What’s at the Core of Austin’s Uber & Lyft Fight?

“This really impacts a lot of citizens, both riders and drivers.”

By Audrey McGlinchyJanuary 21, 2016 9:30 am, , ,

This story originally appeared on KUT and was produced as part of a reporting partnership between KUT and the Austin Monitor

Without much pomp save for the “Shine On” T-shirt she wears, Monique Mitchell stands with fellow Lyft driver Mo Ratel at the edge of Austin’s Zilker Park, scanning the field below. It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon; dogs and their owners dot the grass. Mitchell and Ratel each grip a pen and a clipboard brimming with blank petitions.

“The main thing here is we’re not trying to get people to decide how they feel about the issue,” says Ratel. “Just to get it on the ballot. And honestly I’ve tried to steer away from talking about the…” She trails off, searching for the right term. After a beat, she finds it. “Specifics, because it’s not about that, you know?”

Arguably, it is very much about the specifics.

Both Uber and Lyft threatened last fall to leave Austin should City Council approve an ordinance requiring that transportation network company drivers get fingerprint-based background checks. Council nevertheless approved such an ordinance in December, but it postponed a decision on how companies would be penalized for noncompliance. There are various requirements in that ordinance, including annual fees and monthly data reports – but the biggest issue has proved to be the fingerprinting.

As of news this week, however, it is unclear what exactly the city will require of the companies.

On Tuesday, Uber- and Lyft-funded local coalition Ridesharing Works for Austin revealed the result of work done by people like Ratel and Mitchell: 65,103 signatures on a petition asking Council to either accept an ordinance written by the group or put it to a public vote. Members of the group wheeled six cardboard boxes containing 23,000 of these signatures into Austin’s Office of the City Clerk. (A minimum of 20,000 valid signatures is the requirement for putting an ordinance to a vote.) The signatures still await verification by the city clerk.

“What we have is multibillion-dollar companies – I think Uber is worth 60-something billion dollars – basically saying to the city, ‘We want to write our own rules,’” Council Member Ann Kitchen told the Austin Monitor before Tuesday’s signature submission.

The newly proposed ordinance closely resembles what the companies have been operating under since the previous Council passed a stopgap ordinance (with the understanding that the current Council would reconsider it). However, it does not require fingerprint-based background checks.

“In case it’s unclear, we do not operate in any city that requires a mandatory fingerprint for our peer-to-peer platform,” Lyft representative April Mims told Council members at their Dec. 17 meeting. Although Uber operates in Houston, where fingerprinting is required, the company has said the practice is not ideal for its business model and it will not agree to it in Austin.

At that mid-December meeting, Council members passed the ordinance that would potentially mandate fingerprint-based background checks for 99 percent of drivers by May 2017. It will take up the matter of how to penalize noncompliance at its first meeting of the new year, on Jan. 28.

Council members have maintained that it is their job to ensure Austin residents are safe, and that fingerprinting is the most surefire way to ensure a potential driver’s identity. According to Kitchen’s office, the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety say that collecting fingerprints to identify an applicant ensures 99.6 percent accuracy.

Read more at KUT.org.