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Mobility Committee considers taxicab regulations

Thursday, April 2, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

While taxicabs have served Austin for decades, the entrance of Uber and Lyft into the picture has prompted a ground-up re-evaluation of how the city regulates the seasoned industry.

The City Council Mobility Committee considered a set of amendments to the city’s taxicab ordinance Wednesday that, among other changes, would increase the number of available permits by 300, tighten accessible service requirements and require that a driver respond to a service request if he or she is the closest driver to the pickup location.

Before taking citizen input, Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the committee, said that she and her colleagues plan to make a recommendation to the full Council at the next committee meeting April 8.

Yellow Cab Austin President Ed Kargbo, who also spoke on behalf of Austin Cab Company and Lone Star Cab, told the committee that he believes some of the recommendations use “a chain saw approach when scissors are needed” and that the committee should consider them in the context of fairness.

“I think if you level the playing field and there’s a consistent set of rules across the board, all service providers can live up to those responsibilities,” Kargbo asserted. “But I think it’s going to be quite a challenge to get the taxicab companies to continue to do more with less while there’s an option to do less and make more.”

The committee is considering the changes to the taxicab ordinance at the same time that it is considering a pilot program for Uber, Lyft and other transportation network companies — also known as TNCs — to replace the interim ordinance that Council passed in October.

Transportation Department staff has brought both sets of recommendations forward based on extensive and concurrent stakeholder processes that Council kicked off last May.

Other taxicab ordinance recommendations include adding flexibility to how the city calculates permit limits, limiting drivers to working 12 cumulative hours within a day, keeping the average response time for accessible requests to within seven minutes of the nonaccessible average and increasing the wheelchair-accessible fleet requirement from 6.5 to 10 percent.

One of the more revealing moments of the evening took place when Transportation Department Infrastructure Operations Division Manager Carlton Thomas projected the ground transportation regulation side-by-side spreadsheet that committee members requested last week.

The TNC column shows three marks indicating requirements or regulations and a $0 permit cost, while the taxicab column shows 12 marks and a $450 annual permit cost. In addition, Thomas noted, the city currently limits taxicab permits to 756, while there is currently no way to regulate or keep track of how many TNC drivers there are operating in the city.

Other major differences include the fact that all ground transportation classes aside from TNCs must submit their vehicles to a 50-point safety inspection, provide the city with a criminal-background check and obtain a chauffeur permit. Only taxicabs and limousines have regulated fares, and only taxicabs and pedicabs have permit limits.

Committee members also heard from representatives of Austin’s two other taxicab franchises, taxicab drivers, accessibility advocates and others.

David Witte, representing accessibility advocacy organization ADAPT of Texas, said that his group is “generally supportive” of staff’s recommendations. He lauded the amendments that increase accessibility requirements, though he said the city could go further to ensure equivalent services to those with disabilities.

“Even though I have a smartphone and a credit card, I can’t get a ride,” Witte said. “The only way I can get a ground transportation service provider right now, today, is to call a cab, and maybe I’ll get one in two hours.”


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