Doing the Electric Slide
Electric cab item pulled from council agenda
Did a proposed ordinance to regulate electric cabs get pulled from last week's City Council agenda because of legitimate concerns or a political vendetta? A former council candidate says it's the latter, even though his onetime opponent – Council Member Randi Shade – wasn't alone in getting the item pulled.
Chris Nielsen, owner of Electric Cab of Austin, was briefly a declared candidate in the Place 3 race against Shade but never actually filed to run. Nielsen has been operating the business for about three years, shuttling people around the Downtown area on short trips in low-speed electric vehicles (a fancy golf cart, if you will). His drivers have been ticketed "about 200" times, he says, basically for operating a vehicle-for-hire service without the kinds of permits under which taxis and pedicabs work. But because the law doesn't address LSEVs, Nielsen objects that "they can't require us to have a permit that doesn't exist." He has been pushing for an ordinance that would regulate the types of vehicles he operates.
At the direction of council, just such an ordinance was initially posted on last Thursday's (April 21) agenda, but it was pulled during the Tuesday work session. Noting that the city's Transportation Department is scheduled to conduct a comprehensive review of the city's transportation industry, Shade said, "I'm confused as to why we would introduce a new category before we've even had a chance to look at it." The review is due to be completed in three to six months.
After the item was pulled, Nielsen sent an email to the entire council decrying the move. "Low Speed Vehicles for Hire (item 47) has been studied for 3 years to ensure the safety of the vehicles and their operations in urban areas," he wrote. "This particular ordinance has received the recommendation of the Urban Transportation Commission last month."
Nielsen then followed with a thinly veiled accusation: "Randi Shade's suggestion that further study is needed is unwarranted and quite frankly the intent and timing of her actions yesterday are disturbing." The Chronicle later asked Nielsen if "intent and timing" meant that Shade was retaliating against his aborted council run. "Obviously," he replied.
Asked for comment, Shade pointed out – correctly – that although she started the work session discussion, she received plenty of agreement that the ordinance needed further review. "We'd just as soon wait and do the comprehensive analysis," said City Manager Marc Ott. Expressing concerns about how the electric vehicles fit into the city's formula for allotting cab permits, Mayor Lee Leffingwell also wanted to wait, and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez said, "This is going to have an impact on our cab industry." Martinez opined that the cab industry helped create the demand for LSEVs by not accepting enough short trips, but still said, "My recommendation is that we pull the item." Council Member Sheryl Cole agreed.
Nielsen said that the issue has been pushed to council by the Urban Transportation Commission and pushed back several times already. "It's been three years," said Nielsen, who is 31. "I hope I'm not 55 waiting on another study."
"He's chosen to launch a business in a highly regulated field," said Shade. "That's his choice." Shade says she's heard a lot of opposition to the proposed ordinance from taxicab and pedicab operators. "It's not like he's the only person with an opinion on this issue."
As to her alleged political motivations, she said, "I don't make decisions based on politics; I make decisions based on policy."