Legalize TNCs like Lyft, Uber, but responsibly and with limits

On Tuesday, Council Member Chris Riley addressed Student Government on what he referred to as the urgent need to address the growing transportation shortage in Austin with transportation network companies, known to most students as services such as Uber and Lyft. We would like to see these sleek new services available for legal use by students in the near future, but as Riley pointed out repeatedly during his remarks, the Council needs to develop a reasonable accommodation that both ensures continued safety for passengers and allows for fair competition with legal cab companies by ensuring everyone follows the same rules.

Riley’s recent proposal before the Austin City Council to legalize TNCs forces them, like cab companies, to have $1 million in liability insurance for the services (Uber and Lyft voluntarily provide such coverage), as well as strict background and drug checks, vehicle inspections, 24-hour customer service representatives and service for the disabled population. All are good regulations that must be followed if we legalize these exciting new transportation options.

Additionally, all TNCs should carry 24-hour commercial insurance, even if passengers are not present in the car. Too many incidents have occurred in which a personal insurance company has denied coverage to an Uber or a Lyft driver after a wreck where no passengers have been present. This is specifically dangerous for pedestrian students.

The council should also foster a competitive business environment between the traditional cabs and TNCs by ensuring that the elimination of a regulation for one category results in elimination for the other. Houston did this in one instance when they legalized Uber and Lyft last month, allowing vehicles-for-hire to charge variable rates, higher or lower than city-set fares. This is one solution Austin should consider implementing.

As Riley said on Tuesday, the city implemented regulations governing taxis for good reasons. At one time, pre-set fares forced price stability, permanent dispatch centers required accountability and strict medallions prevented the market from being flooded. But changing technology has indubitably rendered some of these regulations obsolete. It is up to city regulators to responsibly update these codes and allow new technology and new blood into the marketplace without sacrificing the safety of the public or the transportation options of some of its most vulnerable members. Riley wanted what he called a “major overhaul” of taxi laws. We say bring it on, but make sure to do it right.