Proposed downtown soccer stadium will need parking options

A new 20,000seat stadium with no on-site parking in downtown Austin?

It’s a fairy tale, right?

Who is to say. What is certain is that this is what owners of Major League Soccer team Columbus Crew SC envision for their potential move to Austin’s Butler Shores.

From a soccer fan’s standpoint, I share in this wishful thinking. Transportation network companies like Ride Austin, Uber, Lyft and others will be key to getting people to a downtown soccer game; that’s a given.  But I’m also cognizant of Austin’s dominant car-centric culture and lack of expansive, efficient public transportation.

If Columbus Crew SC wants a real shot at a downtown location, it needs to present a plan that includes parking options for those unwilling to leave their cars behind.

Precourt Sports Ventures, which operates the team, announced in October that it was exploring a move to Austin for the 2019 season. In a meeting Tuesday with the American-Statesman editorial board, PSV president Dave Greeley said that finding the right stadium is critical to a potential move here, preferably in the center of the city.

In November, the city council passed a resolution directing city staff to study city-owned property including underutilized parkland suitable for both a 20,000-plus stadium and a large practice facility.  City staff will present their findings at the Dec. 14 City Council meeting.

But it’s clear that PSV would like one spot in particular: 200 South Lamar. The site of Butler Shores Metropolitan Park checks all the boxes on the team’s wish list for its potential new home, Richard Suttle, an Austin attorney and MLS lobbyist who is working for PSV told the editorial board.

Last week, PSV made public a preliminary rendering of a 20,000-seat stadium tightly tucked into the western half of well-worn Butler Shores, leaving some parkland to the east.

Noticeably missing from the rendering are on-site parking options. There are none.

Instead of providing on-site parking, the group told us, fans would take any transportation means necessary — buses, trains, taxis, ride-hailing services, mom’s minivan — to get to the downtown stadium. You know, like they do in Portland, Orlando and in Europe and Latin America. Getting there without cars is just part of the soccer fan culture, PSV folks tell us.

It’s not a far-fetched idea. There are plenty of soccer stadiums around the world — some here in the U.S. — with no parking. The transportation culture, however, is different here.

Austinites love their cars, and they rely on them to get everywhere.  A lack of robust public transportation options and pure habit fuel our need to drive ourselves everywhere, including downtown. That dependency on a car is emphasized for folks who don’t live near the city’s core. Unlike other cities, there aren’t enough bus or rail routes in the region that feed into downtown, especially not from Central Texas counties to the east, west or south.

Our single-line computer rail system — Capital Metro’s Red Line — stretches 32 miles and serves nine stations. In comparison, Portland’s MAX Light Rail system consists of five separate lines serving 97 stations.

Falling bus ridership is the reason Capital Metro will soon implement an overhaul of its routes.

We drive to work. That’s why Austin is the 13th-most congested city in the country, according to a recent report by transportation analytic firm INRIX. The same report found that Austin ranks 42nd-worst in the world in traffic congestion.

All reasons why a downtown stadium in Austin with no parking raises eyebrows.

Perhaps it’s possible. Thousands, after all, pour into downtown over two weekends for the ACL Music Festival, which takes place in the same vicinity as the proposed stadium. That smooth operation requires street closures, detailed parking options and organized shuttles to the park. And, it helps that ACL attendees don’t all arrive nor do they leave all at the same time.

PSV says it has identified 13,000 parking spaces within a 20-minute walk to the Butler Shores stadium site which fans can use. But it’s unrealistic to think that only soccer fans would have free run of those parking spaces. Instead, they would compete with everyone else who ventures downtown for entertainment and other events for those very same parking spots.

With a typical near 20-home game schedule — some of those dates overlapping with ACL and SXSW festivals — PSV needs to come up with innovative solutions that don’t add to already congested downtown streets. Their proposed shuttle services — including from its training facilities to the stadium — is a good start.

A new Capital Metro president to be named next year, will tackle the traffic-grid issues that plague our ever-congested region. But solutions, especially those that get people out of their cars, will be slow in coming. The city’s car-centric culture, I fear, will be one hard habit to break. As such, the club needs to have detailed downtown Austin stadium parking and travel plans ready.

