It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out.
Defying implied threats that such a vote would chase Uber and Lyft out of town, the Austin City Council late Thursday put into city statutes mandatory fingerprint-based background checks for ride-hailing drivers.
But the move will not immediately empty the streets of transportation network company drivers. The ordinance, approved on a 9-2 vote with Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman opposed, would not take effect until Feb. 1, and it phases in the fingerprint requirement in four steps. The companies, subject to further action by the council, would not have to do the checks on any of their drivers until well into the spring.
Still to come, perhaps as soon as late January, yet another transportation network ordinance that would outline what council members call “incentives” and “disincentives” to encourage the companies and their thousands of drivers to undergo the fingerprint checks.
What might those perks and penalties look like? Adler suggested both more money per ride for drivers who are fingerprinted, or offering them better locations for pickups at big events like the ACL and South-by-Southwest festivals. The specifics would be crafted as part of a separate ordinance the council hopes to pass in late January.
“This is taking an aspect of what is happening in San Antonio” where drivers can volunteer to be fingerprinted and shown as such on apps, Adler said, “and trying to put it on steroids.”
Both companies have issued thinly veiled threats to cease Austin operations if the fingerprint requirement becomes law.
Under the earlier city ordinance, Uber and Lyft have been able to conduct the name-based criminal background checks that they prefer. They say that process, which requires little more from the driver other than providing a name, Social Security number, driver’s license and a few other pieces of information, maximizes the number of drivers and thus available cars on the street. (Lyft also conducts an in-person interview.)
The changes announced Thursday met with poor reviews from the companies.
“We haven’t had time to fully examine the details,” Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said in an email Thursday afternoon, “but it appears the only substantive change is the implementation date is now after the next election. Similar to earlier proposals, these rules reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how drivers use ridesharing platforms and the safety features inherent in our app.”
A third player in the market, Get Me, began providing rides Tuesday in Austin and has just 60 drivers at this point, the company said. Get Me officials have told Council Member Ann Kitchen that they will comply with fingerprint requirements.
See these Statesman stories for the runup to this. I have a hard time believing that Uber and Lyft will actually pull out of Austin, where I’m sure they do a lot of business. Good move by Get Me, which recently entered Houston and Dallas to pipe up that they’ll follow the new law – I’m sure they’ll be delighted to show Uber and Lyft out if it comes to that. I’m sure the two big boys will do what they can to put pressure on Austin City Council to ease up – they’re already doing that now, in fact – and they may well succeed. They’ve got the Austin police chief and Travis County Sheriff on their side because of their claims to reduce drunk driving, a phenomenon that has been observed elsewhere. The new regs are being phased in, so there’s plenty of opportunity for brinksmanship and one-upping. I can’t wait to see how it plays out. The Trib, BOR, and Newsdesk have more.