What’s Up With Austin’s Proposed Uber and Lyft Regulations? Why Does It Matter to Me?

NOTE: This is not an endorsement or position statement from AYC. This is an educational piece developed by members and the Economic Development committee.

By Amy Stansbury

Ride-hailing regulations 101: what you need to know about Austin City Council’s proposed ride-hailing regulations and how you can get involved.

Uber and Lyft, which have been legally operating in Austin for about a year, may soon be subject to new regulations. The City of Austin is considering a move to require drivers with ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to undergo fingerprint-based criminal background checks. The effort to pass these new regulations has been led by Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen (District 5), who says that the name-based background checks that Uber and Lyft currently conduct on their drivers are not sufficient.  Similar concerns have been raised in other cities across the U.S. and Texas, including Houston and San Antonio.

Austin already requires cab drivers to undergo fingerprint background checks, which use fingerprinting to ensure that a driver really is who he says he is. Both Uber and Lyft have come out against these regulations, saying that their background checks are sufficient and that requiring fingerprint-based background checks will add another hurdle for their drivers, discouraging many part-time drivers from ever signing up. This, they say, will affect their ability to provide the quick and efficient service that customers have grown to love. Currently, Lyft does not operate in any city that requires fingerprint-based background checks.

AYC went around interviewing the main players in the debate to get a first-hand look at what they think. Here’s how they responded, in their own words:

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen (District 5): For the proposed regulation

“City Council has moved forward with basic measures regarding vehicle for hire services that both improve public safety and ensure equitable standards across all service providers, calling for the development of fingerprint-based background checks and higher safety standards for all ground transportation vehicles for hire.

  • For years, the City has used fingerprint-based background checks for all drivers of transportation companies, including taxis, limos, charters, pedicabs, shuttles and even horse drawn carriages. There has been no sound argument that new ride-booking services should be treated differently and exempted from fingerprinting.
  • While transportation-networking companies use “name check” background checks based on personal identifiers submitted by an individual, results are not based on positive biometric identification and it is common for criminal offenders to use false or alias identities.
  • Currently, neither City permitted drivers nor drivers for TNCs are background checked against national FBI records, and the proposal applies this higher standard to all service providers.
  • Fingerprinting will improve the positive identification of potential drivers, and the proposed review of standards for determination of eligibility across the board will enhance the consistency with which criminal history is evaluated.

Austin embraces all options for transportation and these proposals will ensure for our residents and visitors the highest standards of safety and mobility options.”

Adapted from an interview with Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair (District 8): Against the proposed regulation

“I have long been an outspoken advocate for Uber and Lyft. They provide an invaluable service to riders by providing them with affordable transportation options and a safe way to get home. They also provide opportunities for Austinites to make extra money by driving,” Troxclair said. In a recent city council meeting, Troxclair was one of only two city council members to vote against the proposed fingerprint background check regulations.

“Yes, public safety is a concern and we need reasonable regulations, but at the same time, there are multiple avenues to ensuring safety,” Troxclair said. Uber and Lyft are helping to reduce drunk driving right now, which is an important aspect of public safety, Troxclair added. She said that the proposed regulations are trying to prevent something that could happen, whereas drunk driving is happening right now. “It’s not hypothetical,” Troxclair said of drunk driving. “It’s something we need to address right now and ride sharing companies get people home safely.”

Troxclair also said that this is an issue that young people need to get more involved with. “It’s important for a younger audience to be engaged,” she said. “Most of the public testimony has been from drivers and employees, but there are a lot of people who use Uber and Lyft every single day who value the service and may not even be aware of what is going on.”

Uber: Against the proposed regulation

“In only one year, more than half a million people in Austin have opened the app and trusted Uber to connect them to a safe, affordable ride. Ridesharing has made the streets a safer place and increased accessibility for underserved communities.

Unfortunately, the City Council is considering new regulations that would reverse this progress.

These excessive regulations are threatening to force Uber and Lyft out of town.

