Council approves Thumbs Up! ridesharing incentives program, shakes up debate on regulations


Forrest Milburn

For the 2015 Austin City Limits Music Festival, Safi Jenkins was looking for a quick way to make some cash that could work around her schedule. For Jenkins — like many UT students wanting a source for extra money not bound by 8-hour retail shifts — it was Uber’s flexibility and easygoing atmosphere that pushed her to become a driver.

“You get to drive whenever you want. I can drive between classes, I can start really late and I can start really early,” said Jenkins, a human development and family sciences junior. “For finals, I was able to take off for a whole week, which is something that’s really hard for a normal job.”

While ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft debate about regulations passed in December with City Hall, students like Jenkins are stuck in a complex situation that starkly contrasts the simplicity that initially attracted them.

In the latest round of debate, City Council members voted 7-4 Thursday to approve an initiative called “Thumbs Up!” that would provide incentives, such as free metered parking, to Jenkins and other transportation network company drivers who voluntarily get their fingerprints scanned.

“Uber and Lyft have said that they don’t want anything that penalizes non-fingerprinted drivers,” said Josh Jones-Dilworth, a member of the “Thumbs Up!” task force. “We’ve been really careful to only add in new stuff that is not taking [anything] away. We want to never hurt a driver’s ability to earn their living, and we want to make it easier to go through this process.”

Anyone opting to get fingerprinted could go to an HEB or City Hall, for example, equipped with fingerprint scanners to get background checked, Jones-Dilworth said. Members of the council argued that the “Thumbs Up!” ordinance would only work if TNCs could come to a compromise with City Hall, but officials have already come out against the initiative.

“It’s been very clear that there is not going to be cooperation,” councilmember Delia Garza said.

In the December ordinance, the council voted to make regulations voluntary by setting up compliance dates for the companies that wouldn’t begin until May 1, but TNCs and their supporters didn’t believe it was an efficient compromise.

“The existing regulations that are in place — they are working,” bar owner Suzette Christensen said at the meeting concerning the comparatively few existing pre-initiative regulations. “I see things that you guys don’t see at two or three in the morning … people are not drinking and driving when they leave the bar at night.”

On Jan. 19, Ridesharing Works for Austin — a group of local nonprofits backed by TNCs — announced it had collected 65,103 signatures on a petition, requiring City Council to either roll back regulations themselves or put the issue up to voters.

“The city council pissed off the people in the city of Austin, and they responded with a 65,000-person petition that legally mandates us to either adopt the ordinance or hold an election,” councilmember Ellen Troxclair said during the meeting.

The City Clerk is expected to announce it has validated enough signatures — at least 20,000 by law — to either force the council to solidify existing TNC regulations or let voters decide.

“We believe the city council’s action should be guided by the over 65,000 Austinites who trust their voice of disapproval will be heard,” Lyft official Chelsea Wilson said in a statement.

The debate between the city and TNCs will continue into the coming weeks, when the City Clerk continues to work on the petition, and the council discusses it in a work session next week.