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April 10th, 2014:

Taxi companies file suit against Uber and Lyft

Color me skeptical.

Taxi companies in Houston and San Antonio took their turf war with two online companies to federal court Tuesday, saying Uber and Lyft are operating illegally and skimming money from taxi firms that abide by the law.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court in Houston, asks a federal judge to declare the companies are violating city ordinances in Houston and San Antonio by accepting payments for taking riders to destinations.

Trips generated by Uber and Lyft – which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone apps – have led to 26 citations in Houston; 15 were issued to drivers and the rest to the companies.

[…]

The number of citations for accepting payment has jumped in recent weeks, leading taxi companies to file the lawsuit, lawyer Martyn Hill said. It became clear, he said, that the citations hadn’t discouraged the two companies from operating and accepting payment.

Hill said city penalties aren’t strong enough to keep the companies from violating strict rules that govern taxi companies and drivers.

“If I could run a bar and all I had to do was pay a fine for $500 for not paying taxes, I might still run the bar and pay the fines,” Hill said. “That’s what’s happening here.”

Uber had not seen the lawsuit, spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian said, but planned to continue operating.

“As they see the demand for services like Uber in Houston and they see city officials taking an informed look at the services, they are taking desperate measures,” Hourdajian said of the taxi and limo companies. “Their time and energy might be better spent improving that service.”

She said courts have repeatedly ruled in the company’s favor. In Dallas, the city took the company to court accusing it of advertising an illegal limo service, Hourdajian said.

“It took a jury 10 minutes to bring back a unanimous verdict,” Hourdajian said.

Texpatriate notes some other suits that have been filed against the newcomers. I’ll talk about this more in a minute, but first here’s a story from the weekend about those citations.

As city officials consider changes that would permit two new companies to permanently enter Houston’s paid-ride market, the companies continue racking up citations.

Uber and Lyft – which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone apps – have been issued a combined 11 citations for improperly charging for rides. Drivers have been issued 15 citations since the companies launched locally in late February.

[…]

In a letter to city elected officials Wednesday, regulatory affairs department head Tina Paez said 26 citations had been issued thus far, 15 to Uber or its drivers and 11 to Lyft or its drivers. City officials are making efforts to serve the citations levied against the companies – six against Uber and five against Lyft, Paez said.

“Uber and Lyft do not have registered agents in Texas and will need to be served in California,” Paez wrote. “Once served, Uber and Lyft will have two options: Pay the fines or go to trial.”

Twenty-six is not a whole lot. For some context, I reached out to spokespeople for the two companies to ask them about their ridership numbers in Houston so far. According to them, there have been over 20,000 rides via UberX, and five thousand via Lyft. Now obviously enforcement is dependent on the number of enforcement officers out there, but still that’s a pretty high trip-to-ticket ratio, and I don’t know that I want a swarm of cops out there policing ride sharers – surely there are higher priorities than that. The number I’d really like to know is the volume of cab rides since February, and how it compares to previous months and to the same months a year and two years ago. A lot of people have been using Lyft and Uber, but how much of that is coming out of the cab companies’ hides, and how much of it is new volume? I’m sure some of it has come at the expense of the cabbies, but it would be nice to know how much. If their decline is significantly less than the number of rides that Uber and Lyft have provided, then I’m not sure how much sympathy I have.

I will say that I have a copy of a taxi demand study in Seattle, conducted after the entry of ridesharing companies and provided to me by a representative of Lyft, that shows an increase in demand for limo services and a flat demand curve for traditional taxis, which goes back well before the newcomers’ entries. It may well be that the effect on Houston’s cabs has been minimal. (Here’s a copy of the taxi study done for Houston that was to be discussed with Council yesterday.) I’m sympathetic to the concerns about Lyft and Uber skirting the law, and I agree with Texpate that Uber’s overly aggressive email campaign has been off-putting. Pretty much every city these companies have entered, there have been complaints about how they have gone about establishing themselves and interacting with local governments. Be that as it may, I’m not sure how this is a matter for the courts, and I’d like to know what the cab companies say their losses are. And yes, I’m ready for Council to put this to bed.