One of the more problematic measures is the duplicative and unnecessary city background check requirement. As part of Uber’s comprehensive safety process, every driver already undergoes a rigorous background check. We believe our background checks are robust and thorough. And we aren’t alone. In fact, the Austin Transportation Department recently recommended that the City adopt Uber’s background check process for other transportation for hire companies. At Uber, background checks are only one part of our comprehensive safety system. Uber’s app is built around safety features that protect riders and drivers before, during and after the trip in ways that others cannot.

Uber has outlined countless benefits that ridesharing has provided to Austin, but the City has failed to actually identify problems with the current ordinance that need to be fixed. In fact, nearly 30,000 Austinites have urged the City to Keep Austin Uber. We urge the City to listen to their constituents who want to move Austin forward.”

Lyft: Against the proposed regulation

“Regarding the fingerprinting proposal currently under consideration, Lyft opposes the concept and continues to ask the question, “why is it that a very successful one year program is being amended with onerous regulation?”  Why fix what is already working?  The Austin ordinance has been recognized as the most innovative regulatory structure in the country by many communities and now we are going backwards.

  • Lyft will see a drop in part-time drivers, the lifeblood of our platform.  Without these drivers, supply cannot meet demand, estimated times of arrival will increase and the app will not work efficiently.  A large majority of our drivers are on the road less than 15 hours per week.
  • Fingerprinting does not capture information that is important to Lyft like low-level drug offenses where an arrestee may have been cited and released.  The FBI database is a contributory database that relies on states reporting information, and many states do not do a very good job.
  • The costs of a new fingerprint system for TNCs will be absorbed by drivers or taxpayers when Lyft is now screening drivers at no cost to the city.  In Houston, the Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department estimated that fingerprinting and other government-mandated TNC requirements would increase the department’s workload by 1000% and cost taxpayers an additional $600,000.

The safety of drivers and passengers is Lyft’s top priority. The Lyft platform was designed with a holistic approach to safety. Lyft’s background checks, conducted by a third-party expert used by Fortune 500 companies across the U.S.(including Texas’ own CBRE and Southwest Airlines), check municipal, county, state and federal records. ATD’s proposed process, which covers current ground transportation service providers, only covers a statewide database. It is unclear how the City will cover the additional administrative costs and resources that these additional measures, including fingerprinting, would require.

Lyft also utilizes a wide range of innovative features to ensure both drivers and passengers feel confident, informed and accountable at all times. These measures include in-app photos of the driver and vehicle, 19-point vehicle inspections, driving record checks, real-time ride tracking, digital receipts, two-way rating systems, and an around-the-clock Trust and Safety team.

Lyft currently operates in 40 cities that have enacted comprehensive TNC legislation without a fingerprinting requirement. Requiring fingerprinting would impose barriers for participation and make Austin an outlier without any benefit to public safety. Lyft’s safety screening processes are thorough and rigorous, but also streamlined to ensure that everyone, including part-time drivers, can participate. With 80% of Lyft drivers driving 15 hours a week or less, part-time drivers are key to the platform’s success. Lyft does not currently operate in any city that requires fingerprinting and has been forced to pause operations in cities that implement the measure. In addition to criminal background checks, all drivers undergo a driving record check, vehicle inspection and in-person screening session.”

What happens now:

The proposed regulations will be discussed at the upcoming Mobility Committee meeting on November 16th at 9am at Austin City Hall before being voted on by the full city council, as early as November 19th. In a preliminary vote held last month, the vast majority of city council voted for the proposed regulations.

If this is an issue that matters to you, you can attend either the mobility committee meeting or the full city council meeting. You can also email your city council representative here.

This blog is a production of the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee, whose purpose is to create opportunity for relative financial success and security for young Austin residents. In the future, the Economic Development Committee will continue to use this blog to educate members about the important issues facing them – affordability, transportation, and economic opportunity. If you or your business is passionate about any of these issues and would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Amy Stansbury at amyrstansbury-at-gmail-dot-com.
About the writer: Amy Stansbury is a 25-year-old Austinite who believes that everyone her age should be more involved in local politics. As the editor of the Austin EcoNetwork, a local environmental news site, she has dedicated her professional career to educating people about the world around them, starting at their front door. She believes that Austin will only continue to thrive if all of its citizens are informed, which is why she works hard every day as a journalist to educate, entertain, and inspire readers. @AmyStansbury

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