On Wednesday, Uber issued an ultimatum to the City of Houston.
Uber’s General Manager Sarfraz Maredia sent a letter to Houston’s mayor and city council, articulating their issues with the city’s existing policies regulating Uber drivers. “Since the regulations were adopted, more than 20,000 people in Houston have completed Uber’s thorough screening process but did not proceed with the City’s multi-step licensing process,” Maredia stated in the letter. “Houstonians who could most benefit from such flexible economic opportunities are often the ones who are least able to access them,” Maredia continued.
The letter referenced claims from a report released by the company,”The Cost of Houston’s Ridesharing Regulations,” which detailed the alleged impact of the city’s regulations on Uber’s ability to operate.
Mayor Turner and members of Houston’s city council held a press conference to respond to the company’s allegations, but their ability to answer specific allegations about the number of current Uber drivers is limited by the fact that they are currently being sued by Uber. As a result of a temporary order barring city officials from discussing records of Uber’s operation in Houston, Mayor Turner found himself in the difficult position of trying to respond to the allegations without referring to any records covered by the order.
Despite this barrier, Turner effectively refuted the company’s claims and took a strong stance against the request to alter the city’s existing regulations.
“To tell the city of Houston you either give us what we want or we are gone… is not the way you play business in the fourth largest city in the country.” – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
Throughout the press conference, Turner reiterated his hopes that Uber would remain in the city. Telling reporters, “I hope they stay,” he shared that he has the app on his phone and knows that Houstonians benefit from access to a variety of options for transportation.
Turner was also clearly surprised by the move. Referencing an “introductory meeting” with Uber representatives after he took office, he said that there was “no indication” that something like this was coming.
While the arguments in Austin are highly theoretical in nature when it comes to the impact of implementing more stringent background check standards for those who want to provide rides through a TNC, Houston has over a year of data to point to the gaps left by Uber’s existing background check system. Mayor Turner wasted no time sharing those results with the press.
According to Turner, Uber’s national background check does not include records from Delaware, Massachusetts, South Dakota, or Wyoming. After Houston’s policy went into effect, a driver who had passed Uber’s background checks was found to have 24 aliases, 5 birth dates, and 10 social security numbers on record through the increased requirements implemented by the city. That driver also had an active warrant for arrest. The mayor also pointed to “hundreds of applicants” who went through the city’s background check, and were found to have prior criminal histories including murder, assault and battery, and aggravated robbery, as well as DWI’s and DUI’s.
The mayor held nothing back in his criticism of the company’s tactics. He compared the company’s ultimatum, repeal your policies or we will leave, to being robbed at gun point. That experience, he said, is one no Houstonian would view favorably. Referencing the company’s previous agreement to the regulations in Houston’s ordinance, he called this move a bait and switch. “It’s like getting into the market,” Turner said, “trying to get you hooked, recognizing that after we get you hooked, then we’re gonna really drag you.”
Uber, Turner said, is relying on Houstonians who use the app to get around to pressure the city council to change their regulations so that the company will continue to operate in the city. Speaking to those who use the app, Turner said, “I hope Houstonians will understand. If we allow this type of tactic to take place by this particular entity today, others will be doing the same thing down the road. And we cannot, and we should not, compromise on public safety.”
Turner also expressed his frustration at the timing of Uber’s lawsuit. Referencing their allegations that Houston’s regulations are negatively impacting their ability to operate, Turner told the press that he was not allowed to speak to his knowledge of the numbers of Uber drivers who have successfully gone through the city’s process, or whether their share of drivers on the road had increased or decreased following the implementation of the city’s regulations. The lawsuit had tied his hands, and prohibited any city official from responding to these allegations with data of their own.
Whatever happens in the months ahead, the mayor of the fourth largest city in the country has made it clear where he stands. Uber is welcome to stay in the city, but only if they play by the rules.