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.

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.

 

 

 

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.