Early this morning, the Austin City Council approved an ordinance that will phase in fingerprinted background checks for “transportation networking companies” or “TNC’s,” better known to the general public as ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft. The move was strongly opposed by both companies, who argued that their background check system was already adequate and that requiring drivers to come in and be fingerprinted would make it less likely for new drivers to sign up after the requirement is fully implemented.
Austin is not the first city to move towards stricter safety regulations for TNC’s, or the first to feel the pushback from Uber and Lyft. After Houston passed a similar ordinance last year, Lyft moved out of the fourth largest city in the country. Uber continues to operate in Houston, under duress. “Houston has been a very difficult city for us to operate,” Uber Executive Adam Blinick explained to Austin City Councilmember Ann Kitchen, a vocal proponent of the fingerprint-based checks.
As Chair of the Mobility Committee, Kitchen brought the issue back to the table in a move that led to this morning’s vote. This brought her the honor of being explicitly targeted by Uber through “Kitchen’s Uber,” a real service offered briefly by Uber in November allowing Austin residents to request a horse and buggy instead of a car – if they were downtown at the right time.
Among the reasons these increased standards were considered and passed, as KUT recently reported, is the incidence of sexual assault.
So far this year, there have been at least seven reports of sexual assault by TNC drivers in Austin alone. It’s the reason the Emily LeBlanc, director of community advocacy at SafePlace, became involved in the push for these increased background checks. Speaking to the Austin City Council, she pointed out that for the victims SafePlace had worked with, each sought a ride in an attempt to be safe when they were too drunk to drive. “It horrifies me that in a woman’s attempt to be safe, she might instead be assaulted,” LeBlanc told councilmembers.
Companies like Uber and Lyft argue that their service increases safety by making it easier for people to get a ride home when they are too intoxicated to drive. From his testimony before the Council, it would seem that Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo agrees. “A lot of sexual assaults happen in the city of Austin because we’re not getting people that are in our vulnerable population out of the downtown area and in their homes,” he told councilmembers. When asked by KXAN about the specific issue of sexual assaults that occur because Austinites chose to utilize a TNC as their safe option home, Acevedo said,“You should never feel 100 percent safe,” because intoxication makes you an “easy target” for those who want to commit a crime.
Uber shot back at these safety allegations by airing a commercial on the CW in Austin leading up to the vote at City Council. The ad, called “Don’t Take Uber Away,” features multiple people talking about why having Uber as an option makes them feel safe. The short spot features mostly women extolling the many reasons that Uber is their safe ride home. For a company that has been sued by other victims of assault for its misleading claims about safety, this ad seems irresponsible at best.
Instead of accepting sexual assault as a potential risk under their terms of service, spending time and money on horse and buggy stunts, or issuing misleading ads that pretend these issues of safety don’t exist, one would hope that these companies would be invested in working with local governments to identify proactive solutions to this terrifying reality. If TNC’s responses to other similar ordinances are any indication, that is not likely to be the outcome in Austin.
As the Council moves forward on fleshing out the penalties and incentives for fingerprinting-based background checks over the next year, it remains to be seen whether Lyft and Uber will continue to operate in the capitol city.