How Austin’s Vote On Ridesharing May (Or May Not) Leave You Rideless In Your City


It’s a convenience that many of us have gotten used to in a very short time. With nothing more than a smartphone app, you can request a ride, watch the car make its way to you in real-time, and within a few minutes, a driver shows up in their own car to take you where you need to go. Once the ride’s done, there’s no cash involved, and your payment (and tip, if you’re a Lyft user) is handled within the app. Still, for all the streamlined amenity, there’s a growing contention between the companies that provide this service and those who feel the drivers should be held to stricter guidelines in the interest of public safety.

The most public debate thus far between Uber and Lyft, the two main Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) and local governments just took place in Austin, Texas — a city known for its active nightlife and tech-friendliness as well as its subpar public transportation, unreliable cab service, and some of the nation’s worst traffic. All considering, TNCs seemed like they’d be the perfect elixir. But there was one major point of contention: regulation.

The Austin City Council wanted TNCs to follow the same regulations that cab and limo drivers are subject to. Uber and Lyft preferred to operate under their own, and even formed the PAC Ridesharing Works For Austin in an effort to help sway public opinion. They even drafted their own regulations, intended to override any put in place by the city government, touting it as a quick and efficient alternative. These regulations became known as Prop 1.

The issue was put to a vote on Saturday, May 7 with 56 percent of voters siding against Prop 1, meaning TNC drivers would not be allowed to self-regulate, instead their drivers would remain subject to city-run background checks. Both companies ceased operations in Austin early the following Monday.

It brings to an end the contentious history these companies have had with the city of Austin, which started back when Uber and Lyft launched in the summer of 2014 without city approval. A short-term solution was put into effect in October of 2014 before permanent regulations were drafted in late 2015 and set to take effect on February of 2017. In spite of mounting assault accusations against drivers, TNCs argued that changing the process would make recruiting drivers too difficult on them, and too costly for taxpayers.

This is where things start to get messy. TNCs are still a relatively new concept, and government isn’t exactly synonymous with rapid adaptation, so there’s no set precedent on how they are — or should be — regulated in other cities. Right now, for example, Uber is threatening to leave Houston over a near-identical issue regarding background checks. Lyft, meanwhile, simply stopped operating in Houston when this became an issue back in November of 2014. Uber has also discontinued services in cities like Columbus, Ohio over similar issues, and returned only once those regulations were repealed. In New York City, however, Uber and Lyft drivers are required to get fingerprinted, as well as follow the same background check that is required of cab drivers.

With rules varying city by city, the TNCs have shown that they’re willing to protest any conditions they don’t view favorably and poured an estimated $10 million dollars in their pro-Prop 1 campaign — about 10 times what an Austin mayoral campaign would cost). Disputed claims and statistics flew back and forth about licensed Austin cab drivers failing Uber’s background check, and dramatic drops in DUI arrests, though the latter was later revised by the Austin Police Department.