As voters in Austin head to the polls to elect new leaders, from presidential candidates to local leaders, Austin City Council is embroiled in a debate with transportation network companies (TNCs) that begs the question: just who holds the reins in this tech industry city?
A brief refresher: In December, Councilmember Ann Kitchen and others revisited a discussion about municipal safety standards for TNCs. City Council approved provisions that would bring TNCs into line with the standards for traditional transportation options, like taxi companies. Uber and Lyft responded swiftly, threatening to leave the city should the council move forward with these policies. Ridesharing Works, an allegedly independent local organization, collected signatures to force the council to accept policies more amenable to Uber and Lyft or to send the question to the voters.
After successfully turning in the required number of valid signatures, Austin City Council was faced with a decision: accept the wording from the petition, which rejected finger printing background checks – a signature component of the Council’s proposed policy – or place the question on the ballot for a May 7th election. The Councilmembers decided to leave this question up to the voters.
But this story doesn’t stop there. On the heels of Ridesharing Works’ success, another supposedly independent organization mobilized against Councilmember Ann Kitchen to collect signatures in order to force a recall election in her district. They turned in that petition last Friday. While they did not get the petition in by the deadline to place the recall on the May ballot with Ridesharing Works’ petition language, should the recall petition be accepted, Kitchen will face an election this November ahead of the end of her term in 2018.
While both Uber and Lyft have denied any involvement in either petition effort – despite explicit attacks against Kitchen launched within the app ahead of the vote in 2015 – both companies clearly benefit from the results of these campaigns.
Both petitions have something important in common: they frame Uber and Lyft, incredibly successful tech companies filling an admitted need in Austin, as the victim of an overreaching city government. But no one is forcing Uber or Lyft to leave – they are just asking for stricter safety requirements in order to address issues like recent allegations of sexual assault against TNC drivers.
Companies like Uber and Lyft are so vehemently opposed to change that even in the face of a shooting allegedly committed by an Uber driver, a spokesman doubled down on the adequacy of their background checks. “I don’t think we’ll be changing our policies because of this incident,” the spokesman said. This callousness and refusal to compromise begs the question: who do Austinites want making decisions about their safety? Companies invested in maintaining low overhead to protect their profits, or elected officials who are accountable to their constituents?
In an electoral climate where so much attention has been paid to the influence of corporations and other interests, it is surprising that the political maneuverings of an incredibly profitable tech company haven’t been met with greater scrutiny and opposition. Perhaps Wall Street should invest in ride sharing companies to improve their image – after all, Uber can claim to be the safe option even while facing allegations of sexual assault and still come out on top.