Forum: Exploring the nuances of TNCs

Walker Fountain

The battle between the Austin City Council and the transportation network companies Uber and Lyft has hit a crucial moment, which will not only define ride-hailing in the City of Austin, but will also help to define the relationship between TNCs, consumers and local governments around the country. At issue is the council’s regulations on TNC drivers, at various points mandating and encouraging background checks that include fingerprinting for all drivers.

Uber and Lyft argue that these regulations are overly burdensome and will hamper a business model that provides a better service to Austinites. However, proponents of these regulations point to public safety concerns — with several notable instances of assault by Uber drivers across the nation and a well publicized instance just last week of a Lyft driver being arrested for driving under the influence with a passenger in the car.

Internal machinations in the City Council, along with proposals from Mayor Steve Adler, have shifted the dynamic in the debate. After some TNCs’ public rebuke of the first TNC regulations draft, written by Ann Kitchen, Mayor Adler promoted a ‘thumbs-up’ policy toward ride-hailing companies. This policy would encourage TNC drivers to get a fingerprinted background check and provide them with incentives to do so, including a potentially higher rate for fingerprinted drivers. The end goal seems to be near-universal compliance among drivers.

However, this proposal did not go far enough for TNC companies, who launched a public petitioning drive to put regulations up for public referendum through the organization “Ridesharing Works for Austin.” The group set a goal of over 20,000 signatures, enough to get the current regulations on the ballot and said that they had surpassed them, collecting over 60,000 signatures of Austinites, pushing the issue to the ballot.

Proposition 1, launched after the public petitioning process mentioned above, seeks to either approve or deny the existing rules that guide TNCs in the city. Effectively, a yes vote on the resolution will keep existing regulations intact — allowing Uber and Lyft to keep their current business model, which largely relies on on-boarding a significant amount of drivers to keep pace with demand — especially as many drivers leave or work only a few hours a week.

However, a loss on Prop 1 will leave the City Council with a clear mandate to forge ahead on the regulations that they initially proposed — and would represent a major setback to TNCs in Austin, possibly prompting them to make good on their promise to leave town if fingerprinting regulations are put in place.

In many ways, the vote in Austin will be a bellwether for TNC regulations across the country. While Austin is in many ways a unique city — with a heavy reliance on ride-hailing applications because of a spotty public transportation, and a city filled with college students and young professionals, this is the first major case of TNC regulations appearing before the general public. Perhaps this is why Uber and Lyft have lavished resources upon the vote — with many canvassers surrounding the UT campus over the last few days, pushing support for the proposition.

This week, our forum contributors, Steven Hester, a student proponent of ride-hailing, and Noah Horwitz, a former lobbyist for Yellow Cab, will discuss the merits of Proposition 1. We will also discuss the Proposition with Noah in our Daily Texan Forum podcast. At issue is the opportunity for City of Austin voters to choose their path forward on ride-hailing — an opportunity they will have on May 7.

Fountain is a government senior from Pelham, New York. Fountain is the Forum Editor. Follow him on Twitter @wf_atx.