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Council sets up study process for ridesharing, taxi service issues

Friday, May 16, 2014 by Jenny Blair

Taxicab drivers and safer-streets activists were among those with a heavy stake in two transportation-related items at Thursday’s City Council meeting. But in the end, all they got was a stakeholder process that will not be over until mid-November, making it unlikely that the current Council will be enacting new rules.


One item calls for stakeholders to examine how transportation network companies (ridesharing) might be allowed to operate legally in the city. The other asks taxi franchises and other stakeholders to explore ways to ensure taxis meet demand, especially at peak times like late nights, weekends and special events.


“People ought to have some confidence, when they call for a cab in Austin, that they will get a response within a reasonable period of time,” said Council Member Chris Riley, who sponsored both items.


Ridesharing companies allow Smartphones to connect people with cars to people needing rides. Companies like Lyft and Uber have a presence in dozens of U.S. cities, including San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Corpus Christi. The item Council approved puts together a group of stakeholders to develop recommendations for a pilot rideshare program.


Rideshare proponents argued that Austin needs more transportation options, particularly late at night when drunk people need to get home.


Sara LeVine of the grassroots group ATX Safer Streets, which formed after the SXSW hit-and-run disaster, said the city had too few cabs and that many people encounter bad customer service in taxis. She added that the group believes more competition would motivate the companies to improve, and presented data from a Web survey that found 81 percent of respondents would use ridesharing if they were in town.


Disabled people and people without cars also attested to difficulties with the existing bus-and-taxi system.


Dozens of city’s cab drivers turned out in opposition to the ridesharing item, many sporting fluorescent yellow T-shirts or stickers reading “LICENSED INSURED LEGAL.” They argued that riding with ridesharing drivers is risky, citing news stories about drivers with criminal backgrounds or lacking licenses.


Opponents also argued that the proposed changes would make it very difficult for drivers to earn a living.


“They take that peak time away from us, we’re going to be on welfare,” cab driver Tamas Marczis told the Monitor.


About 750 people work as taxi drivers in Austin, according to a 2010 report by the Legal Assistance to Microenterprises Project. The report found that the average driver works 12-hour shifts 6.5 days a week, earning $200 a week before taxes. Drivers are independent contractors and pay leasing fees to one of Austin’s three cab companies. The taxi industry is tightly regulated by the city. Its franchises are up for renewal in 2015.


Council members appeared sympathetic to both sides.


Riley noted that many of those testifying seemed to think today’s item would “open the floodgates” for ridesharing, when in fact it only authorizes the city to discuss regulating them.


“All this resolution does is getting a stakeholder process going,” Riley said, adding that Austin should join those cities wrestling with ridesharing issues and embracing innovation.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell suggested amending the resolution to require that recommendations be reported in 180 rather than 90 days. Riley agreed, but requested a progress report at the 90-day mark.


A 180-day deadline for a ridesharing report means it will not be presented until after the November elections.


Citing fairness, Leffingwell offered an amendment specifying that ridesharing-related recommendations include “equivalent” provisions for taxi companies, such as similar requirements for reliability. The idea, he said, was to “make sure that everyone is playing by the same rules.”


His words echoed the Twitter hashtag #PlayByTheRules adorning the backs of the cab drivers’ T-shirts. The drivers applauded his remarks.


Council Member Bill Spelman suggested different language given dissimilarities between ridesharing and taxicab companies, specifying that recommendations “equitably take into account the already stringent regulations required of taxicab companies.” Leffingwell agreed to that.


Expressing concerns about ridesharing’s safety and effects on the “transportation ecosystem,” Council Member Kathie Tovo introduced an amendment to add additional stakeholders, including students, insurance representatives, disability advocates, motorized-vehicle-for-hire representatives and public safety representatives.


The Council passed the ridesharing item and all amendments unanimously.


The item specifying that stakeholders work on taxi-demand issues then passed quickly 6-1. Mayor Leffingwell voted against it, arguing that a second stakeholder group for taxicab issues would be redundant with the ridesharing group that had just been created.

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