Uber On the Offensive
APD is investigating claims that seven Uber and Lyft drivers sexually assaulted their riders between April and August
Two weeks after Uber announced that 53 drivers who failed the company's background checks had been issued chauffeur's licenses by the city, KXAN revealed that Austin police are investigating claims that seven different drivers for Uber and Lyft sexually assaulted their riders between the months of April and August. The report notes that five of the allegations involve Uber drivers; two drove for Lyft.
The news, which broke Friday, came just before Council's Mobility Committee readied a Monday conversation concerning the future of transportation network companies (TNCs) in Austin. Previous meetings had indicated that the committee – chaired by District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen – would recommend that Council adopt regulations that would require TNCs to pay annual administrative fees to the city (either per car or a percentage of gross revenue), and mandate that drivers be subject to city-run background and fingerprint checks. Both stipulations currently apply to taxicab drivers.
Rather than recognize that the two regulations are reasonable – and certainly not less safe than the status quo – Uber has gone on the offensive against Kitchen. Two weeks ago, they rolled out "Kitchen's Uber," a horse-and-buggy service that escorted customers Downtown. The company has also recently begun running a series of anti-Council advertisements on local TV. The ads are woefully one-sided and based around a lie; the rallying cry of "Please don't take Uber away" holds no weight in a city that isn't actively trying to remove the service from the city. (Uber loyalists will note that the company has said it will leave town if the city enforces such regulations. The reasonable response to that is that Uber's threat of withdrawal is awfully petty.) Nevertheless, its brazen tone is in keeping with Uber's attitude toward local government since it first arrived in Austin last summer.
Monday morning's committee hearing found the city's Transportation Department recommending another set of regulations for TNCs. Among them, Asst. Director Gordon Derr 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 (a decal and/or pink mustache, in Lyft's case) that working TNC cars must sport. Derr noted that these requirements are already in place for taxi franchises. A representative from Lyft said that the company is not categorically opposed to providing more data but wants to know how it will be used. CM Don Zimmerman asked Kitchen why we would seek to collect ride data from a TNC driver and not a pizza delivery driver. His colleague, CM Delia Garza, reminded him that he was conflating the safety of pizzas with that of actual people.
Council does not currently have any concrete plans to talk to TNCs moving forward, though Kitchen estimates that a conversation concerning all of the above proposed regulations will take place sometime in December.