Relying on a hope that people will magically make their way to a stadium without creating more traffic congestion in a city already known for its gridlock could set us all up for disappointment.

Looking for our 2016 endorsements?

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

 

Early voting for the national and local elections starts October 24 and while the Editorial Board is not endorsing in the presidential race, we are weighing in on some very important issues facing Central Texans.

There’s no doubt that by now most Americans know how they’ll vote on the main ticket this presidential election, but local races are just as important — if not more so, some will argue — and deserve voters’ attention. It’s at the local level that the Editorial Board has decided to focus and dig a little deeper, providing both analytical editorials on some of the most pressing issues coupled with Q&A’s with candidates who will take on these issues if elected. Below, you’ll find a list of the races and issues we’ve chosen to weigh in  on.

So whether you choose to head to the polls next week (early voting ends Nov. 4) or decide to wait for Election Day on Nov. 8, we encourage you to make it through to the end of the ballot and cast as an informed vote as much a possible. (BTW: Need more info on Austin City Council Candidates? Don’t know who represents you? No problem. Use the Statesman’s City Council Candidate Explorer to answer your questions.)

Presidential Election:

Mobility Bonds Election:

Travis County Sheriff race:

Travis County District Attorney race:

Austin City Council District 2 and 4 races:

Austin City Council District 6 race:

Austin City Council Districts 7 and 10 races:

Austin Community College Board of Trustee races:

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees races:

 

And of course, you can get full election coverage here: Statesman Elections 2016

 

Mayor says go big on transportation, but colleagues go small

Traffic backs up on northbound Mopac during the morning commute into downtown Austin on Monday, May 2, 2016. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Traffic backs up on northbound Mopac during the morning commute into downtown Austin on Monday, May 2, 2016. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In announcing a $720 million bond package to overhaul key traffic corridors, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it’s time to “go big or go home.”

He is right. Yet some of his colleagues are going small — so small, one has to wonder if they are traveling in the same traffic as the rest of us.

It’s time to go big because Austin’s busiest arteries – including North and South Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road and Airport Boulevard, all built decades ago– have not kept pace with the area’s explosive growth. The Austin-area is approaching 2 million people, but still traveling on roads more suited for a time when the region was half its current size.

Austin residents have a remarkable opportunity to do something about their transportation predicament. Adler’s so-called Smart Corridors initiative offers bigger and bolder results when matched with Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson’s proposal to overhaul Interstate 35. Imagine that the region could see meaningful relief to congestion over the next decade with roads and transit features that appeal to drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and public transit commuters.

FROM EDITORIAL: Questions linger, but Watson’s plan would get traffic moving on I-35

Watson should reconsider one measure in the plan to drop I-35 lanes that run through Austin below street level. Aside from being overly expensive, dropping 1-35 lanes would further displace African Americans, Latinos and lower-income people from East Austin neighborhoods already undergoing massive gentrification. Watson has not addressed either the cost or the impact of burying I-35 lanes.

If anyone doubts that traffic is a major headache than check out the findings of a recent poll that identified transportation woes as the worst thing about living in Austin.

That is what 51 percent of 600 respondents answered on the poll commissioned by the Austin Monitor earlier this month. Housing was second, at 20 percent.

Against that backdrop, one has to wonder why some Council members are putting up competing bond packages that are too small to get the job done.

RELATED COVERAGE: Austin leaders have ‘big’ discussion on transportation ideas

City Council Member Ann Kitchen seems well-intended by advocating for a $300 million transportation bond package whose debt could be retired without an additional tax rate increase. Adler’s initiative, by contrast, would require a 2-cent per $100 of valuation increase, adding about $50 a year to the property tax bill on a $250,000 home.

It’s important to keep one’s eye on taxes, but Kitchen’s approach doesn’t go far enough to create the kind of transit system that shifts people from cars to other modes of transportation, particularly Capital Metro buses.

Kitchen corrected me when I called the bond package the “Kitchen plan,” saying it was the joint creation of the Council’s four-member mobility committee she chairs. As such, she said it was a starting point for debating a transportation bond package for the November election. The council has until Aug. 22 to decide what if anything to put on a November ballot.

