The Austin Chronicle

Uber Says "Thumbs Down"

TNC not interested in mayor's compromise

By Mac McCann, January 29, 2016, News

The ongoing battle between City Council and Uber and Lyft shows no signs of abating. Ridesharing Works for Austin, a TNC-funded and supported political action group, submitted 23,000 of what they claim are more than 65,000 signatures on a petition to overturn Council's Dec. 17 vote to require, among other things, fingerprint-based background checks for transportation network company (TNC) drivers. Now, the petition must be validated by Feb. 19 before being presented to Council, which will then have 10 days to make the decision to either overturn the new regulations or put the ordinance to a public vote (likely in May).

Supporters of the petition have claimed their efforts are to "keep ridesharing in Aus­tin" since Council is "forcing TNCs to leave town" – but that's not really true. In an interview with the Chronicle, Council's Mobil­ity Commit­tee Chair Ann Kitchen made it clear: "Nobody on the Council wants the TNCs to leave, and nobody on the Council is banning or pushing TNCs out. It's their choice. It's Uber and Lyft's choice. We're not kicking them out."

Kitchen continued, "We won't take up the question of what to do with the petition until it comes back to us and is posted on an agenda." In the meantime, Mayor Steve Adler's Thumbs Up Austin proposal, an optional "third-party, cross-platform badge validator," which would replace the mandatory fingerprinting required by the December ordinance, is set to be discussed at today's Council meeting (see "Council," Jan. 29). Instead of forcing drivers to go through the process, they'll be incentivized to do so, with possible privileges like better (or possibly exclusive) access to big events (like ACL or Trail of Lights, etc.). Possible disincentives include requiring TNCs to allow a passenger to cancel without charge an assigned driver who's not certified.

Adler told the Chronicle that "Uber and Lyft threatened to leave if we made fingerprinting mandatory. We didn't make fingerprinting mandatory in December, but I recognize what we did was ambiguous. So one of the first things this Council needs to do is to make it clear that we're not making fingerprinting mandatory. If we're not making it mandatory, then Uber and Lyft don't have any reason to leave ... and we don't want to make it mandatory because it's not the best way to get fingerprinted drivers at scale. There are a lot of reasons not to make it mandatory."

Like other council members, Kitchen isn't thrilled with the new proposal, arguing that it's "no substitute" for the "very reasonable" regulations passed in December. She said, "Criminals lie. So, if you have a piece of pap­er from someone that tells you their name is X and their social security number is X, and you do a background check on that name and social security number, and that's not really who they are, then your background check is useless. The fingerprint is what ties the person to the record that you're checking." Stick­ing by the council's December vote, Kitchen said, "Really, it's a question of, first, public safety, and, second, fairness. ... Every other driver-for-hire is fingerprinted now; drivers for TNCs are the only ones who are not."

In response to the TNCs' complaints about the possible effects on their business, Kit­chen told the Chronicle, "Our responsibility is public safety. Our responsibility is not to protect any company's business model." She highlighted GetMe, a new Texas-based ridesharing app, which has already agreed to accept whichever regulations Austin passes. "It's quite possible to operate a TNC business and still have drivers be fingerprinted," she said.

However, Uber and Lyft are almost never fans of regulations, and not only does Uber oppose the December ordinance, it fails to see Adler's proposal as a satisfactory compromise. A representative for Uber told the Chronicle in an email: "A proposal that includes penalties is not voluntary. The truth is the 'badge program' would penalize drivers who are unable to complete the city's duplicative background check by revoking their access to critical earning opportunities. It is disingenuous to categorize this as a voluntary rewards program."

The mayor's office is sticking by the proposal, responding that "The mayor believes that the Austin Thumbs Up incentives are the best way for the city to meet its responsibility to ensure safety in a sharing economy. He expects the Council will pass a voluntary package that rewards drivers who choose to participate at no cost to themselves in the Austin Thumbs Up program. In other words, drivers will have a choice to give their passengers a choice."

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