The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Thumbs Up or Down?

Battle over ridesharing companies approaches a flashpoint

By Michael King, January 22, 2016, News

Although there are plenty of moving parts, it appears the simmering dispute between City Council and the transportation network companies is about to come to a boil. Council is scheduled to consider the still-developing "incentives" governing TNC driver background checks next week (Jan. 28); the companies (TNCs Uber and Lyft, TechNet, and their supporters in the Ridesharing Works for Austin campaign) have submitted their petitions (with ample signatures); and Mayor Steve Adler is attempting to wrangle a compromise – he prefers "solution" – that would somehow split the baby between the Council's adoption of fingerprinting as integral to those background checks, and the TNCs' ultimatum that if fingerprints become "mandatory" – a term also in dispute – they will end Austin operations. Or, as their campaign misleadingly puts it, "be forced by City Council" to leave town.

In a Statesman interview Monday, and an email blast followed by a press conference Tuesday afternoon, the mayor initiated a charm offensive aimed at persuading the public (and his fellow council members) that there is a middle ground between the TNCs' position and the one Council adopted in December. With a great deal of earnest badinage about "the new sharing economy" and "peer-to-peer" platforms, the mayor is proposing "a new ordinance that provides incentives – but not a mandate – for drivers to verify their identities by undergoing fingerprint background checks." In the still tentative design, drivers would be encouraged to get fingerprinted – the best background-check standard, according to law enforcement – by both a branding designator (a "Thumbs Up" brand, in the mayor's parlance) and certain privileges that would go with it: better access to festivals and the airport queue, for example, or even higher commissions.

The mayor said more stakeholders are collaborating than ever before (although only a sub-quorum of council members, of course), and that he is hopeful that a draft ordinance will be available by Friday, certainly before Tuesday's work session. He's hoping for a solution that is "innovative, forward-looking, classically Austin" – setting a national or even international standard, becoming "the birthplace for a new way for government to meet its responsibilities in this new sharing economy."

Peers vs. Peers

It's not yet clear how many of those stakeholders will sign on to the mayor's solution, but I sincerely wish him the best of luck. Austinites are desperate for new transportation solutions (although not eager to accept the transitional cost of true mass transit), and in the specific case of taxis – of which TNCs are simply another form – there are too few at peak times, too many at non-peak. Asked if his incentive solution would apply not just to part-time amateur drivers but full-time professionals (i.e., cab drivers), the mayor said that as he envisions it, "it would have to be equalized for everybody" (meaning a step backward from currently mandatory fingerprinting for cabbies, not to mention license-limited franchises).

Since the TNCs internationally have not been shy about declaring their antipathy to cab companies (denouncing them as "cartels" and promising their destruction), it's difficult to see how all those interests can be corralled under one umbrella ordinance, or indeed whether the several hundred Austin cab drivers will find themselves forced to become freelance hunter-gatherers like their "ridesharing" cousins. Adler also envisions riders adopting the "Thumbs Up" fingerprinting – peer-to-peer safety, you see – although I presume they wouldn't also have to pay a commission to the TNC for every transaction. (Perhaps just the third-party app vendor would "monetize" that piece.)

App This!

As I said, there are a lot of moving parts, not the least of which will be the skepticism of at least some CMs. Ann Kitchen, as chair of Council's Mobility Committee, has taken much of the heat for her colleagues, mocked and slandered by the companies for the crime of doing her job. She declined to publicly embrace the mayor's proposal, and neither did her colleague Delia Garza, who also blasted "the perversion of the petition process" by corporate underwriting – the two TNCs plus TechNet funded the petition campaign, not to mention the misleading advertising campaign that preceded it. Government by corporate-sponsored initiative and referendum, of course, is old hat in California – thus far, Texas hasn't succumbed to I&R, but the Legis­lature likes to impose on municipalities what it wouldn't accept for itself.

The mayor sidestepped when I asked him if bowing to Uber and Lyft wouldn't set a bad precedent for city government – the TNCs didn't like the Council-drafted ordinance, so they decided to write their own (which deletes not just "fingerprints" but every other accountability they disdain). They funded an instantaneous campaign with their pocket change (about $30,000), and their petitioners promoted the canard that the elected council mem­bers were being mean to these beneficent companies, who only wish to spread gluten-free "ridesharing" to all and sundry.

What's more important to Austinites, political sovereignty, or a smartphone app for an instant ride when you're shitfaced on Sixth Street? I guess we'll soon find out.

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