It’s refreshing to see people wrestle with city regulations in a bar or saloon like they did back in the old days.
A younger crowd of Austinites gathered in a casual scene—pizza and beer in hand—for a debate about the ride-hailing industry hosted by the Austin Monitor and KUT Radio at the North Door in Austin, Texas on Thursday night. Uber and Lyft have slightly more than two weeks to convince the public to keep them in the city, and with the May 7 vote approaching, panelists representing two major political action committees, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice and Ridesharing Works for Austin, discussed the stakes in the upcoming election.
Voters will decide on May 7 whether to adopt Proposition 1, legislation excusing Uber and Lyft from a requirement to provide fingerprint-based background checks for their drivers. The companies have said that they will leave Austin if voters choose to let the city mandate these background checks, arguing that they would disrupt the companies' goal of putting drivers on the road as quickly as possible.
The debate largely focused on the safety, ethics, and practicality of implementing fingerprint-based background checks, the ability of big corporations to buy elections and essentially self-regulate, and the role that the taxicab industry has played in the presentation of this regulation.
There was a distinct age difference between panelists arguing for and against Proposition 1. Arguing on behalf of the ride-hailing industry were 23-year-old Deputy Outreach Director Huey Rey Fischer and Outreach Director Joe Bowen, while former Austin City Councilwoman Laura Morrison and political consultant Dean Rindy, who appeared decades older, spoke against it.
“I’d like to make really clear this is not about whether you like Uber or Lyft,” Morrison said in an opening statement. “What this is about is a critical question—who is going to control our city?”
Morrison noted that multibillion-dollar corporations are funding Ridesharing Works for Austin’s multimillion-dollar campaign to prohibit the from mandating fingerprint-based background checks—despite the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety recommending them.
Ridesharing Works for Austin has spent $2.2 million on its campaign, none of which came from local sources. The efforts of Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice pale in comparison—it has put just $12,000 into its campaign—but the group boasts support from prominent city and state leaders like Morrison.
While instances of driving under the influence of alcohol have decreased 24 percent since Uber launched in Austin at South by Southwest 2013, according to the Austin Police Department, Fischer and Bowen argued that the public-safety service that ride-hailing companies provide should trump concerns about Uber and Lyft effectively self-regulating.
“Y’all, I’m voting for Prop. 1 because ridesharing keeps me and my friends safe,” Fischer said. “It keeps our community safe. It provides supplemental income for so many Austinites in our community.”
Uber and Lyft's current background checks require license and vehicle documentation, a review of motor-vehicle records, and a search through criminal records at the county, state, and federal levels dating back seven years, according to the ride-hailing companies' websites.
Fischer argued that if the city had the public's safety at heart, it would have moved forward with the stricter guidelines for taxi companies that the council passed two weeks ago after the issue was first presented in 2014.
"It’s really troubling to me to hear someone say we knew this didn’t get done in 2014 and we didn’t do anything to fix it until February of 2016 when we’re talking about an issue so germane to our safety as a public," Bowen said.
Added Fischer, "If we want to talk about public safety, we [should] mandate that cab companies would have to use the same technologies that Uber and Lyft do."
These technologies include GPS tracking and providing a photo of each driver.
Morrison and Rindy, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice representatives, acknowledged that no background-check system was flawless but stressed the importance of taking it to a biometric level— regardless of whether there was hard evidence to prove that system's effectiveness.
“It’s about doing everything you can to make your system as safe as possible,” Rindy said.
Hours before the debate, Uber paid $10 million to settle a lawsuit over its self-described "industry leading" safety practices after San Francisco and Los Angeles's district attorneys identified 25 Uber drivers in those cities who were sex offenders, burglars, and kidnappers.
"The people in Austin need to be asking, 'Why are they asking us to compromise public-safety standards when they can do it in New York and Houston?'" Morrison asked.
Uber operates in New York City and Houston, both of which mandate fingerprint-based background checks. but Uber and Lyft also operate in 200 other cities across the country, none of which require fingerprints.
KUT will air the debate next Thursday, April 21 on 90.5 FM. Austinites can begin casting their votes on Monday, April 25.