Counting votes on the non-discrimination ordinance

From the Houston GLBT Political Caucus Facebook page:

Members have asked for the responses on our questionnaires to the questions below. The President of the Caucus, Maverick Welsh, has asked me to post the information. As the chair of the Screening Committee, I have reviewed the questionnaires from 2013 and below is the result:

Mayor–We asked:

Question: If elected, would you be willing to introduce a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

She answered:

Annise Parker: Yes

City Council–We asked:

If elected, would you publicly advocate for and vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

They answered:

Jerry Davis: Yes
Ellen Cohen: Yes
Dwight Boykins: Yes
Ed Gonzalez: Yes
Robert Gallegos: Yes
Mike Laster: Yes
Larry Green: Yes
Steve Costello: Yes
David Robinson: Yes
C.O. Bradford: Yes
Jack Christie: Yes

There’s been a lot of speculation about who may or may not support the ordinance that Mayor Parker has promised to bring before council. As yet, there is not a draft version of the ordinance, and that seems to be the key to understanding this. As CMs Bradford and Boykins mention to Lone Star Q, without at least a draft you don’t know what the specifics are. Maybe it’ll be weaker than you want it to be. Maybe it’ll be poorly worded and you will be concerned about potential litigation as a result. It’s not inconsistent for a Council member to say they support the principle and the idea of the ordinance, but they want to see what it actually says before they can confirm they’ll vote for it.

Nonetheless, everyone listed above is on record saying they would “vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation”, and they will be expected to do exactly that. If they want to make arguments about making it stronger, that’s fine. That list above is more than enough to pass the ordinance, so there should be no waffling, no fretting about vote counts, and especially no fear of a backlash. When the time comes, everyone needs to keep their promises. Now would be an excellent time to call your Council members and let them know you look forward to seeing their vote for this NDO.

First Sunday Streets seemed like a success

The weather was kinda lousy but there were plenty of people out on White Oak Street on Sunday.

The city of Houston closed a 2.5 mile stretch of Quitman and White Oak to motor vehicles for four hours on Sunday, encouraging Houstonians to play in the street and explore their neighborhoods pushing strollers or riding bikes.

It was the first closure in the Sunday Streets HTX pilot program, which will close stretches of major thoroughfares the first Sunday of every month. The “open streets” concept started in Bogota, Colombia, more than 30 years ago and has become more popular in American cities in recent years.

Free DJs, Zumba classes, sidewalk chalk art, booths with information on community groups and a farmers market lined the route. But unlike a street festival, the options were spread out and, for the most part, offered by neighborhood businesses rather than vendors who had set up a temporary shop.

One of the core goals, after all, is to get people moving and to see their own communities in a new way, said Laura Spanjian, the city’s director of sustainability.

“We want people to get out and exercise and bike and walk and skate, and really enjoy the open space,” Spanjian said, standing in the middle of White Oak Drive near Houston Avenue.

She smiled as a father rode past on a bicycle with his giggling son, dressed in a Batman costume, balanced on his knee.

“It’s also to have people enjoy the street in a way they aren’t able to most of the time, to see things they might not get to see because they’re driving by in their cars,” Spanjian said.

See here for the background, and the Houston Press for a photo slideshow of the event. We walked over to White Oak and had lunch at Christian’s Tailgate, and it was a fun thing to do on a dreary and wet Sunday. There was a decent amount of people out and about given the rain, but it’s hard to say what the crowd might have been like if the weather had been better. I don’t know what the city was expecting or hoping for. It’s a neat idea and we’ll try at least one if not both of the next ones, on Westheimer May 4 and on Washington June 1. I would be interested to hear some numbers after these events, especially if Mother Nature does her part. If you were there on White Oak on Sunday, what did you think?

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 7

The Texas Progressive Alliance always comes in ahead of projections as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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