Uber, Lyft Return to Austin Monday

Gov. Abbott expected to sign rideshare bill

Uber, Lyft Return to Austin Monday

Rideshare firms Uber and Lyft have announced they plan to return to Austin, as Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign transportation network company law House Bill 100. As a result, local rideshare rules like Austin‘s background check ordinance will be thrown out, to be replaced by weaker statewide rules.

Lawmakers approved the measure last week, sending it to the governor’s desk on May 18. Normally, a Texas bill would only take effect on Sept. 1, following the session. But since the Senate approved HB 100 by more than two-thirds (21-9), any signature from Abbott would put the law into effect immediately. Uber and Lyft's public statements, as well as texts to registered (and dormant) drivers, point to a Monday signing. If so, it could prove a welcome distraction for Abbott instead of the current meltdown in the House and Senate regarding bathroom bills, school finance, and the budget (see Lege Lines: Respect Us or Expect Us, May 26).

The TNCs had already pledged to return to Austin as soon as the bill (authored by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall) goes into effect. No surprise, since the two firms combined have spent over $2.3 million in lobbying fees to get the measure passed.

It was just over a year ago that Austin voters rejected an attempt by the two companies to dump city regulations (approved in 2015) that required background checks and other regulatory standards. It was a self-inflicted injury; along with Ridesharing Works for Austin, a political action committee the two firms helped launch, Uber and Lyft spent in excess of $10 million on a campaign to get the proposition passed. For all their efforts, Prop. 1 still failed by 12 points, and both Uber and Lyft left Austin immediately in what many saw as a fit of corporate pique.

They didn’t run far. Just down to the Capitol.

Days after the vote, Republicans in state government were already calling for legislative intervention. The companies claimed they had been forced out of Austin (a falsity), and lawmakers ran to their defense.

The GOP argument was that having a single set of statewide regulations would be better than an erratic series of local ordinances. Yet this is more broadly seen as an attack on local control (Austin’s needs might not align with those in Buda), and confirmation that the state’s Legislature takes the concerns of major corporations more seriously than the explicit will of voting citizens.

Moreover, HB 100 does nothing to solve ongoing questions concerning why Uber and Lyft seemingly started their fights with Austin. Both firms began operations in 2014 in spite of requests from Council that they hang fire until a regulatory system could be established. (The U.S. Department of Justice is in fact investigating Uber for deliberately evading regulations in multiple cities through software called Greyball.) Their 2016 petition made Austin’s regulatory system look more demanding than any other, even though it was actually less strict than Houston’s. Moreover, it raises the perennial question as to why Uber never introduced its Uber Black service locally. That offering requires a commercial driver or chauffeur license, far and above what the Austin regulations needed.

HB 100 may seem like a victory for corporate lobbying, but even the victors have some questions about the shadow of evangelical obsessions hidden within the text. Uber and Lyft have raised concerns about the House’s injection of a “bathroom bill”-esque clause. In the nondiscrimination section, an amendment by Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, defines sex as “the physical condition of being male or female.” While neither firm has withdrawn support over this language, both have expressed disquiet: not least because it’s a bad look that the legislation they pushed through has become another vehicle for the conservative anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Moreover, the two companies return to a very different transportation system in Austin. Since their departure, rivals like Boston-based Fasten and local innovators RideAustin, (as well as a new taxicab co-op), have begun operations locally. Time will tell whether their year spent establishing market share, as well as the ill will built up by Uber and Lyft trying to strong-arm Austinites, will shape the city’s transit future.

Then, of course, there’s the larger question about the two firms’ long-term plans to dump their current systems of drivers in favor of self-driving cars. Nationally, that’s becoming more of an issue since Uber’s experiment with autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh, Pa., was a political disaster. The firm now stands accused of reneging on financial and job-creation commitments.

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