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Rideshare supporters meet to discuss ways to legalize services

Friday, August 1, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Supporters of a potential pilot program for commercial rideshare companies to be legally implemented in Austin gathered Wednesday at the Chicago House.

The event featured short lectures from two keynote speakers about how Austin could accommodate these companies, followed by a question and answer session with attendees. It was sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation of Texas, the Institute for Justice, the America’s Future Foundation and Liberty on the Rocks of Austin, who can generally be described as libertarian.

Currently, some commercial rideshare companies, such as Uber and Lyft, are violating city laws by operating outside of the city’s taxicab ordinance. These include competing companies that allow drivers to pick up riders using a Smartphone application in exchange for fares that are often over legal limits.

Those who drive for an unpermitted ground transportation service without a chauffeur’s permit in Austin risk receiving citations, most often a Class C misdemeanor. There is one for operating without authority and one for operating without a chauffeur’s permit. Other forms of ridesharing that do not charge fares, such as the carpooling app Carma, are legally operating in Austin.

A keynote speaker at the event, Institute for Justice staff attorney Larry Salzman, called for those with opposing viewpoints on how cities should handle the growing popularity of commercial rideshare companies to recognize that there is common ground on the issue.

Salzman stated that he’s not advocating for all regulations to be lifted, or for commercial rideshare companies to be given an unfair advantage over traditional taxi cab companies that must adhere to strict regulations. He proposed, rather, a system in which taxi cab companies and commercial rideshare companies are treated equally and in a way that ensures public health and safety while making the industry accessible to startup companies and individual entrepreneurs.

Despite the calls for change, none of the speakers at Wednesday’s discussion seemed to expect it to happen immediately. Salzman, at one point, lauded the City of Austin for the proactive approach it is taking toward commercial rideshare companies. “There’s a debate right now in Austin. They’re impounding cars, they’re fining people but there’s also a vibrant debate about whether these services should be allowed and should be legalized,” he said.

He was likely referring to an official working group established by the Austin City Council, which has begun regular meetings that could lead to the development of a pilot program for these commercial rideshare companies, known officially as Transportation Networking Companies, to operate legally on the streets of Austin.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor Thursday, Austin Transportation Department spokeswoman Samantha Alexander stated that, following a preliminary, public meeting June 11, the TNC Working Group had its first official meeting the following week and has continued to meet every other week since then.

The group of about 35 people includes Transportation Department staff members, taxi drivers, commercial rideshare company representatives and their potential users, a university professor who has conducted research into ridesharing programs and others.

“We’re really getting a broad perspective on the topic in order to go into very in-depth, micro-conversations about the different facets that could go into a pilot program,” Alexander said. Once enough information has been collected, she explained, Transportation Department staff would use it to develop a pilot program that will eventually go to the City Council for potential adoption.

For the time being, the Transportation Department is planning future public meetings and taking comments from residents about what concerns and suggestions they would like addressed in the pilot program.

While some residents are anxious to see these companies operating legally so that they can utilize their services or become drivers, the Transportation Department asserts that public safety must be assured before implementation of the pilot program can begin.

“The reason we’re having so many meetings and having such an in-depth conversation is because, at the end of the day, all of these ground transportation services are providing a service to our residents,” Alexander explained. “We have the responsibility of making sure that, whenever they get into a vehicle that we have said is OK to provide that service, they are safe.”

Though the next public meeting and update has not been announced, residents are invited to email their comments.

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