It calls for spending $121 million on key corridors: Burnet Road, Airport and Lamar Boulevards, East Martin, Riverside Drive and East Martin Luther King Boulevard. That compares with about $500 million Adler’s proposal would spend on corridors.

The Kitchen-backed proposal also would steer $46.5 million to Loop 360 and Parmer Lane, $39.7 million to sidewalks and $22 million to bike pathways and trails. Adler’s puts more in all of those with sidewalks receiving $55 million, $20 million for protected bike pathways and $30 million for trails.

And if two plans were not enough, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is offering a third competing bond package. Its price tag, at $720 million, is the same as Adler’s, but it’s too small in geographical reach and vision.

Casar’s proposal does steer much of the bond money, about $420 million, to corridors identified in Adler’s plan. But it also shifts $180 million Adler included for chokepoints in neighborhoods west of Mopac to sidewalks, bike pathways and trails. In all, bike and pedestrian projects get $300 million. That’s a political nonstarter. Not only does it ignore Austin’s more affluent and vote-rich communities west of Mopac, it pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians.

Casar explained his initiative as one aimed at promoting “a future where hopefully the majority of Austinites do not have to be trapped in single-occupancy vehicles on their daily route to work.”

I, too, share that vision, especially since my own commute, now at about 50 minutes one way during peak times, has more than tripled in 15 years. But that future won’t arrive anytime soon without a cultural shift that gets people out of their single-occupancy vehicles and into other modes of transportation. That can’t be done by force or other such pressures. If that were true, it would have happened already, given Austin’s horrific congestion.

The shift that Casar wants only can happen if people change their view of public transit. That requires creating a high quality commuter experience with buses that move on express or managed lanes so they keep reliable schedules and are not stuck in traffic; pull-outs for buses so drivers aren’t stuck behind them when they stop to pick up or drop off commuters; smart traffic lights that can be timed remotely from the city’s traffic management center so traffic can be managed in real time for weather, accidents and flow; protected bike lanes so cars don’t get stuck behind cyclists and cyclists can ride safely; and sidewalks to provide a safe path for those who want to walk to bus stops, work or shops.

FROM TRAVIS COUNTY COMMISSIONER BRIGID SHEA: Austin’s sky might hold answer to traffic congestion

It means designing an integrated system that invokes technological advances with an eye to future modes of transportation that will look very different than what we have now.

That means going big.

Austin isn’t the only city with an Uber debate

In this photo taken Feb. 25, 2016, an Uber decal is displayed in the their window of the car owned by Steve Linnes, a music teacher in State College, Pa., who is also a part-time Uber driver. Gov. Tom Wolf and Pittsburgh-area officials said Tuesday, May 3, 2016, they want Pennsylvania regulators to greatly reduce their record-setting $11.4 million fine against ride-sharing company Uber. The Public Utility Commission fined Uber last month for operating six months in 2014 without the required approval. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT
(Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP)

The Editorial Board weighed in against the May 7 ballot that calls for the repeal of existing regulations of Transporation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft. We also hosted a good number of op-eds both in favor and against the ordinance.

Those weren’t the only  voices who had something to say. Here are a few others:

“Uber and Lyft want a playing field heavily tilted to their advantage, so they can eliminate the local competition and monopolize the ride-hailing market – after which they will resume squeezing drivers and riders as they have persistently done elsewhere.”  — Austin Chronicle editorial board: Endorsement against Prop. 1: 

“With Proposition 1, Uber and Lyft have tried to turn a regulatory debate into an argument over ride-hailing itself, knowing that these services are both popular and necessary in Austin. If voters accept that frame, they are being played as unsophisticated. Proposition 1 is Uber and Lyft’s effort to fight back against regulation by undermining local government.” —Kriston Capps, City Lab: From the Atlantic: Austin’s Uber War is dumb

“I voted in favor of Proposition 1 yesterday with no hesitation for the simple reason that if Austin City Council wanted to cast itself as a responsible steward of the ride-hailing market, it shouldn’t have completely failed to do so for decades.” —Erica Grieder, Texas Monthly: A vote for Prop. 1

“Politics in the time of social media and atrophied attention spans depends on narratives, and opponents of Proposition 1 are peddling a doozy, with the able assistance of the Austin American-Statesman editorial board.”– Mark Lisheron, Watchdog.org: An Uber narrative runs amok

