Austin City Council Votes to Consider Rideshare Pilot Program

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Image Yellow Cab used to characterize rideshare services

On Thursday the Austin City Council approved a measure to allow stakeholders to begin the process of developing a pilot program to legalize Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) — colloquially referred to as “rideshare.” Another measure was passed to direct the city manager to work with existing taxi franchises and other stakeholders to consider ways to meet increased demand including additional and speciality permits, and explore the role of TNCs.

The move was the culmination of several factors: long standing traffic congestion, demand for increased transportation options, complaints about existing legacy taxi services, recent deaths due to drunk driving, and TNCs like Uber and Lyft that have begun to target the Austin market.

Several petitions in favor of allowing TNCs have also played a role in sending tens of thousands of voices to City Council on this issue.

See who said what at Council and who is behind the petitions below the jump…Uber started a petition to bring its service to Austin that has so far gathered nearly 20,000 signatures, another more comprehensive petition focused on reducing drunk driving by the grassroots organization ATX Safer Streets gathered nearly 4,000 signatures, and another by Austin Music People sent nearly 3,500 different emails to Councilmembers to consider rideshare.

The item prompting stakeholders to consider a pilot program for TNCs, sponsored by Councilman Chris Riley and co-sponsored by Councilmembers Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman, calls for a review after 90 days. Yellow Cab President Ed Kargbo had requested that the review not be brought up before 180 days. The stakeholder group exploring more options for existing taxi franchises will have 120 days.

Kargbo was accompanied by a host of cab drivers, who operate under the heavily regulated system as independent contractors, wearing bright yellow shirts. The arguments made by cab drivers opposing TNCs ranged from safety issues and price to concerns over how these new companies might affect wages.

At times while attempting to discredit TNCs arguments become contradictory. Hanna Riddering (sp.?), a driver for Yellow Cab said she regularly hears complaints that people were tired of waiting on Uber. “Most of us cab drivers have had the experience during these big events of pulling up to hotels and having people get into our cabs and say, 'God I've been waiting forever for Uber.” But, when it came to the proposal mandate operation during “peak hours” she reminded council that as an independent contractor she sets her own hours. This is a major point of contention — drivers don't want to be told when to drive, but aren't currently supportive of TNCs to fill those gaps.

If a service is unreliable or unpredictable it won't last in the marketplace, but what if it is unsafe? For the most part that was the theme of Kargbo who focused his comments on liability and vetting of drivers, pointing to an NBC investigative report that showed issues with drivers of TNCs that had criminal records or did not report accidents. He asked that council wait until the California Public Utility Commission concludes its study so that their findings can be considered for any action in Austin. “They will attempt to paint a perfect picture, but the NBC investive report demonstrates that's not the reality,” Kargbo said.

These are arguments that have merit but ones that regulations are meant to address, and are also issues that the legacy cab companies have faced themselves. Recent reports of cabs refusing pick-ups for short distances, seem to indicate that even drivers believe there is a niche market for alternatives. Regarding safety and vetting drivers the legacy cab industry also does not have a perfect record either.

A Statesman article reported in February a Yellow Cab driver with a past criminal record involving multiple assaults for family violence forced an underage passenger to perform sex acts on him after she said she could not afford to pay the fare. In another more recent incident an Austin can driver was charged with aggravated robbery after he stabbed a passenger and reportedly took his wallet.  

No one is using these anecdotes to call for an end to legacy cab companies and the same should go for trying to keep out TNCs. We can and must find a way to protect the livelihood of our cab drivers, while adding more options to the menu of transportation options in our city. The stakeholder meetings and eventual creation of a pilot program are a great start.

You can follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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