Ride-hailing supporters collect enough signatures to bring issue to City Council vote

Forrest Milburn

Supporters of Uber and Lyft services are one step closer to forcing Austin City Council to reconsider regulations set to go into effect Feb. 1 after collecting more than three times the required number of signatures needed to bring the issue to a vote.

In December, council members approved increased regulations — including fingerprint background checks — on ride-hailing companies, similar to those followed by taxis. The council, in response to threats by Uber and Lyft to leave the city, offered a compromise by establishing benchmarks that require 99 percent of each company’s drivers to be fingerprinted by Feb. 2017, without yet specifying any penalties.

Ridesharing Works for Austin, the group who organized the petition drive, announced Tuesday morning at City Hall they had surpassed their goal of around 30,000 petitioners by getting 65,103 Austinites to sign. If council members decide not to vote on and approve the petition’s changes, then Austin voters will get the chance to vote on regulations May 7.

“The petition was a reaction to recent rules passed by the city council that would have put onerous rules on the ride-sharing companies, including mandatory fingerprints, that we believe would drive those companies out of town,” Caroline Joiner, Ridesharing Works for Austin treasurer, said.

For now, supporters of the ride-hailing companies will have to wait while the city clerk attempts to validate at least 20,000 petition signatures, the number required to bring any issue to voters on the ballot.

If council members vote to adopt the petition’s ordinance, then city code dealing with ride-hailing companies would revert back to the existing language that had few regulations, approved by the previous council under Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Speaking at a press conference on Jan. 19, Mayor Steve Adler suggested using incentives to push drivers to get fingerprinted, with a third-party organization validating the driver’s background information. Adler said he believes this could potentially break the impasse between council members and ride-hailing companies.

“Ultimately, the goal is not to have an optional system; the goal is to actually drive and deliver the meaningful choice of fingerprinted drivers for those people in our community who would feel safer that way,” Adler said. “I think it’s important we have Uber operating at scale in this city.”

Opponents of the ordinance approved in December argue that the city benefits from ride-hailing companies as they provide late night, cost-effective alternatives to drunken driving or calling a taxi, while supporters argue the ordinance ensures drivers and riders are safe when ordering services.

“I think it’s a good idea to subject Uber drivers to background checks,” Plan II and government junior Shanthini Kumar said. “If something does happen or a [rider] is put in a dangerous situation for whatever reason, there is some filter present for accountability.”

Once the city clerk has validated the required number of signatures, council members will then have only 10 days to make their decision to put the issue on the May 7 ballot or approve the petitioned ordinance. Ridesharing Works for Austin is confident Uber and Lyft will remain in Austin despite the council’s decision.

“I believe this is a mandate to the City Council and to the mayor to adopt the ordinance we put forward,” Joiner said. “For organizational purposes, we have 60,000 people whose names we have to turn out to vote, and I think between now and May our support will continue to grow.”