Austinites using Uber in the last few days may have noticed something unusual in their app. Before finalizing the request for a ride or lunch, users were shown political advertising “authorized by Ridesharing Works for Austin,” urging users to “Keep Ridesharing in Austin,” and “Let your voice be heard and collect your voter registration card” from your Uber driver. This is the most recent development in the unfolding saga of transportation network companies versus Austin City Council.
Following a December vote by the Austin City Council to increase the requirements for screening their drivers, Uber and Lyft wasted no time organizing their opposition to the new provisions in the form of a petition campaign. The provisions in question would bring transportation network companies (TNC’s) like Uber and Lyft into line with existing standards for taxi companies in Austin, including a fingerprint background check for their drivers. Austin is not the first city to attempt to regulate TNC’s, and similarly, not the first to feel the wrath of the tech companies.
Uber and Lyft have a history of threatening to pull out of cities that choose to implement more stringent background screening standards, with varying results. While Lyft no longer operates in Houston, one notable city with similar policies, Uber chose to remain in the fourth largest city following the shift.
In Austin, the first response came from Ridesharing Works, an organization that originally claimed to be an organic offshoot of tech supporters and progressive organizers but was largely supported through funding and in-kind donations from Uber and Lyft. While both companies were well within their rights as corporations to use their resources in order to push back against policies they oppose, the petition campaign relied largely on misinformed canvassers and misleading political ads. Many who signed the petition were simply asked whether they wanted to “keep ridesharing in Austin,” an admittedly genius soundbite, which managed to circumvent any responsibility on the side of the ridesharing companies for responding to municipal ordinances with threatening to leave the market.
The petition was a success, and voters in Austin will now have the opportunity to choose whether to accept or reject provisions created by the companies the City Council is attempting to regulate. A second petition from another supposedly local organization, Austin4All, was not as successful. Austin4All submitted a recall petition targeting Councilmember Ann Kitchen following her leadership on bringing the issue of stricter background checks back to the Council last fall. The second petition was rejected by the city clerk.
Though Kitchen’s seat is safe – for now – the May election is a mere two months away, and Uber and Lyft aren’t wasting any time.
Along with the pop up ad – an anomaly for an app that operates without advertising – some Uber customers received an addressed and stamped envelope with a request for a voter registration application and an information sheet about registering to vote inside.
There have also been recent reports of Austinites receiving what appears to be a political poll focused on the upcoming May election. Instead of targeting users, it appears likely that Uber and Lyft are targeting voters in Austin with a strong voting history in off-year elections.
Uber and Lyft are clearly committed to harnessing their significant resources in order to turn their popularity as transportation and delivery options into popular support come May.
And here is the challenge: Uber and Lyft have ready-made canvassers and an app with the eyes of thousands of Austinites per day, leaving any local opposition to their campaign with a lot of ground to gain. One such organization, the Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice PAC, is expected to launch as early as this week.
Austinites have a reputation for heralding the progressive and activist history of the city and its leadership. Whether they are willing to put their money and time towards protecting that legacy remains to be seen.