Other Texas cities may not have an election but are grappling with an Uber debate:

In Houston, where Uber has made threats to leave if Houston won’t change existing regulation:

“Don’t let them take you on a ride, (Houston) Mayor Turner. Don’t give in to their threats. In the world of political carrots and sticks, Uber deserves a good bop on the nose for its tone-deaf and entitled attitude towards our city.” — Houston Chronicle editorial board: Another Uber threat

In Dallas, where Uber plans to expand in an underserved part of the city:

“The new collaboration between Uber and the city should allow more southern Dallas residents to take advantage of a handy option to get around. And putting money in the pockets of more Uber “driver-partners,” who can basically become their own bosses, is nothing but good news all around. That’s especially important in some areas of southern Dallas where people struggle to make ends meet.” — Dallas Morning News editorial board: Expanding Uber makes sense

Opinions on Uber  (and fellow ride-hailing company Lyft) are just about everywhere. In fact, elsewhere across the country, and the world for that matter, cities are at different stages of dealing with the presence of Uber. For example:

In Miami, where Uber has illegally forced its way into the market:

“These ride-hailing services not only should be made legal in Miami-Dade, county officials should consider them a vital component in expanding the transportation options beyond what satisfied customers already have taken advantage of.” — Miami Herald editorial board

In New Jersey, where regulating Uber is still a challenge:

“Regulate Uber, yes — but uniformly. Not by treating it like local taxis.” — Miami Herald Editorial Board wrote:

In Toronto, where the focus is still on creating a level playing field for taxis:

“Some additional tinkering may be required, but on the whole the new rules before council represent the best way forward. The question now is whether politicians will have the fortitude to serve the interests of consumers or bow to the taxi industry.” — Toronto Star editorial board

Adler: Modernize rules for Uber, Lyft, other e-business

Uber driver Adrianna Garcia shows her support for Uber during a Sept. 2 meeting of the Austin City Council's Mobility Committee. (LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Uber driver Adrianna Garcia shows her support for Uber during a Sept. 2 meeting of the Austin City Council’s Mobility Committee. (LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Austin is at the top of many lists for technology job creation and number of new startups. But when it comes to regulating e-business, local government still is using regulatory methods more suitable for the Industrial Age than the digital era. That oftentimes creates the kind of political collision Austin is experiencing with ride-hailing companies, Uber and Lyft, according to Mayor Steve Adler and some tech leaders speaking at SXSW on Saturday.

On the one hand, government has a role to play as it is tasked with keeping the public safe, the air clean and roads maintained. But that bumps up against the practices of tech sector businesses that aim to disrupt their way to success.

Moving beyond that impasse requires both — government and private companies – to come up with a new set of regulatory measures that advances the goals of both. Adler’s Thumbs Up! Austin program aims to bridge the gap between the City Council’s fingerprinting mandate for Uber and Lyft drivers and the companies’ business practices that rely on their own background checks, using computer software and social security numbers.

I was inspired and hopeful as I listened to Adler and high tech leaders, Josh Jones-Dilworth, CEO of Jones-Dilworth, Inc. and Francisco Enriquez, co-founder and managing director of Glasshouse Policy, discuss a way forward without the harsh words or hyperbole that has punctuated talks between Uber, Lyft and the Austin City Council.

It’s a timely conversation, coming as the city readies for a May 7 referendum that pits the City of Austin’s regulations governing Uber, Lyft, GetMe and other ride-hailing companies against regulations and fees Uber and Lyft crafted. The stakes are high as Uber and Lyft have threatened to bolt if the current mandate requiring fingerprint-based background checks of drivers remains in place. Meanwhile, there is potential for mischief and/or abuse if corporations — in this case Uber and Lyft — get to write their own their own rules for operating in the city.

In laying out the issue Adler said the city could not ignore or abdicate its safety responsibilities, explaining to an audience of dozens of people why fingerprints checks and the presence of Uber, Lyft and GetMe are important to public safety.

“Our public safety people both locally and at the state level were coming to us saying if drivers were fingerprinted that the community is safer — if you look at just that one element. That was precipitated by the dramatic increase in the number of rapes and sexual assaults showing up at the rape crisis center here in town, Safe Place.

