A New Deal for TNCs?

Questions remain as Riley pushes for agreement

Chris Riley
Chris Riley (Photo by John Anderson)

The long, hot summer fun of squabbling over the eventual fate of "transportation network companies" in Austin found its thermometer turned a few degrees higher Friday when a press release by City Council Member Chris Riley's office announced plans to "legalize TNCs" immediately and to begin contract negotiations with companies – San Francisco startups Uber and Lyft, specifically – if the companies can satisfy a list of operational requirements.

The plan, supported by a "diverse group of advocates" that includes Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent, ATX Safer Streets Director Sara LeVine, and Olivia Arena, UT-Austin's City Relations Agency director (as well as two people who have used the apps), appears on the draft agenda for the next Council meeting, Thursday, Sept. 25. If it passes, city staff will begin negotiating with Uber and Lyft as early as the next day. Based on the draft proposal, similar standards apply to the companies in Houston, Detroit, and in Virginia, as well as Germany. If successful, Riley's proposal will put an end to the campaign waged by private and city resources to police the two companies, as they persist in operating illegally, and gets back on schedule the goal of getting some form of TNCs legally onto Austin's roads within 90 days of mid-May.

Riley, campaigning for re-election in the new District 9, has been adamant about the city's need for legalizing TNCs since May, when Council passed a resolution tasking City Manager Marc Ott with recommending a citywide TNC pilot program within 180 days. In mid-July, Riley said he was "still hopeful that we'll be able to get something back by the 90-day point."

The initiative addresses wasted resources spent trying to police illegal TNC operations (both Uber and Lyft have agreed to pay for any operational citations or fines the city assesses its drivers or users). It also considers concerns raised by some members of a stakeholder group convened to recommend a pilot program, especially direct competitors such as the cab companies – who consider the TNCs a threat not only to their own highly regulated businesses, but to the livelihoods of their drivers. Currently Items 85 and 86 on a 142-point draft agenda (likely to get longer this week), the proposal could still generate considerable dissent, contradiction, and contention.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, campaigning against Riley for the District 9 seat, didn't respond to a request for comment on his new proposal, but in July she told the Chronicle that problems may arise when you offer open season to a company that seeks no regulation. TNCs, for example, further complicate an already flawed taxicab system that remains a necessary transportation resource – if only because customers don't need a smartphone and a credit card to use it. Tovo also expressed concern over the TNCs urging users to operate illegally throughout the city. "It does make me wonder how well they'll be able to follow regulations going forward," she said. "We need to have companies that are cognizant of the rules and regulations that exist, and will abide by them."

Tovo's caution appears warranted, as both Uber and Lyft have shown throughout their dealings – both legal and otherwise – with other cities, that they tend to operate by their own rules. Specifically, Uber has come under heavy scrutiny for its alleged efforts to sabotage competitors with burner phones and credit cards, and for extreme "surge pricing" during high-demand periods. Earlier this month, the company was sued in California after a blind passenger found that their service dog had been stuffed into the trunk of an UberX vehicle.

Riley's office acknowledged that a major hurdle in the attempt to legalize both companies is their respective willingness to communicate the details of their operations with local officials – without jeopardizing either corporate or user privacy. Doing so, Riley says, would both help officials and law enforcement monitor the firms' activities, and shape the way operations might look going forward. "TNCs are pushing the boundaries of mobility options, and those boundaries will no doubt continue to shift in the future," Riley said Tuesday. "Gather­ing information about how these new options are being utilized will help us identify and address issues as they arise, and will allow for further innovation to expand and improve the options available in the future."

Lyft didn't respond to a request for comment, but a statement from Uber suggests that, on this issue as with so many others, the company is not willing to budge. "The privacy of our riders and drivers is a top priority, and local government doesn't need to know when or where Austin residents choose to go," said Uber spokeswoman Jennifer Mullin. "Collecting that information is a useless exercise that has failed to improve taxi service in Austin for decades."

The City's Urban Transportation Commission will receive a TNC update from staff at their meeting this Thursday, Sept. 18, at 6pm in the City Hall Boards and Commissions Room.

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