Point Austin: Victory Lap
A few afterthoughts on the defeat of Proposition 1
People whose sole or primary motivation is money find it difficult to comprehend that anybody else might think differently. That's one lesson learned from the Saturday defeat of Prop 1 by Austin voters, who responded to the shameless blackmail, bullying, and deceptions of ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft by digging in their heels and telling the corporate behemoths to go take a hike. There's great satisfaction in knowing, at least this time around, that elections can't always be bought, at any price. (It would be nice if that lesson had some indirect effect on local progs' obsession with fanatical restrictions on campaign funding for city candidates, but that's too much to wish for.)
In the immediate wake of the outcome, it was also revealing to see the torrent of Prop 1 supporters' social media backlash. Searching "#atxcouncil" on Twitter over the weekend (for another subject), I read wave after wave of stunned outrage that Austin voters had not dutifully fallen in line with the brave new world of app-based consumerism. (Setting aside the subject at hand, users seem to believe vox Twitter vox populi. The tweeters must not have set down their smartphones long enough to vote.) Armed with suborned petitions and roughly $10 million, they expected to win handily, and were confounded that their neighbors – despite a weeks-long hurricane of pro-Propaganda – didn't get the memo. Now that the Masters of the Uberverse, fulfilling pre-election threats, have left town, the wailing and gnashing of teeth continues.
There was also an uglier subtext to much of the outrage, in which complaints about "cab cartels" and "union bosses" steadily drifted into derision of "just off the boat" cab drivers who "can't even speak English" and sometimes don't keep their cabs as spotless as vehicles driven by part-time amateurs. Amidst posted photos of some of the "10,000 rideshare drivers" (another unconfirmable TNC myth) about to "lose their jobs," somehow the 900 or so full-time, mostly minority cab drivers whose livelihoods are being undermined by lawless competitors had been virtually disappeared. I can't claim to be a frequent rider, but over many years I've never had anything but good service from local cabbies and shuttle drivers, and this persistent Yuppie Texan condescension seems to translate: "I only want to ride with drivers who look and talk like me."
Who Owns Austin?
Another myth shattered by the campaign: that DWI accidents have magically declined since the arrival of the TNCs. Statistician Matt Hersh took a look at the original numbers and concluded it simply isn't so ("Public Notice: Learning to Share," April 29), and then APD updated its previous stats and the apparent TNC effect disappeared altogether. Meanwhile proponents, apparently ignorant that DWI fines go to the state and that enforcement is in fact for Austin an enormous public safety expense, complained that the city just wants "more DWI money" (even the El Arroyo sign-jokers fell for that one).
On its face, the notion that the "cab cartels" own City Council is comical. For years, I've watched the owners troop before the dais to request more licenses and be repeatedly turned away – as Council wrestled unsuccessfully with the paradox that Austin has had too few cabs at peak times, yet too many at non-peak. The restrictions on licenses have been primarily inadequate attempts to protect the meager livelihoods of full-time drivers. Still wrestling, and under the pressure from TNCs, Council finally agreed to another (potentially co-op) franchise, and this week Transportation Director Robert Spillar recommended "deregulation" of the cabs to match ride-hailing – the devil will certainly be in the details.
Finally, if council members were so easy to purchase, Uber and Lyft would have bought several last year, and saved themselves very considerable expense. Now it appears the companies will turn to the Capitol, where at least a couple of legislators have said they'll file TNC-friendly statewide "public safety" bills. But they struck out in 2015, they've annoyed a number of Texas cities since then, and it's at least possible that Austin will come up with a reasonable solution in the meantime.
Maybe. Mayor Steve Adler has convened a "working group" to address the matter, although it appears to be heavy with the same tech-meisters who helped generate this widespread public delusion about the necessity of giving Uber and Lyft everything they want, for fear of giving offense. Kudos to the mayor for trying, but he needs to remember that whatever his advisers fancy, it's the whole Council that represents Austin. That's a reality he lost sight of earlier this year, with an attempt at a backroom "compromise" – but it's just been healthily reaffirmed by a public vote.
As I've written before, ride-hailing employing a range of drivers is here to stay, but the shape it finally takes should be publicly and legally designed. (Mysteriously, the TNC "business model" in New York City, for example, accommodates both driver fingerprinting and drug tests.) In the meantime, Austin voters have informed Uber, Lyft, and the city at large that our elections are not for sale.