“A lot of women mostly, in their early 20s coming down to Sixth Street or Rainy Street, partying too hard and then getting put into a back seat of a TNC (transportation network company car), being driven home and then waking up the next morning to find they had been assaulted.”

But TNCs, Adler said, also are a key part of the equation of keeping the city safe.

“At the same time, we knew that TNCs were taking drunk drivers off the road, we needed TNCs in town in order to address that safety issue.” Adler told dozens of people attending the SXSW panel.

“I think we’re in the middle of the second industrial revolution,” said Jones-Dilworth. “Government had to step in during the first Industrial Revolution to change some of the ways we regulated labor, environment and pollution.

“There’s been such a sea change in the way goods and services are produced, the onus is on government to react because the old rules no longer apply,” Jones-Dilworth said. “You are seeing that across the board with Apple and the FBI.

“Government needs to catch up.”

Jones-Dilworth, one of the tech leaders who worked on the Thumbs Up! initiative said the program modernizes regulations to make sharing-economy services widely available and at the same time, safer for the community.

The Thumbs Up! program would act as sort of a Good Housekeeping seal for ride-hailing companies and other e-businesses operating in Austin, such as HomeAway and Airbnb. Companies could display on their apps, or even on vehicles, a badge indicating that a driver or homeowner had passed safety checks, including fingerprint checks for drivers. Instead of mandates, Thumbs Up! would use incentives to achieve that goal.

In the case of ride-hailing, that could include reserving for “Thumbs Up” drivers the most convenient passenger loading spots for big events such as the South by Southwest and Austin City Limits music festivals.

Sounds reasonable. But that kind of reason has gotten lost so far in the Uber, Lyft debate. Perhaps it can be resurrected after the May 7 election.

 

 

 

Austin’s traffic problems hurt more than your commute

rbz Airport Grass Fire 06
The Austin Fire department responded to a grass fire in the 2700 block of Texas Highway 71 in Southeast Austin, just east of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The fire was contained to 1/2 acres and burned briefly on an old golf course at the site. Crews fill a brush truck from a nearby hydrant to continue battling the fire. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In theory, the Austin Fire Department should be able to respond to at least 90 percent of its calls in less than 8 minutes.

The reality, according to city statistics discussed this week during the city’s public safety commission meeting, only the firefighters in seven of the city’s 45 stations currently meet that standard.

That difference in response time can mean the difference in an accidental house fire resulting in the loss of a single room versus the entire home.

The commission on Monday forwarded a request to the City Council to identify the areas of need for new stations. The city already knows where at least four of those should be — they were identified as part of the process of the 2012 bond election. Six stations were recommended by city staff, but only one station  — Onion Creek — actually made it into the public safety proposal and it is yet to be built.

The problem is two-fold. The city’s explosive growth means there are more households to protect and the area’s incredibly frustrating traffic inevitably slows emergency reponsiveness. The fact that the areas around Loop 360 and in Travis County are high on the list of needed stations should come as no surprise to anyone who has sat in congestion on the major roads in the area. Both areas are home to lots of roof tops, with few road options for rapid emergency access.

The good news is that there are two stations in South Austin that are close to completion, which should relieve some of the fire response pressure in the Manchaca/Slaughter area, which has also been pinched by growth and traffic congestion.

The situation is one of the truths about city infrastructure, especially when it comes to transportation. There are lots of ways to pay for infrastructure projects. Public safety is just one of them. So the question is not whether Austin will pay for its transportation problems, it is rather, how high a price will be required.

Uber, Lyft proponents’ petition to recall Kitchen fails

Austin City Council Ann Kitchen, top right, listens as Council members and Mayor Steve Adler announce their support for her during a press conference outside City Hall on Monday, February 1, 2016. Kitchen, the District 5 representative, was the subject of a recall petition. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Austin City Council Ann Kitchen, top right, listens as Council members and Mayor Steve Adler announce their support for her during a press conference outside City Hall on Monday, February 1, 2016. Kitchen, the District 5 representative, was the subject of a recall petition. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

There will be no recall election anytime soon of Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen.

On Friday, the Austin City Clerk rejected the recall petition targeting Kitchen because it failed to meet all requirements the city charter establishes for recalling a city council member. That is good news and a victory not just for Kitchen, but for her constituents.

