Originally published in MintPress News.
Update Monday May 9: Uber and Lyft ceased operating in Austin city limits today after voters strongly rejected Proposition 1, with 56 percent of voters deciding against the measure proposed by the ride-booking services that would allow them to circumvent the city’s regulations on background checks for drivers, livery, and where drivers may stop to pick up or drop off passengers.
The Austin American Statesman reported that Uber remains in operation today in suburbs outside the city limits, while Lyft was quoted as saying its service is “paused” in the region. Some users of both apps received messages urging them to contact the Austin City Council, and the issue remains divisive after the vote, with over 2,000 people responding to a Facebook event calling for a May 28 march on City Hall to “bring back Uber and Lyft.”
Republican lawmakers have also escalated calls for a statewide law to overrule Austin’s ride-booking ordinances, making it an issue likely to appear on the agenda at next year’s biennial legislative session.
AUSTIN, Texas — Two big corporations with almost limitless bank accounts are bent on circumventing local law by buying a municipal election, according to their opponents.
Facing new regulations from the Austin City Council, Uber and Lyft, the popular ride-booking apps, brought the battle to the ballot box, launching a campaign to pass Proposition 1. Both drivers and paid petitioners canvassed widely for the issue last year, collecting thousands of signatures in order to trigger the election.
Based on the most recent electoral filings, Uber and Lyft have sunk over $8 million into Ridesharing Works For Austin, their joint PAC urging voters to vote in favor of Prop 1, the sole item on the ballot in the special election. By contrast, two smaller PACs opposed to the resolution, Our City Our Safety Our Choice PAC and Austin Unites, have raised less than $100,000 combined.
The election comes after months of negotiations between the City Council and the corporations, according toDelia Garza, a City Council member from Austin’s District 2. “Every time we tried to solve an issue they’d bring up, they’d move the ball,” she told MintPress News.
Residents’ mailboxes are inundated daily with Ridesharing Works fliers, along with door-to-door canvassing and even text messages urging residents’ support for Prop 1. Meanwhile, opponents are waging a comparatively small, grassroots-driven campaign against the measure.
‘We really want you to stay’
Austin City Ordinance No. 20151217-075 subjects Transportation Network Companies, or ride-booking companies, to the same fingerprint-based national background checks faced by drivers of taxis, bicycle-powered “pedicabs” and the city’s fleet of electric cabs. It’s a procedure that the Texas Department of Public Safety calls “best practices” for rider safety, according to Garza. Other restrictions include banning the ride-booking services’ drivers from stopping in bicycle lanes, bus stops or anywhere else with moving traffic, and it requires vehicles to bear livery (emblems that identify them as working vehicles).
Garza stressed that the ordinance passed only after the City Council realized it was fruitless to work with Uber and Lyft. “We told them several times, ‘We really want you stay, you’re an important part of our transportation system.’”
Prop 1, the law proposed by the TNCs, would circumvent the city’s regulations, allowing them to maintain their current form of background checks that do not include fingerprint checks against national police databases. It also removes livery requirements and loosens restrictions on where drivers may pick up or drop off passengers.
However, another reason Garza and others oppose the proposition is that it blocks the City Council from modifying the regulations for at least two years. She said opposing Prop 1 is the only way to bring the ride-booking companies back to the negotiating table.
The TNCs, for their part, argue that fingerprinting requirements would slow their ability to get new drivers on the road, and reduce the total number of drivers in their fleet, increasing wait times. Their business models depend on having large numbers of drivers available at all times. The Ridesharing Works PAC also cited concerns over racial disparities in national background checks.
Both companies are threatening to leave the Austin area if Prop 1 fails. Lyft stopped operating in Houston after similar fingerprint check requirements were instituted there. And while Uber has continued to operate in Houston, the company announced on April 27 that it, too, was considering leaving the city. The announcement came amid early voting in Austin.
‘It pitted sexual assaults against DWIs’
Some critics, including Austin City Council members who support the city ordinance, have suggested Uber and Lyft aren’t doing enough to screen their drivers. This, opponents say, has led to numerous reports of sexual harassment and outright sexual assault. Austin NBC affiliate KXAN reported in November that local police were investigating seven cases of sexual assault allegedly committed by Uber and Lyft drivers, compared with three investigations of drivers for traditional taxi companies.
However, Ridesharing Works claims that the presence of Uber and Lyft led to a measurable decrease in drunk driving: “Ridesharing helps prevent drunk driving in Austin. According to the Travis County Sheriff, DWI collisions decreased by 23% in 2014 compared to the year before.”
Politifact Texas rated this claim as mostly true, although the fact-checking journalism group cautioned: “It’s worth repeating that Uber is referring to correlations between ride-sharing’s availability and collisions, not necessarily causation.”
