transportation network

City Council member Laura Morrison votes against an ordinance Thursday legalizing transportation network companies.

Photo Credit: Ellyn Snider | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin City Council approved an ordinance Thursday, in a 6-1 vote, to allow transportation network companies, or TNCs, to operate in the city. The ordinance will be in effect until August 2015.

The City Council, which has deliberated over the ordinance at its past two meeting, used Thursday’s third and final reading of the ordinance to fine-tune the language. Along with clarifying the language to ensure TNC drivers are covered by insurance whenever they log onto ride-sharing apps, the City Council also approved tweaks such as defining the 12-hour limit for TNC drivers. Council member Laura Morrison gave the lone “no” vote against the ordinance.

Following a proposal from Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, the City Council chose to adopt the Houston code of background checks, stating the TNC would provide the first background check, and the City would audit the report. 

According to Council member Chris Riley, the background checks that drivers at TNCs such as Uber and Lyft undergo are more rigorous than the background checks of taxicab drivers.

Uber General Manager Chris Nakutis said he trusted the outside background check companies more than a city’s vetting process.

“We know them to be reliable,” Nakutis said. “We vetted our background check company, and we know the quality of the company that we use. Even with city background checks, we would still use our own.”

April Mims, public policy manager at Lyft, said the company Lyft uses to vet drivers is more effective than Austin’s screening process.

“We feel confident that SterlingBackCheck has the safest way to hire, and that’s why 90 percent of the drivers who apply are screened out of the platform,” Mims said. “The concern is that 75 percent of our drivers are driving less than 15 hours a week, and, if they have to go through the process of being screened by the city, there will be a delay and also may not incentivize them.”

Mims also clarified what Lyft and Uber’s outreach to underserved areas meant in terms of the ordinance.

“We were looking at areas that don’t have as much access to transit, and those tend to be in areas of lower socioeconomic class,” Mims said. “We wanted to increase outreach in areas that are socioeconomically underserved.”

Riley introduced an amendment that specified TNC drivers would not need to obtain a chauffeur’s permit.

“Some suggestions that staff have would still require a chauffeur’s permit of all TNCs’ drivers, even though [the] substance of the permit is covered by other provisions of this ordinance,” Riley said. “Going through that process separately would be redundant.”

Riley also proposed an amendment to clarify how transportation network companies would work with transportation to and from the airport. Perla Compton, Austin’s ground transportation manager, said TNCs are subject to fees just as taxis and buses are.

Compton said charging TNCs ground transportation fees for providing rides to and from the airport would be simple through an electronic system.

“Every ground transportation provider must apply and use a transponder that we sell,” Compton said. “We keep track of who enters the airport to drop off or there to pick up. We would have to register each vehicle into our system. If you already have a toll tag, we have a computer system that works with the number on that toll tag.”

Council member Chris Riley rallies with ride-share supporters outside of the Travis County Commissioner's Office. The City Council is discussing a plan to legalize transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft. 

Photo Credit: Claire Schaper | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin City Council discussed regulating transportation network companies’ operations Thursday night. Council member Chris Riley, who sponsored the resolution to define and enter into agreements with transportation network companies, said he has never seen so much passion for a city issue.

“Taxicabs are great, but they are clearly not enough,” Riley said. “I can understand the concerns because taxicabs have been providing services for decades, and there is some degree of disruption with this change.”

The council passed the resolution 6-1 on the first reading before ending the meeting. 

21-year-old Hannah Loomis, who works mainly as a sales representative, said she started driving with Lyft when her friend recommended it as a good way to earn money on the side. Loomis said she needed the flexible hours Lyft provides to help take care of her son, Ambrose.

“It’s hard,” Loomis said. “A lot of times at my job I work until 2 p.m., and his day care is open until 6, so I drive from 2 to 6.”

Uber and Lyft supporters packed the Travis County Commissioners Court on Thursday night. Before the flood of people in black Uber shirts and blue Lyft shirts poured in, the ride-sharing companies held a rally outside of the courthouse.

Political communications senior Kaitlyn Clark said she has been working with a task force made up of Austin stakeholders — Uber drivers, taxicab drivers and students — to launch a ride-sharing pilot program.

“We’ve been talking about possible ways to regulate,” Clark said. “The group was designed to come up with a pilot program and right after [the group] formed, Uber and Lyft started operating. So basically, there is a pilot program that is illegal. Riley wants to start the program now with recommendations from staff and other cities, and come up with a more permanent solution.”

The ordinance would only be temporary, but many taxi drivers who attended the council meeting still opposed the resolution. Yellow Cab driver Jonson Lemma said ride-sharing programs are not only disruptive, but also unsafe.

“You can do all the background checks and stuff, but since it’s not a commercial car, anybody can drive that car,” Lemma said. 

Riley said he is concerned with Austinites’ safety, and he wants to help Austin embrace change in the right way.

“We do want to have some rules in place and make sure those rules work,” Riley said.

Clark said one of the important aspects of ride-sharing programs like Lyft and Uber is nightlife safety. 

“It’s hard to get a cab late at night,” Clark said. “We don’t want to see people get into cars drunk. It’s important to get these options for nightlife.” 

The council also directed City Manager Marc Ott to look at city code amendments that would give street performers the public right-of-way and passed a resolution in support of the Texas legislature repealing House Bill 2.

One abortion-providing clinic in Austin has shut down already as a result of HB2, which was passed by the Texas Legislature last year and made abortion clinic requirements more stringent. Councilman Mike Martinez sponsored the resolution to repeal any provisions in HB2 that relate to regulating abortion services. 

“We believe that there is going to be legislation to try and overturn HB2, and we want our values in Austin to be represented in Texas legislation,” Martinez said. “We’ve done this on numerous occasions. We have influence as citizens and council of Austin.”