The recall attempt was aimed at punishing Kitchen for her stance on Uber and Lyft rather than removing her for any impropriety she had committed in her short term in office. Kitchen, as you might remember, took office in January 2015 as part of Austin’s new 10-1 governing system in which council members are elected from districts and the mayor is elected at-large. Her term runs through 2018.

It won’t be so easy for Austin4All, a political action committee behind the recall effort, to make a second attempt to pull Kitchen from office because the group must start over on collecting the almost 4,900 signatures of registered voters from Kitchen’s District 5 necessary to instigate a recall. That will take more time and more money.

Two members of Austin4All said the group will go to court in an effort to overturn the city clerk’s ruling. That is a longshot since the charter is clear on the rules.

If that fails, Austin4All members said they would mount a second petition drive to recall Kitchen. That will be tougher next time because people in Kitchen’s district will be more skeptical when asked to sign a petition regarding the council member they overwhelmingly elected. They might remember some of the false excuses that were used to acquire their signatures, such as to keep Uber and Lyft operating in Austin or protect barbeque restaurants.

The truth is that Austin4All sought to recall Kitchen, one of the Council’s hardest working members, for having the audacity to do her job as chairwoman of the council’s mobility committee with respect to writing rules governing Uber and Lyft. Those rules included a mandate that drivers for ride-hailing companies undergo fingerprint-based background checks as part of public safety requirements other vehicles for hire — taxis, limousines and even pedicabs – must follow to operate in Austin.

That put Kitchen in the crosshairs of Uber and Lyft, which said the fingerprint requirement would mess up their business models by reducing the pool of mostly part-time drivers, who would be put off by the time, effort and annoyance of being finger-printed. Fewer drivers would mean longer response times when customers hail Uber or Lyft drivers via smart phones, which would erode their competitive edge, and no doubt, their profit margins. Uber has not adequately explained why such a requirement is a deal-breaker in Austin, but not in Houston, where Uber operates despite a requirement for fingerprint checks.

All of the issues would have been better settled through a compromise between the City Council and Uber and Lyft, as San Antonio did by making fingerprint checks voluntary. Give credit to Austin Mayor Steve Adler for trying to achieve that through incentives.

Instead the issue is headed to a May 7 referendum forced on the city by Uber and Lyft, which used the disagreement with the council as an opportunity to write their own rules and set their own fees for operating in the city. Those measures are encompassed in an ordinance Uber and Lyft steered to the ballot to replace the current Council-approved one. It’s a huge power play that usurps Austin’s sovereignty. And it’s a gamble.

History tells us that May elections have low turnouts. That means anything can happen. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Identity politics unlikely to work with young Austinites

dyc recall 06
Mayor Steve Adler, center, flanked by Council members, from left, Greg Casar, Leslie Pool, Ora Houston, Pio Renteria, Kathie Tovo, Sheri Gallo and Delia Garza, announce their support for fellow council member Ann Kitchen, who has received criticism for her stance on fingerprint requirements for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

So, Austin will have its ballot showdown between the City Council and the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft in May. The exasperation coming from the dais is clear, however council members — especially Mayor Steve Adler and embattled Council Member Ann Kitchen — should take a page from the national political landscape.

However well-intentioned one’s policies may be, this next generation of voters are not likely to accept the notion that they should just trust that their elders know what is best for them. Delivery and transparency are everything these days, especially with millennials and members of Generation X. If you talk down to them, be prepared for them to tune you out, or worse — turn on you.

Exhibit No.1: Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders. Last year it was clear that Clinton assumed that the youthful energy amassed from President Obama’s campaign would automatically transfer to her. But the “youngsters” who propelled Obama to office aren’t so young anymore. They are in their mid-30s; they are parents and homeowners.

They have more skin in the game now, but they are still less likely to behave politically like baby boomers. You could sense Clinton struggling to speak to that demographic after her defeat in New Hampshire and as she campaigned in Nevada and South Carolina. Her quandary is how to use the familiar, time-tested tools of identity politics to rally traditional, older voters, while not irritating younger, newer voters. Her performance last weekend was strong, but only time will tell whether she can convince those under-45 to turn out for her and vote.

