Council to Vote on TNC Ordinance

Ride-for-hire companies face regulation

Here we are at the end of our road. On Thursday, Dec. 17, City Council will vote on an ordinance to amend the City Code with its first official, not-temporary-on-a-yearly-basis set of regulations for transportation network companies (TNCs).

illustration by jason stout

Tension has been tight between the companies – until recently, industry megaliths Uber and Lyft – and Council Member Ann Kitchen, the dais’ public face of this particular policy, since the summer, with publicity stunts and targeted ads intended to paint the D5 rep as decidedly anti-TNC. Kitchen has responded, however, by insisting that it’s not Council’s intention to boot either fleet from the city.

The regulations Council are expected to approve include a nominal permitting fee (either $450 per car or 2% of the company’s gross revenue within the city) and requirements that each company subject its drivers to fingerprint scans for security checks. In November, the Transportation Department’s Asst. Director Gordon Derr also recommended that Council bar TNC drivers from idling in active travel lanes while they wait to pick up fares; require TNCs to provide the city with their accessibility plans; increase the amount of data the companies provide to the city; and define distinct trade dress (decals) that working TNC cars must sport. As Derr noted in November, all those expectations are currently in place for the closest related industry to TNCs: taxicabs.

$450 per car is a small amount of money for companies with such strong business models, and last Monday Kitchen indicated to the Chronicle that both companies would accede to the proposed permitting fees. The sticking point, it appears, is the fingerprinting. Both companies have suggested that the regulation’s implementation could be a deal-killer for future operations. The companies were able to strong-arm San Antonio into dropping such requirements in October, but wasn’t so successful with similar demands in Houston. While Uber remains, Lyft has kept clear of the Bayou City since uprooting last November. A third company, GetMe, likely wouldn’t mind if Uber and Lyft did in fact desert. The Dallas-based on-demand car service that provides rides and runs errands for customers launched locally in October. Chief Experience Officer Jonathan Laramy noted to the Chronicle that the company didn’t receive its TNC permit from the city to launch its rideshare element until Dec. 4, however – right around the time that final wording of the ordinance was coming into focus – and said that the company remains committed to Austin even as new policies go into place.

Both the TNCs and their market competition – the taxicab industry – have been on the offensive of late, last Wednesday releasing contradicting survey results indicating, in both cases, that 70% of those polled support the poller’s arguments for or against regulations. Anecdotally in the field, the TNC drivers who’ve shuttled the Chronicle about town over the past two months have been relatively easy to warm up to the idea that increasing measures of safety – like fingerprinting – can be a good thing so long as it doesn’t require any legitimate inconveniences. The Department of Public Safety has noted that Austin currently boasts 14 different fingerprint capturing units throughout the city, and that the entire process should get drivers on the road within 72 hours of submission.

While Uber likes to note that 53 drivers who failed the company’s background checks had been issued chauffeur’s licenses by the city, opponents will just as quickly point out the seven Uber and Lyft drivers being investigated by APD on accusations of sexual assault. Neither side’s foolproof, and each ride remains to some extent a risk. Thursday’s considerations make it easier to mitigate that risk without fundamentally changing the ways these companies operate.

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transportation network companies, City Council, Ann Kitchen, Uber, Lyft

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