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April 28th, 2016:

Uber says it will leave Houston if it does not change its fingerprinting requirement

I called it.

Uber

Uber announced Wednesday that the company plans to cease operations in Houston if the city council does not repeal its existing regulations relating to vehicle-for-hire companies.

Houston is one of two cities in the country where Uber continues to operate despite a local requirement that its drivers undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Uber has recently left three cities in Texas for approving similar regulations and has threatened to do the same in Austin.

The company’s main competitor, Lyft, pulled out of Houston over a year ago in response to the new rules requiring its drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Uber had continued to operate in the city while publicly criticizing the regulation as burdensome.

“We have worked hard and taken extraordinary steps to help guide drivers through the current process in Houston,” said Uber General Manager Sarfraz Maredia in a letter to Houston City Council on Wednesday. “However, a year and a half later, it is clear the regulations are simply not working for the people of this city.”

Uber also released a report Wednesday detailing, “The Cost of Houston’s Ridesharing Regulations.” The report claims Houston’s regulations have led to a decrease in Uber drivers and in turn, “fewer safe rides.”

Here’s Uber’s press release, their letter to Council, and the report mentioned in the story. Before I get into any details, here are some further news bits. First, from the initial Chron story.

No departure date has been set, Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said.

“We have not set a specific deadline,” she said. “We want to work with the city to develop regulations that work for riders, drivers and the entire community. We understand this process may take a few months.

[…]

Meanwhile use of Uber in Houston surges, something both sides have said bolsters their case. The city argues use means Uber is profitable even with the regulations, though the company says they stifle supply of drivers.

From the Statesman:

The company does not disclose to the media or public how many drivers it has working in Houston, and it obtained a court order preventing city of Houston officials from releasing that information. (Lyft does not operate in Houston.)

The report released Wednesday by Uber includes a chart purporting to show drivers-per-million residents in Houston, Austin and Los Angeles, and the chart is presented in such a way as to imply that Austin (with no fingerprinting required until Feb. 28) has many more drivers per million residents.

But the chart has no numbers listed on its vertical scale of drivers per million residents, rendering it qualitative in nature, not quantitative. Given that and the company’s refusal to release driver figures, it is impossible to confirm the company’s claims about driver supply there.

The letter and report do not mention that Houston has a process under which a driver can get a 30-day “provisional” license without first going through fingerprinting. But according to Uber, a Houston driver, even to get that provisional license, must complete a physical, take a drug test, appear at Houston municipal court to get a check of outstanding criminal warrants, buy a fire extinguisher for the car, get his or her car inspected by a city inspector and get an Uber identifying marker for the car.

From the Houston Business Journal:

According to the letter and a corresponding report on Uber’s Houston operations, 59 percent of its Houston fleet drives less than 10 hours a week. That’s compared to 79 percent of drivers in Austin, and 77 percent in Houston’s outer limits. Uber argues that for these part-time drivers, the regulations are too oppressive and prevents new drivers from signing up.

Mayor Turner held a press conference yesterday at 4 to give his reaction. The Chron story that contained it was updated too late for me to see it last night, so I’ll do another piece tomorrow to discuss that. Click2Houston reports him saying he was “surprised” and that when he had last spoken to Uber reps a few months ago they gave no indication they were dissatisfied; I received another statement from Uber later in the day that takes issue with that, but I’ll get to all that tomorrow. The one thing that surprises me about this is that Uber announced it before the results of the Austin referendum are known. I had assumed they’d wait and pounce if they were successful in repealing Austin’s ordinance; if they failed, I figured they’d still make some move in Houston, but they might be more circumspect about it. Winning the referendum in Austin gives them leverage, which I strongly suspect is part of the point. Maybe this is a show of confidence on their part, maybe it’s just bravado, or maybe this was the plan all along. Who knows?

There are three logical ways Houston can go with this:

1. Do what Uber wants, which would surely have the effect of bringing Lyft back as well. That would not be my first choice, but if Prop 1 passes in Austin, there may be a lot of sentiment here for that.

2. Stand pat and let Uber do what it’s going to do. Get Me is operating in town, so it’s not like there’s no vehicle for hire alternative. One could argue that Uber’s abandonment of many Texas cities, potentially including Austin, would pave the way for another competitor to arise. The demand clearly exists for this service, and opportunities like this don’t come along every day. This is a better strategy if Prop 1 fails, and the bigger the margin the better. It also assumes a commitment to ensuring that no legislation that pre-empts local rideshare ordinances gets passed in the 2017 Legislature.

3. Try to negotiate a compromise. I still kind of like Austin Mayor Adler’s proposal for voluntary fingerprinting, which then becomes part of a driver’s profile and which customers can request. Let’s see what the free market has to say about that, shall we? There are certainly other possibilities, and again, this is likely to be more feasible if Prop 1 goes down.

Anyway. I don’t know as I write this what Mayor Turner had to say beyond his surprise, nor do I know what the prevailing opinion on Council is. Whatever the case, I’m sure this will be a big part of the discussion over the next few months, which I’m sure is exactly what the Mayor wanted given the forthcoming budget battle, the ongoing flood cleanup, the continuing search for an HPD chief, and everything else on his agenda. Well timed, Uber.

