Uber v. Austin: A Tale of Two Sitcoms

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True confession: I follow politics the way most people watch TV. You have your favorite shows, your favorite characters, your go-to channels, your guilty pleasures. That’s me with politics. My all-time favorite series is the Texas legislature. If you’re not a regular viewer, let me make it easy for you: the Lege (which is what we fans call it) is Game of Thrones, minus the beautiful bodies. “Session is coming” are our words.

Over the past four weeks, like most political Austinites, I’ve been binge watching “Prop 1: The Uber Election.” Most of the time, it feels like your basic reality show. The contestants are vying to write the rules that govern rideshare companies in Austin. Fingerprint background checks are the main topic of contention but other issues also come into play, particularly Austin’s pathetic lack of public transportation and the city’s continued explosive growth. Also in question are Austin’s local government and the “power” of the local taxi companies (which always makes me laugh because anyone who’s ever ridden in an Austin cab knows this is an oxymoron).

Between the endless Facebook posts and comments, the daily mailers from Ridesharing Works for Austin (the political action committee funded by Uber and Lyft to promote their self-written regulations that would replace the regulations enacted by Austin City Council requiring fingerprint background checks for drivers), the constant television ads, the local press coverage about the misleading mailers and endorsements, and the awesome inside tech Twitter wars, there is a lot to keep up with. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to attend any of the in-person debates but that’s probably best for my health, both physical and mental. (But I do my best to read the recaps on The Austin Monitor!)

Frankly, I’m wiped out.

At the end of the first exhausting week of early voting, the thing I’m most aware of is the massive disconnect between Prop 1 supporters and those of us who oppose it. It almost feels like we’re watching two completely different shows.

“What two shows?” you may ask.

Parks and Recreation and Silicon Valley.

The fight against Prop 1 in Austin often feels like a lost season of Parks and Rec. Many of us who oppose Prop 1 are classic Parks and Rec people. Like Leslie Knope, we believe that government plays an essential role in our lives, that it’s our duty to make the world better for everyone, and that endless city council meetings and town halls are the price we pay to live in the greatest city in the world. We’re the little guy fighting the internet giant Gryzzl who showed up the last season of the show with no respect for Pawnee and a secret agenda to take over something that was precious. To many of us who have lived in Austin for decades, it feels like Uber and Lyft have decided to take over our city government, something we feel is precious and defines us. That this attack comes at the precise moment our city government has finally taken a new form, with the aim of creating a more racially, economically and geographically representative city council, makes it doubly offensive.

Over on another channel, people who support Prop 1 are watching Silicon Valley. On this showeverybody’s in it to make money, but who cares? Life is about great code, getting funded, getting screwed by the competition and still trying to be the next great company, plus living in Erlich’s innovation incubator 24/7. These are the times we’re living in. Disrupt or be disrupted. Plus, Austin is a total nightmare to get around in. Who in their right mind would ever reject a tech company that fixes Austin’s transportation problem, at least in part–and gets people home when they’re wasted? You’d have to be an idiot to do that. And everybody on Silicon Valley is pretty much convinced that everybody else is a total idiot. With the exception of Big Head. Who is a total idiot.

If you’re wondering what show Uber is watching, I’m pretty sure it’s Billions. That’s why every thing they do is completely over the top. Spend over $2 million on a local election, that costs the city money to undertake? No problem. Maybe go along with some new voluntary regulatory compromise that the mayor offers up to keep you in business in Austin? No way. Threaten to leave the city that has one of the highest profiles in the country, and then threaten to leave the other city where you actually agreed to background checks in the middle of your fight with Austin? Sure. This is business we are talking about. A business currently valued at $58 billion. Uber is not interested in a quick laugh or a slow burn. They’re after complete domination.

Stay tuned.





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