The turnout question is an important one. In the past four election cycles, millennials have proven to be fickle when it comes to casting ballots. So do millennials matter politically? Absolutely, voting age millennials outnumber baby boomers already. Even if they don’t show up at the polls at the same rate, their sheer numbers have the ability to swing elections, especially those that are issue-based, not personality- or party-based.

Which brings me back to Austin and the ride-hailing election slated for May.

The divide is generational in a way that is much broader than whether one is comfortable ordering a ride over the internet. While I support Kitchen and Delia Garza in insisting that the city should be responsible for public safety, their message is essentially patriarchal (or matriarchal in this case). You elected us; therefore you should trust us.

My unsolicited suggestion to the yet-to-be-formed PAC: Make this election less about council power being usurped (still true), and more about the right of every passenger to feel confident that they are reasonably safe in the rides they hail, whether it is 2 a.m. or 4 p.m. whether they are drunk or sober. In an era where millions are victimized by identity theft each year, it is vanity for Uber and Lyft to consider themselves immune and counter-intuitive for riders to give up the assurance that their driver is in fact who he or she claims to be.

As the board has said in the past, this push for an election is not driven by the ride-hailing companies’ deep passion for this community or for the contractors who drive for them, it’s being driven by their corporate bottom line. And while capitalism and public good is not mutually exclusive, it does put the onus on the ride-hailing companies to truly earn public trust rather than steamroll the process.

The city will get further with a dialog that respects the concerns of the service’s users than treating those who question their judgment like wayward teenagers.

 

 

 

 

 

Ann Kitchen recall petition bodes ill for Austin

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Welcome to “Groundhog Day,” Austin.

If the petition being circulated to oust Council Member Ann Kitchen has the required 4,811 signatures, Austin politics will likely become its own version of the cult classic movie. You know, where the character by Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again trying to get a different outcome.

Although exhausting, all turns out well for Murray. He, eventually, gets the girl and comes out on the other side a better person. For Austin, policy by petition and political harassment has ominous implications.

Of course, the power to recall elected representatives is an important tool as part of the checks and balances on local government. It prevents elected officials from being allowed to run amok until their term expires. However, it is a power best reserved for correcting incompetence, neglect of duties, corruption, misconduct — allowing the work of the city to continue rather than being derailed by poor or improper governance.

There are costs of course — financial and political — which is why it should only be pursued in extreme cases. The city moved its municipal election day to November in part to reduce expense and encourage greater voter participation. If the petition is submitted and certified before Feb. 19, an election will likely be called for May,

However valuable a recall election might be, it is the wrong tool for settling disagreements on policies. Although its unclear what group is behind the recall effort, it stands to reason that the petition is connected to Kitchen’s position on transportion networking companies such as Uber and Lyft.

From Statesman transportation columnist Ben Wear:

The petition, at the top, offers these grounds for sacking Kitchen, who, if not recalled, would face reelection in November 2018: “The reason for her recall is because she has purposefully hurt businesses that employ citizens of Austin.”

Pretty general. I’m guessing every council that has ever come along, in Austin or any other American city of any size, has passed ordinances that “hurt” businesses by imposing some sort of limitations on them for environmental, safety, road access, zoning or other reasons. Building codes harm businesses in this manner, as do parking requirements. Heck, any city fee on a business hurts it, and they are always done purposefully. Or should that be “purposely?” Maybe both.

Austin has always functioned best when stakeholders work together to reach consensus. This take no prisoners approach to government is much more akin to the state of affairs in Washington, D.C., where it seems to make perfect sense to vote more than 50 times to undo legislation to no effect. The method proposed by Austin4All, the nebulous group behind the Kitchen petition, is even worse, preferring to remove leaders they don’t like until they wear down the elected representative or get someone they like.

Austin has no shortage of contentious issues: environmental protection, affordable housing, development code rewrites, public safety, transportation. Resorting to a petition is a terrible way to write policy and an even worse way to choose leadership.

If it comes to a vote, hopefully Kitchen’s constituents in District 5 will take a stand and not allow her to be run out on a rail. I may not always agree with Kitchen, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to serve her term. There are plenty of ways to build consensus for change; a recall petition is not one of them.