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Public Notice: Learning to Share?

A full week of Proposition 1

By Nick Barbaro, April 29, 2016, News

The Truth of the Matter

Just time for a quick recap of the week (as John Oliver would say), and we begin where last week left off, with City Council blasting Ridesharing Works for Austin's "deceptive campaign" regarding who will conduct background checks under the terms of the current ordinance. At an April 21 press conference, CM Delia Garza, joined by other members of the council, said "Uber and Lyft are running a deceptive campaign in a blatant attempt to confuse the voters and allow the corporations to write their own public safety rules. ... After finding the 'Vote for Prop. 1 to keep Uber and Lyft in Austin' line was not enough, Uber political consultants have created a new campaign based on false statements about a city takeover of background checks and city taxpayers left holding the bag. Both claims are false."

But RWA must be hearing good polling data on those claims, because they've doubled down rather than backed down, denying the "deceptive claims" accusation, holding their own presser, and sending out multiple mailers insisting that the city would have to take over the background process, and pay for it. I've gotten one every day this week (and two on a couple of days), all stressing some version of the "city takeover of background checks" storyline.

The truth of the matter, which no one is saying directly: The exact mechanics of the background check system, with fingerprinting, are indeed yet to be worked out. But for that to happen, the city would have to be cooperating with a willing partner, which Uber and Lyft have thus far made it clear that they are not willing to be. So again, as with the "the city is making Uber and Lyft leave town" narrative, this is true only if Uber and Lyft make it so. That unwillingness to compromise is a recurring theme that plays into the endorsements, below.

Nobody Is Safe

Then there are the safety statistics. A recent guest viewpoint in the Statesman claimed that TNCs "are literally saving lives. Since ridesharing came to Austin, the city has seen a 23 percent drop in DWI crashes." Except of course, that's not true, either. Uber and Lyft both started operating in June of 2014, ramping up within a couple of weeks of each other. So, comparing the 16-month period directly before that, with the period directly after, APD recorded 746 DWI accidents from Feb. 2013 through May 2014, compared to 639 from July 2014 through Oct. 2015. That's a drop of 14%, which isn't 23%, but it also doesn't tell the whole story.

Of course, one of the first rules of statistics is the correlation does not mean causation. What RWA has tried to obfuscate is the fact that there's not really much correlation in the first place between TNCs and DWIs. The much-repeated "23% drop" statistic is only arrived at if you compare 2013 with the full year 2014, when DWI accidents were already dropping for six months before the TNCs began operations. In fact, the most direct comparison, taking into account possible seasonal fluctuations, might be the last months directly before TNCs came to town, compared to the same months a year later, when Uber and Lyft were operating fully "at scale." By that measure, Jan.-May of 2014 vs. Jan.-May of 2015, both saw exactly the same number of DWI-related accidents: 224 for each period. Meanwhile, by other measures, traffic fatalities are up significantly, DWI arrests dropped slightly throughout 2014, before and after TNCs started, and have leveled off, and aside from a five-month dip in the second half of 2014, DWI accidents are essentially back in the same range they were before the TNCs started operation. [NB: This sentence has been changed from the original, in which I transposed accident and arrest numbers; mea culpa, but the conclusion is the same.] (Sorry if that's confusing; if you want more explanation, see the data in the chart below, plus a recent study of the matter by Dr. Matt Hersh, a lecturer and statistician in UT's Department of Statistics and Data Sciences, which concludes that "taking into account that DWI-related accidents were on the decline before Uber started operating in any meaningful way, there is no evidence of a correlation between TNCs and DWI-related accidents or DWI arrests in Austin.")

The Endorsement Tally

On Friday, April 22, the League of Women Voters of the Austin Area issued a rare endorsement. The public service group "does not support or oppose any candidates or political parties," but saw fit to take a stance on Prop. 1: "The Austin League has studied this issue, compared the ordinances (laws) that are in effect now from our city government and the ordinance (law) proposed by the TNCs. We hosted a forum and attended numerous forums and debates. We have come to the conclusion that the city rules which are now in effect are the best alternative to govern the TNC operations. ... The TNCs were not interested in compromise. ... Frankly, it is a little suspicious that they will not accept the fingerprinting regulation when all the law enforcement organizations recommend it as the safest way to vet the drivers. Fingerprinting is a very commonplace procedure for a myriad of occupations, like Realtors, engineers, social services workers, and many others."

That same day, the anti-Prop. 1 forces announced endorsements from Texas Women's Political Caucus, AFSCME Local 1624, Black Austin Democrats, and Central Austin Democrats, adding to their previous roster of some 20+ local Democratic clubs and safety organizations including the Police, Firefighter, and EMS employee organizations. (Meanwhile, RWA robocalls citing Police Chief Art Acevedo as a supporter of Prop. 1 had to be pulled last week, after city officials called RWA to "assure them that that is not the case.")

Notably, RWA picked up their third endorsement: the U.S. Chamber of Com­merce, which sent a letter of concern on April 21 to U.S. Department of Trans­porta­tion Secretary Anthony Foxx, warning of "City Council's ill-advised regulation" that "would be a setback to the Smart City approach." (See "More Strong-Arming From Uber and Lyft," April 24.) But don't mistake the U.S. Chamber for the local version, or any other actual business organization. As described by The Hill, the largest-circulation publication on Capitol Hill: "Fueled by funding from billionaires like the Koch brothers, the U.S. Cham­ber is pursuing a different, deeper ideological agenda – limiting government regulation and oversight, keeping all levels of government from regulating wages, benefits, health and safety standards, and promoting the bottom line interests of the corporations and their allies. ... In this instance, you can clearly see the state chambers being told how to align their lobbying agenda against their members and the majority of the American people and with other Koch-funded groups, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)." As such, the U.S. Chamber is following the lead of other far-right groups, such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (see "Public Notice: Strange Bedfellows," April 1), who see ridesharing as a possible wedge issue to sway young voters to their anti-government agenda. [NB: This sentence originally referred to Texans for Accountable Government, who are neither Koch-funded, nor far-right; my apologies for the error.]

And they may be succeeding. On Wednes­day, April 27, UT Student Government became the first and only non-right-wing group to endorse Prop. 1 (again citing the fallacious 23% drop in DWI-related accidents).

The biggest shoe to drop came this Mon­day, April 25, when Mayor Steve Adler held a press conference and issued a statement arguing at length that, "only an 'Against' vote will allow Austin to find the right solution," and that "such a vote puts Austin and the rideshare companies constructively back at the negotiating table." (See "Adler to Vote 'Against' Prop. 1," April 25.) He also addressed the U.S. Chamber's letter directly in his statement, saying, "I just had a great week traveling with the Secretary of Transportation, and I'm not worried about the letter."

And this just in: Lyft is offering free rides to the polls. Of course they are.

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