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The Uber/Lyft debate comes to Austin

Get ready, y’all.

The discussion around Austin’s public transportation debate has been at times both fevered and nuanced, driven in large part by social media. There have been discussions about lightrail, late-night bus service, parking ticket waivers, taxi driver accountability and, of course, drinking and driving. But during this call to action, no one name has popped up more than Uber, the black car ridesharing service started and headquartered in San Francisco.

For those who haven’t used the service — which is currently available in 35 countries and dozens of cities across the U.S. including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston — Uber is a smartphone-based app that allows users to tap a button, type in a destination and order a chauffeured black car directly to their front door. On Thursday, May 15, the Austin City Council will vote to approve a resolution asking City Manager Marc Ott to develop a recommendation for personal, non-commercial vehicles services like these.

In a 2013 memo to Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Ott and the City Council, then-director of the Austin Transportation Department Robert Spillar wrote that rideshares like Uber must be regulated through a taxi franchise or operating authority, thus ending the chances of the company operating within city limits.

Staff believes that these two services (car/vanpool or licensed vehicles-for-hire) represent the full spectrum of ridesharing activities possible and that smart phone enabled rideshare (SPER) applications either facilitate legitimate car/vanpool activities where compensation is on the basis of trip cost (now legal under City Code); or they are serving as dispatch for a vehicle-for-hire activity, that if not licensed through a taxi franchise or operating authority, is illegal.

Currently, rideshares like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft, among others, are unable to provide service in Austin, due in part to complex regulations and a city code that covers only car/vanpools and regulated taxi and chauffeured rides. Rideshare companies fall somewhere in the middle; unlike a traditional taxi or limo company, many rideshares simply provide the connection between the driver and the passenger, not the actual service itself.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Uber has a petition that has attracted a lot of support. You have to admit, if there’s a city in Texas that would seem like a natural fit for these services, it’s Austin. More here:

“This is an important, pressing issue. We have people on the streets of downtown Austin who need options,” said Chris Riley, Austin City Council member.

Council Member Chris Riley is sponsoring an item on this week’s agenda to look at adding Transportation Network Companies into the mix.

[...]

The Council will vote on the resolution Thursday. If it passes the city manager will have 90 days to come up with a report and pilot program for TNCs.

KXAN has a summary of the resolutions.

Councilman Chris Riley has proposed three resolutions.

1. The first look at creating a pilot program for transportation networking companies to operate during peak times, subject to licensure and safety requirements for drivers and cars. Council members will also look at regulations in place in other cities, including Chicago and Seattle.

2. Another resolution aims to find short-term and long-term solutions to better meet taxi demands.

3. The third resolution asks staff to put late-night transportation options on the city website, and several options are already available on the site.

See here for the full text of the resolutions. It should be noted that Austin has had some prior experience with Uber, during this year’s South By Southwest festival. It was predictably tumultuous.

South By Southwest brings a lot of things to Austin: film premieres, start-ups, newsmakers, bands, traffic and tech savvy out-of-towners.

It’s that last group that might take umbrage with the city’s ride-sharing policy, which outlaws apps like Uber, Lyft, SideCar and since-shuttered Austin-based Hey Ride.

The city contends these services have unregulated – and potentially unsafe – drivers.

Austin plans to enforce city code by impounding drivers’ vehicles and ticketing them up to $1,500 if they’re busted. Uber, which has provided rides to fest-goers despite the City of Austin’s warnings, says their model is the future of traditional taxi services.

This year at SXSW, Uber offered their Uber Black service. It charges a $55 minimum fare and requires a minimum 30-minute wait time between a call or service request via its app, and pick up time.

It’s expensive, but it’s legal. Uber joined with limousine services, allowing them to use their software at a fee as long as they provide the rides.

But Uber’s lower-cost service – Uber X, which uses contracted drivers operating their own cars – isn’t legal, according to the city charter. The Austin Transportation Department’s Gordon Derr says Uber X drivers don’t have the oversight year-round drivers do, and that’s a safety concern.

“The primary thing is that if somebody is being paid to drive somebody around, then that’s a vehicle for hire,” Derr says. “And it’s subject to regulation.”

[...]

Uber contends their drivers are just as qualified. And for now, they aren’t charging customers – which, they say, is allowable under the city ordinance as a purely promotional service.

See here, here, and here for more on that. I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am by Uber’s casual approach to the law. The middle of those three links above notes that Uber imported drivers from other cities for SxSW, many of whom not too surprisingly weren’t all that familiar with Austin. As with the possibility of getting a citation for using the service in the first place, you’d think that would not be the best way to make a good first impression. Be that as it may, I figure Austin City Council will approve CM Riley’s resolutions, and we’ll see how it goes from there.

Finally, in news that I thought was of interest but didn’t want to devote a separate post to, a mini-link roundup on Uber and Lyft:

They get a warm reception in Washington, DC, where it would seem the local cab companies aren’t held in high esteem. Where’s Mr. T when you really need him?

Some hotshot venture capitalist thinks companies like AirBnB, Uber, and Lyft are setting themselves up for future problems by having raised so many zillions of venture capital. The next wave of transportation innovators will surely be less in the thrall of their financial overlords, and thus better able to return value to all the stakeholders, which includes their customers.

And finally, if you’re going to Cannes this year, Uber has a deal for you.

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