: One week after Uber and Lyft announced that 53 drivers who failed TNC (transportation network company) background checks had been issued chauffeur's licenses by the city, KXAN revealed that Austin Police are investigating claims that seven different drivers for Uber and Lyft sexual assaulted their riders between the months of April and August. The report notes that five of the allegations involve Uber drivers; the additional two drive for Lyft.

The news, which broke on Friday, comes just as Council's Mobility Committee readies a Monday afternoon conversation about the future of TNCs in Austin. Previous meetings have indicated that the Committee – chaired by District 5 representative Ann Kitchen – will recommend that Council adopt regulations that would require working TNCs to pay annual administrative fees to the city (either per car or a percentage of gross revenues), and mandate that drivers be subject to city-run background and fingerprint checks. Both stipulations currently apply to taxicab drivers throughout the city.

Rather than recognize that the two regulations are reasonable and just – and certainly not less safe than the status quo – Uber has gone on the offensive against Kitchen. Last week, the company rolled out "Kitchen's Uber," a horse-and-buggy service that picked up customers Downtown. Uber has also recently begun running a series of anti-Council advertisements on local networks. The ads are woefully one-sided, and premised around a lie; the rallying cry of "Please don’t take Uber away" holds no weight in a city that isn't actively trying to remove the service from the city. Nevertheless, its brazen tone is in keeping with Uber's attitude toward local government since it first arrived in Austin last summer. – Chase Hoffberger

Buehler ... Buehler ... Buehler ... : The District Attorney's Office announced Friday that it declined to ask a Travis County grand jury to indict Peaceful Streets Project co-founder Antonio Buehler for charges stemming from his Aug. 2 arrest. The arrest, which occurred on a Saturday night on Sixth Street after Downtown police considered Buehler to be interfering with their duties – and subsequently resisting their arrest – was brought on after, an APD press release notes, "Buehler was explained the tolerance of a safe distance [for recording police activity], warned verbally, and directed by hand movements." Buehler posted a series of annotated YouTube videos and a blog post that week explaining why he believed his actions did not actually warrant an arrest.

APD's press release notes that the DA's office "believes that APD had probable cause to make the arrest," but, "given previous determinations by Travis County juries," did not believe that it could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The release also noted that APD requested the DA not move forward with any prosecution. Buehler had similar charges dropped three different times this winter. Last October, he was acquitted on charges that he interfered with an arrest on New Year's Eve 2012.

The release says the DA's office plans to "undertake efforts" to discuss reasonable conduct with the Peaceful Streets Project "so they have a clear understanding of our interpretation of the law." If anybody's selling tickets to sit in on that meeting, I have $40 in my pocket.

The decision not to prosecute Buehler – a known thorn in the side of both APD and the District Attorney's office – is a peculiar one that could be interpreted in a number of ways. On one hand, it gives some cause to believe that Buehler has reached a certain level of invincibility, and that his knack for being a legal thorn in the side of police has become an activity that can't be prosecuted. However, the takeaway could just as easily be that APD and the District Attorney's office decided taxpayer money need not be spent on a case they cannot win. Either way, Buehler's record with regard to his interactions against APD remains clean. – C.H.

"A Community Conversation on Immigration" is the title of a Monday evening public forum at Austin Community College-Eastview, sponsored by the Travis County Democratic Party. The three-part program will begin with organizers within the immigrant community, among them representatives from Grassroots Leadership, Youth Rise Texas, and Workers Defense Project. Next, local elected officials will speak, including City Council Member Greg Casar, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, Constable Maria Canchola, and Austin ISD Trustee Paul Saldaña. The program concludes with a Q&A session (moderated by myself, Michael King) with four potential candidates for Travis County Sheriff: Sally Hernandez, Todd Radford, Don Rios, and John Sisson. The event is tonight, Monday, Nov. 16, 6:15-9pm at ACC Eastview (3401 Webberville Rd.). – Michael King

Samsung and Freescale Semiconductor responded to new Austin Energy rates approved by City Council last Thursday with a "Thanks, but no thanks," the following day. The two companies (AE's largest customers) had been operating since May on extension of contract rates set 15 years ago, pending this revision. After an executive session briefing and a brief public discussion, Council approved a new "P4 Tariff" for the two companies, a rate that AE said would be higher than before but still lower than other large companies – in recognition of the fact that Samsung and Freescale's power usage is heavy and steady year-round. In a joint statement reported by the Statesman Friday, the companies rejected the new tariff, saying it's still too high. They reportedly hope to get a better deal next year via AE's planned overall rate review, or else seek intervention on their behalf from the 2017 Legislature. – Michael King

Austin Pedals Harder: Monday morning at City Hall, the League of American Bicyclists honors Austin with a Gold Bicycle Friendly Community Award, "demonstrating Austin's leadership in revolutionizing the way our community evaluates quality of life, sustainability, and transportation networks," reads the city's announcement. The League annually ranks U.S. cities on their support of bicycle transportation, based on biking infrastructure, legal protections, and the strength of local bicycle advocacy organizations. In a statement, Transportation Director Rob Spillar said, "Austin joins just a handful of major cities in the entire nation to earn this award for efforts to make this city a bicycle-friendly community. … Austin's commitment to bicycling is evident through the implementation of our recently adopted Bicycle Master Plan which will make bicycling safer, more comfortable, and convenient for people of all ages and abilities." In a related statement, Mercedes Feris, executive director of the advocacy organization Bike Austin, congratulated the city, noting, "the city has built out over 250 miles of bike lanes, including 30 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes. The crown jewels of our urban trail network, like the Southern Walnut Creek Trail, the Boardwalk, and the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, have put Austin on the map. And Austin B-cycle, which Bike Austin helped bring to town, is now one of the most successful bike share systems in the country." Feris called for the city and bike advocates to work for a "Platinum-level" Bicycle Friendly Community Award. – M.K.

City Hall for Hillary: Also Monday morning at City Hall, more than 30 local women leaders announced their support for the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. The list includes current and former City Council members, current and former Travis County officials, state legislators, Austin ISD trustees … you get the idea. A few of the bold-faced names: Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and her predecessor Sheryl Cole, Council Members Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen, and Leslie Pool, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and County Commissioner Brigid Shea, state Reps. Donna Howard and Celia Israel, Austin ISD Board President Gina Hinojosa … and many more. The 8:15 event coincides with Mayor Steve Adler's (8-9am) Bicycle Friendly Award (see above), which also features breakfast tacos – let's hope there's enough for everybody. – M.K.

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