Buy Yourselves a Ride – Legally!

Council approves TNC ordinance

Buy Yourselves a Ride – Legally!
Photo by John Anderson

Every technologically conscious "ride sharer" and trip provider in Austin let out a collective "Finally!" last Thursday (Oct. 16), after City Council voted to approve on third and final reading the ordinance – sponsored by Council Member Chris Riley and much-amended on the dais yet again – that will make transportation network companies legal throughout the city.

Beginning next week, when the ordinance takes effect (10 days after approval) companies such as Uber and Lyft will sign paperwork that will put them legally onto city books. Both will continue operating the way they've been operating – albeit with a stronger presence (e.g., Lyft's mustaches) – and Austin police officers will stop worrying about ticketing drivers for operating vehicles-for-hire without proper licenses.

Speaking after the Council approval, Uber Texas General Manager Chris Nakutis noted that the language passed via Riley's ordinance reads much like those approved by city councils in Tulsa, Detroit, and other "similarly sized cities" throughout the country. He called Austin's insistence on secondary background checks – city-run audits that must be completed within 30 days of a TNCs – "a little unique to Austin," and expressed approval over current insurance expectations, which place the policy onus on a driver's personal insurer at all times in which commercial activity (from acceptance of a ride to the closing of that transaction) isn't actively taking place.

Nakutis also mentioned the possibility of UberPool – a ride-pooling system among riders already available in certain cities (i.e., actual "ride-sharing") – and hinted about a potential Austin office. Lyft released a canned statement on the victory.

CM Riley's policy aide Leah Bojo told the Chronicle that the city's background checks in fact run largely consistent with those in Houston, and that the uniqueness of the ordinance is actually reflected in the monthly data companies will now be responsible for reporting to the city every quarter. "That was huge," said Bojo, "and one of the biggest sticking points in our negotiations at the beginning." She said companies should expect to pass along data detailing rider pickup and drop-off patterns; peak ridership times and popular locations; costs of trips, including the measure in the amount of time and dynamic pricing; the lengths of each trip; and ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) service comparisons.

As deliberations stretched on for another almost three hours Thursday evening, Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed concern from the dais that Council was spending so much time debating the intricacies of an ordinance that will only be in effect for a few months. Indeed, the language approved Thursday is officially temporary, and is expected to be replaced by a pilot program recommended by city staff when a TNC working group concludes its meetings in the next few weeks. But one member of that group – Eric Goff, a TNC user and consumer representative – told Council members at a meeting three weeks ago that the biweekly sessions have been unproductive, and he amplified that complaint to the Chronicle last week.

"City Coun­cil is creating a regulatory framework that will actually take action, whereas the stakeholder process that I'm a part of is a few independent people not affiliated with a company and then a bunch of taxi cab owners, regulatory professionals, and Uber and Lyft," Goff said. "There never will be any agreement. ... I can see staff being pragmatic and saying 'Well, now that Council's voted on something, unless we have something else, we effectively know what our bosses think the answer is.' I think it's giving a strong indication to staff of what proposals might pass or not."

Should that happen, last week's Coun­cil action predicts what Austin's TNC framework will look like, henceforth.

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transportation network companies, TNCs, City Council, Uber, Lyft, Chris Riley

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