Depending on who you ask, Uber/Lyft have been forced out of Austin, or they left because they threw a hissy fit and refused government regulation. (You can tell how I voted on Prop 1). I wanted to let you know my experience/view of what happened in Austin, as it will certainly happen again in other cities (Chicago, I see you coming up). Also, Uber/Lyft lost the election 56-44, but they’ll learn from their mistakes in Austin and not be so egregious (probably).
Over the past few years I’ve run across plenty of articles online about Uber drivers committing various crimes against passengers: here’s a list someone compiled online, conveniently organized by crime (homicide, assault, kidnapping, etc.) Uber and Lyft apparently run a different (cheaper) kind of background check than usual taxi companies, which use fingerprint background checks. At the end of last year the city of Austin board decided that, to keep Austinites safe and avoid showing up on that online list, they’d require some phased-in fingerprinting checks, marking the cars with emblems (to avoid the “imposters” section of the list), and ban stopping in travel lanes. Then in January, 65,000 Austinites signed a petition to put this up to a vote.
Shall the City Code be amended to repeal City Ordinance No.20151217-075 relating to Transportation Network Companies; and replace with an ordinance that would repeal and prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicle with a distinctive emblem, repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane, and require other regulations for Transportation Network Companies?
In March I went to the Austin Kite Festival and as we left we were approached by a canvasser asking us if we knew about the special May 7 election. He said “They’re voting on whether to keep Uber in Austin or not.” We both immediately said we’d vote to keep Uber in Austin, and he handed us a leaflet to remind us of the election. I also put it in my google calendar so I wouldn’t forget about election. Silly me… I should’ve realized I’d receive 12 flyers in the mail, 2 flyers attached to my door (I live in the suburbs it’s hard to attach things to the doors!), a phone call, and a text to vote for Uber’s side (which is voting for Prop 1).
Ridesharing Works for Austin was the organization paying for these flyers, phone calls, myriad yard signs, and canvassers. It had $8.6 million dollars in its budget (filed with the city). This is the most that has ever been spent on an election in Austin (a far second was the $1 million that Steve Adler, the current mayor, spent on his campaign). The against coalition had $100,000. The money worked in that more people turned out for this special election (held on a Saturday) than in the normal primary election. But it didn’t work in that it made Austinites suspicious. According to NPR, Uber/Lyft spent $200 on each vote, and still lost. How could they lose with all that money? The tone of the flyers reminded me of the Airbnb PR debacle last year, when Airbnb posted a bunch of billboards that pitted the corporation against the city. These corporations seem to forget that people love their cities a lot more than they love corporations who shirk civic responsibilities/regulation. Here’s an example:
After about the fourth flyer, I started looking for anti-Prop 1 literature/propaganda. I didn’t find any, except one homemade yard sign on my way back from the office. This was very fishy. Eventually the Austin Chronicle and the mayor said they were against, mostly because they didn’t want to be bullied. Nobody likes a bully, and we (Austinites) felt like Uber/Lyft were handing down an ultimatum: we don’t want to do the thing you want us to do, and let us have our way or else we’re leaving:
“A significant part of this election is about how we make decisions in Austin.” (Mayor Steve Adler)
Also the thing you want us to do, we have offered no real good reasons for why we don’t want to do it. But if you vote against us, we’re out of here!
“Nobody wants them to leave and we’re not asking them to leave,” Councilmember Ann Kitchen told KUT. “The voters have spoken and they want these requirements and I know that we can do that… I don’t know why they would leave. We held the election that they said they wanted.
So that’s my story of how my vote went from Yes, Ways to Get Around! To No, Bullies I hate you! (You may recall I dislike bullies). It very well may happen to you too.
The day Uber and Lyft pulled out I had to get to the airport, so I took a Super Shuttle which forgot me and paid for a Yellow Cab. I chatted with the taxi driver about Prop 1. She told me: “I talk to Uber drivers and they talk about the Saturday night pickups, girls are drunk, as a ‘meat market.’ That’s rape. That’s not giving people a ride, that’s rape.” Disclaimer that the next sentence is hearsay/taxi gossip. She also said that Uber/Lyft don’t actually run background checks, they just say they do. So.. those two allegations are concerning. Also I’m not sure why someone would make them up after the vote.
There’s a lot more to say about this (regulation, the sharing economy, workers’ rights, etc. etc.) but I think my post is already long enough.
Other takes on what happened, on most pro-Uber to least, listed below. I always like paying attention to the subject and the verb in headlines to figure out where people stand.
Forbes: “Austin’s Regulatory Regime Drives Uber and Lyft out of Town”: With the failure of Proposition 1, Austin’s innovation-friendly reputation has taken a hit. The city’s decision to saddle ridesharing apps with an extensive list of petty, burdensome, and unnecessary regulations is driving Uber and Lyft out of town, effective Monday.”
Wall Street Journal: “Uber, Lyft Shut Down in Austin over Fingerprint Vote” -newsy story
TechCrunch: “Uber and Lyft Shut Down in Austin after votes defeat Proposition 1″ -newsy
(my fav headline) Breitbart: “Austin Voters tell Uber and Lyft to Shove It” This is just a collection of tweets
Austin American-Statesman: “Prop 1 undone by campaign’s underlying motive, threatening tone”: “We love our drivers and our customers so much, the companies said, that if we don’t get what we want from the City Council, we will throw the drivers out of work and leave the tipsy customers on the curb holding darkened smart phones.” I love my city.