True reason for Uber, Lyft election is power, not fingerprints

Caroline Joiner, left and Mark Nathan, right deliver petitions to Austin City Clerk's office Jannette Goodall on Tuesday, morning Jan, 17, 2016. The petition has forced a May election on a ride-hailing ordinance crafted by Uber and Lyft to replace one passed by the Austin City Council. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Caroline Joiner, left and Mark Nathan, right deliver petitions to Austin City Clerk’s office Jannette Goodall on Tuesday, morning Jan, 17, 2016. The petition has forced a May election on a ride-hailing ordinance crafted by Uber and Lyft to replace one passed by the Austin City Council. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Recent events in Kalamazoo, Michigan, regarding an Uber driver who reportedly killed six people are likely to reverberate in Austin, even though those events are not directly connected to the debate Austin is having over safety and security measures used by Uber and Lyft.

In Austin, the debate has focused on a city requirement for fingerprint-based background checks of Uber and Lyft drivers. The ride-hailing companies are fighting the rules with an ordinance they steered to the ballot to replace the current ordinance the Austin City Council passed last year. The election for the replacement ordinance is May 7. That ordinance is starkly different than the council-approved one.

The ordinance that Uber and Lyft are trying to replace requires drivers to pass fingerprint background checks, which would be phased in. It also mandates that drivers for ride-hailing companies display emblems of Uber, Lyft or GetMe on their vehicles so customers can identify them. The City Council ordinance also prohibits Uber, Lyft and drivers for other ride-hailing companies from loading or unloading customers in traffic lanes. Those are sensible safety and security regulations Austin needs and deserves, but the replacement ordinance backed by Uber and Lyft would eliminate all of those measures if voters approve it.

In Kalamazoo, questions are focused on whether Uber intervened swiftly enough to suspend its driver, Jason Dalton, once complaints about his hazardous driving were known.

No one can say whether that tragedy will influence the outcome of the referendum in Austin. But it certainly does bring into focus a broader concern about safety and security of transportation network companies serving the public, such as Uber and Lyft, whose business models rely on tens of thousands, if not millions, of independent contractors who drive their own vehicles, but use online platforms of Uber and Lyft. In such a huge, loosely regulated pool, there can be greater risks for passengers as well as drivers. Against that backdrop, it is fair to question whether Austin’s elected officials or Uber and Lyft should write the rules for how those corporations operate in the city.

The ordinance on the May ballot hands that power to Uber and Lyft.

It is that issue – and not fingerprint checks – that Austin residents should focus on when they go to the polls.

In orchestrating a referendum, Uber and Lyft masterfully manipulated public sentiment by threatening to bolt if the council required them to submit to a fingerprint-based background check system. That would leave many Austin people in the lurch in getting around the city, and as police say, increase the incidence of driving while intoxicated.

Their public influence was evident in the speed and ease with which signatures were gathered on their behalf to meet Austin’s threshold for forcing a May election. It put the ride-hailing companies in a win-win situation: At the very least, a petition drive could pressure the council to abandon fingerprint background checks. At best, it would put on the books an ordinance Uber and Lyft crafted.

In recent weeks, there have been cracks in support for Uber and Lyft as another petition drive got underway, centering on recalling well-respected City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who led efforts at City Hall to require fingerprint-based background checks. Uber and Lyft say they have no involvement in Kitchen’s recall attempt and there is no evidence to suggest they did. But they miss the point: The recall petition, still awaiting verification by the city clerk, was conceived from an environment Uber created by its attacks on Kitchen essentially for doing her job as chairwoman of the council’s mobility  committee.

Certainly deep-pocketed Uber and Lyft have weighed their costs in taking the issue to voters. They no doubt will have to mount a vigorous public relations campaign in a short window, which is likely to be expensive. Since the turnout for May elections in Austin historically is low, it will be tricky getting voters to the polls. In other words, the ballot ordinance is a gamble.

That might explain why Uber and Lyft engaged in eleventh-hour negotiations with Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Though Adler’s compromise greatly watered down the current ordinance, it would have spared the city $500,000 to $1 million for staging the May 7 election. But adopting Adler’s compromise also required the City Council to adopt the ordinance Uber and Lyft orchestrated – something a majority of council members weren’t willing to do. Instead they sent it to voters with an unmistakable message.

Here is what City Council Member Delia Garza, a former firefighter, said to the Austin Monitor about why she voted to send the matter to voters: “This is going to sound cheesy probably, but when you’ve walked into a burning building, there are very few things that intimidate you. And so, I think having that experience, I’m not afraid to stand by what I believe.”

In other words, game on.