Point Austin: Getting From Here to There
The battle over TNCs is about democracy vs. corporate power
Whatever you think of the regulations currently in development at City Hall to govern the operations of transportation network companies – a generally part-time, second-job taxi service cleverly rebranded as "ridesharing" – you've got to hand it to these multi-billion-dollar dot-com giants for having portrayed the process as a moral struggle between heroic entrepreneurs against the tyrannical powers of the city of Austin and its feckless band of overseers, the City Council. For the record, ride-for-hire giant Uber is currently valued at $62.5 billion, while its most notable competitor, Lyft, is in the midst of a frenzied capital campaign that should bring it to a rather paltry $4 billion – thereby outstripping the entire annual budget of the city.
Nevertheless, Uber and Lyft pretend to cower before the assembled might of a city government that is now desperately trying to placate the companies so they won't make good on their blackmail threat to leave town if the council enacts regulations not to their liking.
You also have to admire their business model: They provide the app and its online network, and their drivers provide their vehicles and maintenance, their time and labor, and assume most of the financial and all of the personal risk – while the companies dictate pricing and take a cut of every transaction. Even better: In the event of a political beef with elected officials, you can count on all these indentured servants to campaign on your behalf as an army of Little Guys fighting oppression from The Man – peppering the neighborhoods with cute little pink signs that say "Support ridesharing," as though these multi-billion dollar corporate behemoths were the vehicular equivalent of a Saturday yard sale.
What a deal.
Not About Fingerprints
Based on what happened last week, it's apparent that when Mayor Steve Adler returned from his Paris and Cambridge travels, he saw a potential showdown between the companies and Council turning into a national PR disaster for the city, with the companies using their economic and online power either to force the Council to submit or else send a direct message to any other city that might dare to defy them. Adler persuaded a visibly reluctant Council Mobility Committee majority – Chair Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza, and Sheri Gallo – to accept an interim and incomplete ordinance he described as a "compromise," in the hopes that in the next month sufficient "incentive/disincentive" adjustments can be designed to persuade Council, companies, and drivers (full- and part-time) that Austin's solution to the complex ride-for-hire quandaries is sufficiently innovative to please everyone.
Let's wish them luck. Especially in the context of Austin's utterly inadequate mass transit network, I don't blame Adler and the others for trying whatever they can to appease the companies, make the regulations sufficient and workable, and both provide safe rides-for-hire and protect full-time drivers from even more erosion of their inadequate incomes. While the nominal issue is "fingerprinting" – and the enforcement agencies from the FBI down to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo confirmed that fingerprints add an extra layer of certitude to the name-based security checks of the companies – it's something of a distraction.
The real issue, represented in the explicit threats of the companies to leave the large and growing Central Texas market if they don't get their way, is whether the community's democratically elected representatives retain the authority to regulate businesses operating in Austin, or if the driver-eat-driver "free market" imposed by billionaire corporations will instead rule the day, where the weakest go to the wall.
The companies have done their expensive best to slander and vilify city government in general and Council Member Kitchen (as committee chair) in particular – first Uber with a malicious advertising campaign and a "horse-and-buggy" parody service, more recently Lyft with threats, misleading press releases, and an astroturf Twitter campaign. In fact, the latest Council effort continues a project begun under previous councils, trying to come up with transportation regulations flexible enough to cover everything from traditional taxicab services (under limited licenses), part-time ride-for-hire companies (which appear ready to proliferate), and now possibly a cab driver co-op. (Maybe it's time for a few "rideshare" co-ops, too.)
If Uber and Lyft care to begin operating in good faith, they should return to the council table and help design regulations workable for everybody, and sufficiently flexible to evolve. Following last week's meeting, the mayor offered a characteristically optimistic invitation: "The question of how to deal with ridesharing companies is an opportunity to chart a new, positive path that creates a solution by working together and respecting each other's priorities."
Austin needs more ride-for-hire options – at least during peak demand times, part of the balancing problem – but the only way we're going to get there is if all the parties act fairly and professionally, and not attempt to move forward by threats, bullying, and dishonesty.