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An outside view on Uber in Houston

The Statesman looks at how Austin’s fight with Uber and Lyft over fingerprint requirements compares with other cities in Texas, including Houston.

Uber

Officials in Houston said they decided early on that their city, despite having almost 2,500 licensed taxis, could benefit from the emerging ride-hailing industry. So they approached Uber and Lyft a few years ago and began to try to work out a framework for operations there.

That stringent framework, including a requirement for fingerprinting, drug testing, physicals and vehicle inspections, passed the Houston City Council in August 2014, just two months after Uber and Lyft had more or less barged into Austin and set off a furor by operating in defiance of city law. At first, Houston officials say, Uber officials had nothing but praise for the new law and worked with Houston to set up procedures and a facility for licensing of ride-hailing drivers.

Lyft, however, left town. That company operates in only one place that requires fingerprinting: New York City.

The Houston law took effect in November 2014, and the city’s permitting center in downtown Houston, along with a temporary off-site location to handle an initial rush of drivers, began operations, said Lara Cottingham, Houston’s assistant director of administrative and regulatory affairs.

Drivers can get a 30-day provisional permit without fingerprinting, Cottingham said, although they do need to undergo the physical, drug test and a check for active criminal warrants. Then, within that month, the drivers would have to be fingerprinted and pass the background check to get a two-year ride-hailing license.

Getting a provisional license at the agency’s Houston office, can take as little as 20 minutes, Cottingham said. The process of being fingerprinted and getting background results from the FBI, which can be done during those 30 days after the applicant is already driving, can take three to five days, she said.

Uber spokeswoman Jenn Mullin contends that jumping through those hoops can take several weeks and that it has been a noticeable deterrent to becoming a driver for the company. That, in turn, has increased waiting times for rides well beyond the average 3-minute wait that Uber customers see in Austin, she said.

But testing this assertion is difficult. Mullin declined to provide driver or wait time figures in Houston. And the company has resisted, through the courts, any attempts by the press and public to find out how many drivers have Houston-issued ride-hailing permits.

When Uber lobbyist Adam Blinick testified in December before the Austin City Council, [Austin City Council Member Ann] Kitchen asked him why the company was resisting fingerprinting in Austin but operated with it in Houston.

“Houston has been a very difficult city for us to operate in,” Blinick said. “It requires a lot of resources. It does not scale to a good quality of service.”

So, Kitchen asked, would Uber be leaving Houston anytime soon?

“I’m not in a position to answer that tonight,” Blinick said.

That’s a question I’ve been pondering too, as you know. I feel like if Uber and Lyft win this election in August, the issue will come up again in Houston whether Mayor Turner and Council want it to or not. The article also looks at the experiences in San Antonio and Midland, where Uber backed out after an agreement had been hammered out, so go read the whole thing.

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3 Comments

  1. Joshua ben bullard says:

    Mayor Turner should allow uber to conduct its own background checks under the agreement of a 1 to 100 applicant agreement, which essentially is the city can require fingerprinting randomly at 1 out of 100 applicant’s. What this article fails to tell you is in Austin Tx,San Antonio Tx and Houston Tx and Galveston Tx is (its one man that “,owns 90% of all the “, taxi medallions” in all 4 markets and taxi medallion’s severely limit the market ,costing you ,the consumer a fortune.every time you or your family take a taxi in Austin,San Antonio,Houston,Galveston you are forced by the cities law to have to pay this one guy an extra 28% in your fair.This person is paying lobbyists lots of your money to try to keep a strong hold on your money and continue to limit the market with safety scare tactics. Would you believe that in Houston Tx this man owns more taxi medallions than both guys from new York and Los Angeles combined,folks we have 2400 taxi medallions in Houston and approximately 2000 are owned by one man,and houstonians are rejecting his model in the millions and Mayor Sylvester Turner refuses to open the Houston market because he took a couple hundred thousand dollars from him in campaign contributions, is that the model lawyers learn at Harvard law?how long is attorney Amanda k Edwards going to remain silent.Austin is going to vote away the cities involvement at 70 to 73% at the ballot box.uber knows how to do a proper background check on applicants and they are not trying to restrict market entry they have ride share competition every Month enter the market and they just say -game on,they don’t try to run to turner and try to 1980’s regulate the competition out of the market like big taxi,big taxi is bleeding the citizens and the drivers out and mayor Sylvester Turner is allowing him to do it and that’s why over 60% of houstonians take uber,Turner should abolish the limits on taxi market entry as the Tx state constition commands him to do art 1 sec 3 and get Houston “moving forward” or least that’s what his campaign slogan was. 2400 taxi medallions in Houston ,2000 owned by one man,only in Houston folks ,end the taxi medallions #freehouston

  2. C.L. says:

    Josh, give it a rest.

  3. Joshua ben bullard says:

    “C.l”, its unfortunate you are unable to see or understand the weight of the labor violations that turner himself is officially apart of,no person should be forced by city of Houston law to pay right to labor fees to a private citizen using coveted city laws to enforce those payments,if Turner is going to allow tnc unlimited access to the public(which he does) then he should do the same for taxi drivers access,instead city hall is being rushed on a weekly basis by cab drivers that cannot pay their bills nor put food on the table to feed their family because Turner beholds to big taxi,let me assure you ” c.l” the more silence Turner applys the harder I’ll push,fortunately for me o am on familiar ground and have done this a time or two,in the future it would be suggested if you just buckle up and sit back and enjoy the ride,these elected officials need to do right by the citizens.