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Updated: City staff asks for more Uber, Lyft accountability

Thursday, August 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Uber and Lyft drivers are operating all over Austin, but there is no way, sans app, to point out their cars, and the city can’t keep track of who has signed up. Transportation Department staff, however, are hoping that will change soon.

Gordon Derr, an assistant director with the department, recommended to the City Council Mobility Committee on Wednesday that Uber, Lyft and other transportation network company drivers be required to register with the city, display company vehicle markings when in operation and follow other accountability standards.

“We don’t have that under the current agreement,” Derr said. “I think it’s important that, one, we be able to communicate with all of the current drivers as conditions change and, two, we need some way to leverage good behavior.”

Derr said that TNC drivers have been the cause of mobility problems as of late, particularly those hoping to pick up riders from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

“We’ve had an issue the last few weeks with TNC drivers out at the airport. They had been blocking access to an emergency services location,” Derr explained. “We’ve had to go out and post signs, but they were walking across (Highway) 290 to try to be the closest person so they could pick up the trip.”

Though the problem in that location has subsided, Derr said, drivers have simply moved closer to the airport’s southern entrance.

The companies, Derr continued, have also been less than forthcoming when it comes to providing the city with much of the trip data that it has requested. “We’ve been getting some data from the transportation network companies, but not to the depth that we get from taxi companies,” he said.

Derr told the Austin Monitor, however, that the city has obtained ridership data from both companies related to pick-up and drop-off locations, but he couldn’t go into further detail. That data is not public, however, as both companies consider it to be proprietary.

Transportation Director Robert Spillar sent a memo to Council on Monday with new recommendations for the city to replace the TNC pilot program ordinance that the previous Council passed in October. Transportation staff delivered its original set of recommendations back in March but has tweaked them since then, based on new developments.

“The nationwide TNC regulations develop and change on nearly a daily basis,” Spillar wrote.

In some cases, Derr added, TNCs have agreed to requirements in other cities that are more stringent than the ones they agreed to in Austin. “There were several things that the Council was told that they couldn’t do that apparently other places were doing,” he said. “We feel that we should be up there. If they’re doing it other places, why not do it here?”

Since October, Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and zTrip have signed operating agreements, though Sidecar and zTrip have not begun operating in the city.

Derr noted that a fifth company called Wingz recently began advertising for service in the city. “We will proceed with a cease and desist order to bring them in-house,” he said.

Spillar recommended that Council establish permanent TNC regulations, require that TNCs pay a $1-per-ride fee to the city and simplify language related to geo-fences — or virtual boundaries — to require that TNCs work with the city to limit pick-up and drop-off locations during large special events to increase safety and mobility.

The current policy is to charge the TNCs 1 percent of the annual gross revenue that they make in the city, but, according to Derr, that is not as simple as it sounds. “That seems to be information they don’t want to give us,” he said.

Uber and Lyft are currently required in a separate agreement to pay $1 per trip at the airport.

Previous committee discussions were stalled earlier this year due to proposed state legislation that would have preempted local TNC ordinances. That bill — House Bill 2440 — did not pass.

Previous staff recommendations include enacting more specific data reporting requirements, tightening Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, enacting 20-point vehicle safety inspection requirements and increasing TNC insurance coverage requirements during Phase 1 of app use.

Phase 1 is the stage at which a driver has indicated availability on a TNC app but hasn’t accepted a ride.

Members of the public also requested that TNC drivers be required to comply with city-led criminal background checks. Current regulations allow TNCs to contract with private companies for national background checks, provided that the city has the opportunity to audit them.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the committee, said it will hold a public hearing on the issue at its Sept. 2 meeting and will make a recommendation to the full Council without taking public testimony at its Oct. 7 meeting.

Update: Debbee Hancock, who handles communications with Uber Technologies, responded: “In only one year, Uber has made it easy for Austinites to ditch their keys when drinking by providing millions of safe ride and empowering more than ten thousand drivers to earn $27 million… Cities and states across the nation have followed Austin’s progressive lead to embrace responsible regulations that support innovation. At a time when ridesharing is driving Austin forward, we’re surprised that ATD would consider taking this giant leap backwards.”

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