Austin’s police chief, Art Acevedo, agreed at a December City Council meeting. “If we take away the TNCs here and in other cities, it definitely will impact DWIs,” he said, according to Austin public radio station KUT.
Garza, the City Council member for District 2, told MintPress that the arguments by ride-booking companies create a false dichotomy, forcing voters to choose between one kind of safety or another. “It pitted sexual assaults against DWIs,” she said. “They didn’t have to leave.”
While Lyft and Uber make the case that they are being forced out of the city by the ordinance, opponents stress it’s the companies’ choice to leave, not an actual consequence of the law. “I believe they want to stay,” Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin American Statesman on April 25, when he endorsed a “no” vote on Prop 1. “I once again reject that false choice.”
“After the election is over, we’ll need to be at our most innovative, creative and collaborative,” he added. “It’s going to be in (Uber and Lyft’s) interest at that point to sit down with us.”
‘More than a successful US Senate campaign’
“Reasonable minds can disagree over whether the potential added safety is worth the extra hurdle for drivers,”Kriston Capps, a staff writer for The Atlantic’s City Lab, wrote on May 2. “Still, residents can disagree over the merits of the law and find common ground against Proposition 1.”
“Proposition 1 is Uber and Lyft’s effort to fight back against regulation by undermining local government,” she noted.
What seems to be uniting a number of Austin residents — beyond just the taxi drivers who have the most to lose from the presence of these companies in their city — is that they represent a corporate attempt to circumvent local law through massive spending. Dan Solomon, writing for Texas Monthly on Monday, put the Ridesharing Works campaign in financial perspective:
Not only is $8.1 million nearly seven times the most expensive municipal election in Austin’s history—the 2014 campaign of Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who set a new benchmark in political spending just two years ago—but it’s also over a million dollars more than Ted Cruz spent in his 2012 Senate campaign to beat then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. This is where we are with Prop 1, a municipal election about a very narrowly tailored piece of the city code that applies strictly to ridesharing services is costing more than a successful U.S. Senate campaign.
An Austin Chronicle analysis of that spending showed it included almost $800,000 in field organizing costs and over $2 million in media buying. Another $50,000 for “campaign consulting” went to Lee Leffingwell, Austin’s former mayor and Ridesharing Works’ spokesman.
Beyond the raw expenditures, Austinites seem increasingly frustrated by the dishonesty of the campaign. Ridesharing Works has been criticized for misleading voters about the cost to taxpayers and the effectiveness of existing background checks. Ellen Troxclair, a City Council member who supports Prop 1, claimed people are nine times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a taxi driver than a TNC driver — a claim Texas Politifact rated “Pants on Fire” false.
In an April 14 guide to the Prop 1 vote issued by KUT, Audrey McGlinchey cited widespread confusion caused by Ridesharing Works mailers and advertising.
And on Wednesday, Uber and Lyft were hit with a class action lawsuit, accusing them of violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act with their text message campaign.
‘They’re not interested in being part of the community’
Dave Cortez, a local organizer who’s been working against Prop 1, said even those who are suspicious of government control as a path to create safety are turning against Uber and Lyft for their attempts to buy their way out of inconvenient regulations.
“You can even make the argument that we shouldn’t be regulating,” Cortez told MintPress. “It doesn’t make sense that a pedicab has to go through national background checks and an Uber or Lyft driver doesn’t. You could make the argument that we should maybe roll back all of those.”
“That’s up to the safety experts,” he continued, “There should be a discussion. Everyone should be willing to compromise on one set of rules for all the services.”
Cortez objected to the way Uber and Lyft apparently seek to dominate the local transportation market, rather than share the roads:
They’re not interested in being part of the community, of being part of a network of transportation service providers. They want what they want and they don’t want employees on the books.
He also suggested that losing the fight over Prop 1 would leave the companies vulnerable to other regulations, including ones that could mandate how drivers are taxed and paid. Several legal battles have been fought over whether TNC drivers are independent contractors or employees, with Uber settling one suit brought by driversfor almost $84 million last month. Ultimately, both corporations plan to eventually replace drivers with self-driving cars.
Voting day in Austin is Saturday May 7, but the conflict isn’t likely to end at the ballot box. GetMe, a smaller TNC app, is promising to comply with fingerprint checks and add drivers to their service if Uber and Lyft pull out of Austin.
And Uber and Lyft plan to take their fight to the Texas State Legislature during its biennial session in 2017. Perhaps inspired by the ban on local control over fracking passed in 2015, Republican lawmakers may be eager to take up the issue of TNCs.
Joe Deshotel, communications director for the Travis County Democrats, told Time Warner Cable News on April 28: “Win or lose, we do expect them to take this to the state legislature and look for a statewide bill that would usurp local control.”