Notes on Kamp: Everybody Loses
Uber and Lyft need more and better regulations, not fewer
The Chronicle's endorsement for the May 7 election won't come out until the April 22 issue, but you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: Most of the news staff – if not all of us – will be voting "no" on Prop. 1.
Ever since they came to Austin, Uber and Lyft have behaved as though rules were for other people. It's their business model, as far as I can tell. The referendum on City Council's fingerprinting requirement is only their latest attempt to avoid any regulation. Travis County Democratic Chair Vincent Harding, in a March statement, put what's really at stake May 7 very clearly: "I have serious concerns that if one corporation decides it can run a campaign to write its own rules, then this will send a signal to every large corporation that if they have the budget they can go around the legislative branch of government."
When former HD 49 candidate Huey Rey Fischer announced last week that he had taken a job as a paid consultant for Ridesharing Works for Austin, the PAC that's behind Prop. 1, I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Fischer has endeavored to reframe the debate about TNCs less as a progressive vs. libertarian debate and more as a young vs. old. I can see his point, inasmuch as it smacks of youthful naivete to me to think that Uber and Lyft know how best to regulate themselves.
However, we have to acknowledge that the reason TNCs succeeded so quickly is because Austin's other transportation options are so terrible. Driving is fine as long as you're not doing it during rush-hour traffic, which is getting perilously close to being an all-day phenomenon. If you're lucky enough to live within walking distance of one of Cap Metro's better routes, the bus can be an okay option. But there are many places in Austin where the service isn't accessible without either a prohibitively long walk or a ride to the bus stop, and where taking the bus means going out of your way and making multiple connections. And the lack of late-night routes is a real problem for those who work late. Riding a bike or walking can be treacherous, given the lack of consistent sidewalks and bike lanes. Austin's taxi system has never made any sense, nor has it been regulated in a way that ensures drivers are able to make a living wage.
So if you're a consumer who has a smartphone and a debit card, Uber and Lyft don't seem so bad in comparison. If you're struggling to make it in Austin, being able to pick up a few hours driving is pretty attractive as well. But choosing to drive for them isn't the same as okaying the fact that they're playing fast and loose with long-established labor protections by refusing to acknowledge that their drivers actually work for them. And using them to pick you up when you've had too much to drink doesn't require you to defend their refusal to fully vet the people you're trusting to get you home safe.
It's unfortunate, then, as bullying and exploitative as Uber and Lyft are, the ordinance they're fighting isn't that great, either. Requiring TNCs to fingerprint their drivers is a reasonable request, but it doesn't do enough to ensure passenger safety. It doesn't require that drivers receive any additional training. It doesn't require that they pass any sort of additional driving test (and I think anyone who's experienced Austin traffic can attest that many licensed drivers are also terrible drivers), or that they meet with anyone from their company's HR department to make sure they're the type of person you'd want to be stuck in a car with. And importantly, it doesn't do anything to protect the rights of drivers as workers. Instead, it focuses on the idea of a criminal record as a measure of a person's suitability for the job.
Today, April 7, Council will consider an ordinance that defines exactly how those criminal records should be considered. Rather than merely being not great, this new ordinance is bad. It lists which types of convictions disqualify potential drivers for both cab companies and TNCs. It's quite the list. It seems sensible enough to say that a DUI or a rape conviction should be taken into account when considering whether someone gets a permit. However, a drug possession conviction will get you banned for seven years, while a conviction for selling will get you banned for life. Resisting arrest is another charge that carries a lifetime ban. These blanket bans are completely at odds with Council's recently passed fair chance hiring ordinance.
The bans reinforce the very stigmas that the fair chance law is designed to counteract. They make it more difficult to find work for people who have served their time for a wide variety of crimes (21 offenses are listed). They will have the effect of discriminating against minorities, because minorities are disproportionately charged and sentenced for drug crimes. (When asked for comment, a representative from Mobility Committee Chair Ann Kitchen's office directed me to the Austin Transportation Department, which was unable to get back to me before press time. Fair chance ordinance sponsor Greg Casar said that he plans to request that the draft be sent back to staff, so that they can "make it better.")
I understand that it isn't fair that taxis get one set of regulations and TNCs get another. But applying bad, outdated policy to everyone isn't fair, either. Here's hoping Council doesn't do something that gives credence to Uber and Lyft's claim that they shouldn't be the ones making the rules.