The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Let the Battle Begin

We didn't ask for this fight, but Uber and Lyft have bought it

By Michael King, February 19, 2016, News

Well, it appears the campaign has begun. Last Thursday, City Council declined to enact the "citizens' petition" on behalf of transportation network company (TNC) regulations drafted and promoted by Uber and Lyft, and by the time you read this, Council will have adopted ballot language and approved the May 7 referendum election. Early odds appear to favor passage of the company-endorsed ordinance; U&L will have virtually unlimited budgets (perhaps we'll witness a David-and-Goliath collision of city campaign finance laws with Citizens United), and will be highly motivated to bring Austin to heel in order to send a message to other impertinent jurisdictions.

On Tuesday afternoon, an Uber press release announced that "Ridesharing Works for Austin" – the "citizens'" vehicle the TNCs are using to promote their campaign – has hired new canvassers for its get out the vote work. The group's treasurer – Caroline Joiner, regional executive director of TechNet, the firm joining U&L in underwriting the campaign – declared, "Now it is just a matter of making sure everyone is registered to vote, and then getting those folks to turn out." Could hardly be more "grassroots" than that.

Moreover, the 65,000 or so Austinites who signed the petitions (despite, judging from the relevant turnout comparisons, having shown little previous interest in local government) will perhaps vote in numbers sufficient to overwhelm any opposition. There will certainly be some resistance – some council members appear determined to fight back, and at least some public buzz suggests there remain plenty of Austinites who still prefer self-government to self-service. But on the whole, these days it's a lot easier to sell a product than a principle. The real, undeniable local need for better transportation options has made "ridesharing" a seductive brand, and until folks here begin to learn what has happened in other cities that have surrendered, the meaning of the fight for local sovereignty might not become clear.

Please Obey the Law

How did we get to this point? The primary impetus has been the companies themselves, who first entered the local taxi market illegally (as is their standard practice), without regard to local regulations, and have since refused to acknowledge the authority of Council to create either safety-based or equitable rules to govern vehicles-for-hire. The local cab companies (explicitly targeted for destruction by the TNC firms) have taken much of the sidestream heat for the impasse, but as Yellow Cab President Ed Kargbo told Council, the local firms (and their mostly minority drivers) are effectively being punished for obeying the existing laws. "The issue boils down to, you have companies here that are willing to contribute to your community, and follow the rules," Kargbo said. "We could have broken the laws years ago and flooded the streets with drivers, but we've always engaged in the process appropriately."

Nevertheless, Council – and most particularly Mayor Steve Adler – have prolonged the agony by attempting to negotiate away their own authority. They have dealt from weakness with carpetbagging CEOs, who have responded with threats, slander, and a paid petition campaign that has mainly demonstrated the fragility of the state's initiative-and-referendum laws when confronted by billionaire bank accounts. The mayor responded, sincerely, like a business attorney faced with a potential breakdown in contract talks. But Thursday night's spectacle of Austin's elected mayor running back and forth from dais to TNC negotiation and back again – at one point announcing that the companies would throw in an additional $40,000(!) in administrative money to sweeten the pot – was frankly pathetic.

For a mayor whose mantra is "Great Cities Do Big Things," it was a sorry portrait in very small supplication. And it ended, predictably, with nothing changed since Council acted in December, except that the companies and their local sycophants gained weeks of campaign momentum and the PR edge of having been "willing to talk" – as long as they get their way.

An Election to Buy

What happens now? As Council Member Delia Garza summed up the matter, Council has steadily "moved back, moved back" at every demand from Uber and Lyft, with the consistent result that the companies have demanded more and more – most recently with the mayor capitulating that any "choice" for riders between fingerprinted and non-fingerprinted drivers must be "separate and equal." What of the blatant competitive advantages granted to these app-merchants – stout "free-marketers" all – against the established cab companies (and their full-time drivers), who operate under franchise restrictions, license limits, accessibility requirements, and safety rules that the TNCs simply ignore? God willing, some enterprising Austin attorney not in thrall to the high-tech mythology will notice an opportunity for bringing the fake "independent contractor" business model to heel.

In the meantime, Austin voters will be looking down the barrel of a high-priced election campaign based on 21st century apps combined with the 19th century laissez-faire principle that industries are perfectly capable of regulating themselves. It sure worked well the first time we tried it, don't you think?

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