Safety for Some

Mayor tries to broker a compromise in the TNC war

Feel like your relationship is missing drama? Issuing an ultimatum is one surefire way to add it. Ultimatums reliably heighten the stakes. And they're plenty informative, too; what's most important suddenly will stand out in stark relief. Under the pressure of an ultimatum, sometimes the relationship crumbles from the lack of trust that the communication breakdown suggests. But sometimes, the relationship survives, coming out on the other side all the better for having been forged in a fire.

Here in Austin, citizens are caught in the middle of major relationship drama. It's playing out between the city of Austin and transportation network companies (and the political action campaigns they fund). What had until recently been a fairly cozy alliance between the city and rideshare companies has soured, and the partnership has transformed into a full-fledged standoff.

At issue is a December ordinance passed by City Council aiming to make safety measures for drivers of companies like Lyft and Uber comparable to those required for taxi drivers. (Right now cab drivers have to get fingerprinted and pass state-level background checks, while drivers for TNCs only have to do the one background check.) The ordinance also proposed that drivers would have to wear "trade dress" (to identify their vehicles) and that TNCs would have to report the same data to the city that cab companies do, including information gathered in driver background checks, including fingerprinting.

Council members had planned to return on Jan. 28 to address the fact that the ordinance hadn't provided for enforcement mechanisms for the fingerprinting. But, while claiming to be extremely safety-conscious, Lyft and Uber assert that the move toward heightened safety standards would be at complete odds with their business model, and that in spite of their collective valuation of around $68 billion, give or take, they'd no longer find conditions in Austin conducive to working here. (Never mind that the proposed changes were not actual law yet, but rather, simply talk about what new safety regulations might be in the best interest of citizens; when the volume's up, nuance is drowned out.)

Looking to overturn the impending city ordinance, the TNCs and PACs launched a petition campaign. According to city law, citizens may force a public vote on an ordinance if 20,000 registered voters sign a petition calling for the vote.

On Tuesday, Jan. 19, the TNC-backed group Ridesharing Works for Austin announced that they'd gathered 65,000 signatures. But then, just as things were looking their blackest (for those of us who dislike the idea of our city being subjected to the whims of corporate overlords, anyway), Mayor Steve Adler announced he'd developed what appeared to be a middle way, which he called Thumbs-Up Austin.

Thumbs-Up Austin, he said, would be an optional "third-party, cross-platform badge validator." It would be denoted as a badge that could appear on the profiles of not just Lyft and Uber drivers, but also of "hosts" who were users of sharing-economy darling Airbnb, and potentially others, said Adler. And, he said, the validator would be based on multiple measures of safety – including fingerprinting and a background check based on that.

At a press conference Tuesday, Adler said he'd come up with the badge as a way to allow companies like Lyft and Uber to operate at scale, while also offering a measure of security for users of sharing-economy services. He said the service would incentivize drivers to get certified by giving them exclusive access to things like better ride-pickup venues. And he said the optional program would replace the mandatory one proposed by City Council in December.

As of press time, Lyft and Uber hadn't issued a response to the mayor's announcement, and employees said that as of Tuesday night, no celebratory email had come through assuring worried drivers that indeed, the company would be sticking around. But people familiar with operations of both Uber and cab companies said they could see the badge program working.

At the moment, Austin cab companies are regulated by the city of Austin. The city requires anyone operating a vehicle for hire to have criminal history certification (by fingerprinting) and driver's license checks through DPS.

In contrast, although TNCs are currently required to carry commercial insurance for drivers while they're working and in transit, the city doesn't collect information on background checks for people driving for TNCs – and under new measures Adler is proposing, still wouldn't be obligated to. His proposal seems to have people working for TNCs reporting to a third party, rather than to the city.

While Adler's solution appears to be a way for both the city and the rideshare companies to cover their butts and not get sued, the badge could end up sanctioning having cars on the street that are driven by "badgeless" people who haven't "opted in" to the program because their records wouldn't allow them to get one. In the end, women will bear the brunt of this, as the most frequent victims of assaults. Mayor Adler said the details of the third-party verified badge were still being worked out, so let's hope there's a way to safeguard against this scenario being brought to life.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that TNCs are required to carry commercial liability insurance for drivers while they're working and in transit. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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Uber, Lyft, transportation network companies, Steve Adler

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