Dan Patrick supports potty package check legislation

Of course he does.

RedEquality

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, weighing into a national controversy over transgender restrooms, said Tuesday he supports keeping men out of women’s restrooms, even if it takes legislation to do so.

Since the issue erupted into controversy nationally, some Texas lawmakers have said they will support a state law for single-sex restrooms, and the endorsement of that position by Senate-leader Patrick is likely to give that movement momentum.

“I think the handwriting is on the bathroom wall: Stay out of the ladies’ room if you’re a man,” Patrick said outside his Capitol office, confirming a post on his Facebook page that affirmed his opposition to cross-sex restrooms.

“If it costs me an election, if it costs me a lot of grief, then so be it. If we can’t fight for something this basic, then we’ve lost our country.”

[…]

Patrick, who last year along with Gov. Greg Abbott and other GOP officials supported the repeal of a Houston ordinance on transgender restrooms, dismissed threats of boycotts and business opposition in other states as “bluff and bluster.” he noted that since Houston repealed its so-called HERO ordinance, by a wide margin in an election, the city has hosted the Final Four basketball championships and will host the Super Bowl in 2017.

I guess the North Carolina experience doesn’t enter the equation. I mean, look, this is what the modern Republican Party is. The business community has been closely aligned with them for a long time due to shared interests on taxes and regulations and stuff like that. The same business community also supports comprehensive immigration reform, greater investment in infrastructure and public education, and LGBT equality. All of these things stand in opposition to what the GOP supports. Heck, the North Carolina Republicans are wearing the backlash as a badge of honor, and you can see in Dan Patrick’s language the same sentiment. Will this ever cause a schism? I keep thinking that one of these days it will, but I keep being disappointed, and they keep supporting the same old politicians who keep opposing the same things they say they support. I wish I could say I expect something different from the business community this time, but as of now at least, I can’t. Trail Blazers, the Trib, and the Current have more.

Kill that trash subsidy

Works for me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner, working to close a $160 million budget deficit, has proposed scrapping payments that scores of Houston neighborhoods served by private trash haulers receive to help offset the cost of their waste contracts.

The idea when the program started in the 1970s was that residents should not have to pay property taxes for city trash services they were not receiving – particularly because they were already paying for waste pickup in their homeowner association dues. The city also came out ahead because the $6 monthly per-house subsidy was cheaper than the cost of the city serving each home itself, now estimated at $18 per home per month.

In scraping together a balanced budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, however, Turner felt the program was expendable. In many cases, the subsidies go to residents who have chosen to pay for more extensive services than those the city provides, such as having the trash picked up more frequently than once a week, or having workers walk up a resident’s driveway to retrieve the trash rather than the homeowner rolling a bin to the curb.

Cutting these “sponsorship” payments to the 48,000 homes participating would save the city $3.5 million.

“When I drilled down in every department and every line item and I saw that line item sticking out, my question was, ‘Is this one that people can give up without hurting them and the core services, things that are essential to the city?'” Turner said. “I decided this was something the city at this particular point in time was not in a position to continue to sponsor.”

City Council will begin hearings on Turner’s proposed budget on Monday, leading up to a final vote that could come as early as May 25.

[…]

“If they end up saying it’s that big of a difference, that they will give up their contracts and will turn to the city, then yeah, OK, more than likely I’ll remove it,” Turner said. “I’m not trying to make their situation bad, I’m simply trying to balance a budget that’s $160 million short, and I’ve asked people to engage in shared sacrifice.”

The mayor also suggested, wearing a slight grin, that reporters examine the subdivisions now receiving trash subsidies.

The three City Council districts home to 83 percent of the city’s sponsorship agreements, records show, also are the three districts with the highest median household incomes in the city: District G on the west side, District E in Kingwood and Clear Lake, and District C, which covers much of the western half of the Inner Loop.

[CM Dave] Martin acknowledged that he and many of his neighbors receiving private trash service in District E can cover a $6-per-month increase in their civic association dues.

“If you’re used to getting your trash picked up twice a week and you’re used to backdoor service, most people are probably going to say, ‘Keep my six bucks,'” Martin said. “They’re mostly the people that have the means to pay an extra $6 a month.”

Yes indeed. And now is the time for the city to say to these folks that we can no longer afford to subsidize their premium trash collection service. We all have to make sacrifices in these lean times, don’t you know. The irony is that if enough people decide that the sacrifice they’d prefer to make is the higher level of service, in return for saving a few bucks a month, then it won’t be worth the city’s effort to make them make that sacrifice. I suspect that the vast majority of them will take the original deal, of keeping the service but paying full price for it. If nothing else, it will allow those who are so inclined to piss and moan about how hard they have it now. Surely that’s worth the six bucks a month to them. KUHF has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 25

The Texas Progressive Alliance is gathered here today to get through this thing called mourning the loss of Prince as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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