Austin taxi and pedicab drivers rally against Uber, Lyft

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Illustration by Jason Reed

Prop. 1 opponents try to get out the vote.

This weekend a group of Austin, Texas’s taxi and pedicab drivers rallied against the Uber and Lyft-backed Proposition 1, up for election on May 7.

It exempts the ride-hailing giants from city-mandated fingerprinting; but organizers against the ballot initiative said the transportation network companies are buying the election and feeding propaganda to the city.

“It’s disappointing to see that corporations get to come in and push everyone else around,” community organizer Dave Cortez told the Daily Dot.

Indeed Lyft and Uber combined to spend more than $8 million toward Prop. 1 expenditures. Saturday's event, put on by Austin Unites at an East Austin pedicab shop, sought to galvanize an opposition that has remained largely decentralized and devoid of a grassroots presence. It was a relatively quiet affair, with enough pizza for its modest crowd. 

Nia Wesley

By contrast Uber and Lyft have used phone calls, texts, free rides to polls, and even Tim Riggins to rally their clients' votes. Both have threatened to leave Austin should Prop. 1 fail. 

As Austin General Manager Aaron Fox noted this weekend via email blast to local Lyft users: "ridesharing just won't work if Prop 1 fails and City Council changes the rules." The email arrived amid a week of particularly bad public relations.

“We just had a gentleman get killed the other day,” Cortez said, advocating for more strict city oversight.

He was referring to the million-dollar lawsuit Lyft is facing after an Austin motorcyclist died on April 23 from swerving as he attempted to avoid a Lyft vehicle unloading passengers. The widow of the passenger, Kelly Wenzel, filed the suit on grounds that the Lyft driver was illegally stopped in a traffic lane. Police argue that the Lyft driver was stopped legally on the side of the road with hazard lights on.

If the proposition fails, drivers will be prohibited from stopping in moving traffic lanes to let passengers out. They will also be subject to fingerprint-based background checks and forced to identify their vehicle as working for Uber or Lyft. 

Cortez said he didn't understand why Uber and Lyft can’t be held to the same standard as the rest of the city’s transportation services.

“My friends over here have to get a fingerprint background check to drive a tricycle [pedicabs]. Fundamentally, it’s unfair,” Cortez said.

Pedicab driver David Tashnick said business has been slow since Uber and Lyft came to town and he’s convinced they will hire unlimited amounts of drivers, saturating the transportation market.

“Now what’s that going to do to the driver that is making basically $15 an hour if there’s 10 times as many drivers? Can he even hope to make $5 an hour?” Tashnick said.

Tashnick said he knows Uber and Lyft drivers who are against the proposition, too.

“There are Uber and Lyft drivers that are voting against Prop. 1 because they want to be able to have a sustainable job going forward,” Tashnick said.

Cortez called the ride-hailing enterprises as ushering in the “Walmart-ization” of transportation in the city. And he said drivers against the proposition should speak up.

“I would like to see them challenge the company as much as they are challenging the city council,” Cortez said.

He said the ride-hailing services are capitalizing on a city that wasn’t prepared for their level of success.

“They saw that we had a weakness. They saw that we weren’t organized well across broad bases of working-class people and communities of color. We have our base of people that are mostly progressive that routinely vote, and they’re trying to exploit that,” Cortez said.

And because it's Austin, no event was complete without live music. Prop. 1 opponent Bill Oliver went with a new original song, "Uber Can Too."

The rally finished with a caravan ride to the polls at Austin’s City Hall. Organizers shouted to crowds on Sixth Street: “Vote against corporate greed! Don’t let Uber and Lyft control Austin!” They were met with many cheers and a few middle fingers from passing Uber drivers. 

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