Friday, May 24, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Pros and cons of rideshare debated

Remember when carpooling was a simple enough ordeal? Get in the car, get where you’re going, maybe give the driver some money for gas and time.

Today, it’s being described using words like “innovation,” “technology” and phrases like “violation of city ordinance.”

That’s because, like so many other transactions, carpooling has gone socially viral. But in some cities, including Austin, it could get your car impounded or land you in court.

At Thursday’s Council meeting, it was carpool – or, to use the more progressive term, rideshare – supporters versus taxi drivers as Council members attempt to maneuver through the legalese of transport for hire. Ultimately, Council members unanimously decided to table a vote on making changes to the city’s current ground transportation code to June 6 after they receive information from staff about how other cities are handling the issue.

At the crux of the debate is Sidecar – a ride-matching app that connects people who need rides with drivers willing to give rides – which has sued Austin for some operational wiggle room.

On the one hand, ridesharing has real moneymaking potential, or so suggests the rise in the number of ridesharing apps that have sprung up. (Ridesharing company Lyft just received a $60 million investment from a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, according to Bloomberg.) On the other hand, drivers who are officially licensed to drive passengers around are lashing out against the practice claiming it is undercutting the traditional ground transport industry and that everyday drivers are diverting the legal hoops professional drivers — like chauffeurs and taxi drivers – must jump through in order to obtain their licenses and permits. 

Sidecar says it’s not a transport service, but a technology platform that makes ridesharing possible. It doesn’t require compensation, but does suggest passengers make a donation.

It’s a contentious issue Council is in the process of navigating. At Thursday’s meeting, several people took to the mic to express their opinion.

“This is really is low hanging fruit in terms of activating an option that could potentially reduce congestion by 20 percent,” said Austin attorney Michael Whellan who represents Sidecar. “Some people are taxi-averse. This just activates another option. The proposal we have made does not allow somebody to make a living with carpooling.”

But some taxi drivers say ridesharing apps are hitting them in the pocketbook and adversely affecting their livelihood.

“We’re getting less rides per day than we did 15 years ago when I started,” said cab driver Joseph Beers. “There’s a lot that needs to be hashed out here.”

Billy Carter, owner of Super Shuttle, said he welcomes licensed operators to join his transportation community. And he accused Sidecar drivers of “operating for profit, not reimbursement.”

Mayor Lee Leffingwell supported a postponement of Thursday’s vote on amending the ordinance partly based on the fact that the city’s Urban Transportation Commission is split on the issue.

Council Member Chris Riley agreed. “I would rather make an informed decision based on the information we requested from staff,” he said.

City staff is expected to turn in findings to Council by June 1.

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