Uber And Lyft And The Debate Over Fingerprints In Austin

It is self-evident that ensuring public safety is a city’s job. In a sane world, a public official would never choose between reducing sexual assault and reducing drunk driving. Ridesharing policy is increasingly being framed as either/or brinksmanship, presenting a false choice. I reject that polarity, and I urge you to, as well.

Austin has become the latest testing ground in the debate between transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, and city governments. This debate has played out in many cities over the past couple of years, with local governments attempting to ensure proper regulations and safety procedures and TNCs leveraging their value to the community and orchestrating justified public support.

First, some background on what is happening in Austin and why it matters. In December, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the city council proposed a compromise amid the heated rhetoric of the TNC regulation debate. Mayor Adler presented a plan that would provide incentives for drivers to participate in fingerprint-based background checks, while gradually growing the overall percentage of required checks that TNCs must perform over the next two years. As part of the program, the city has agreed to help pay for the fingerprinting and expedite the process for background checks.

Uber and Lyft in turn argue that such checks are redundant, don’t enhance safety because they only represent a single moment in time, and create an undue operational burden whose sole purpose is to hamper their growth. Uber and Lyft do their own background checks on their drivers, but law enforcement officials tell us that fingerprint background checks would make passengers even safer.

Most drivers, in fact, tell us they would have no problem getting fingerprinted.

As such, Uber and Lyft insist they will leave Austin if the city requires fingerprinting. In Austin it’s impossible to know whether this is a bluff. When Houston mandated fingerprinting, Uber stayed and Lyft left. Other places, including San Jose, Broward County in Florida, and the entire state of Georgia had to back off from fingerprinting to keep ridesharing.

Fingerprinting drivers doesn’t seem to me like it should be an obstacle. Most drivers, in fact, tell us they would have no problem getting fingerprinted. It’s not particularly costly or time-consuming, either.

We saw a very productive compromise in this direction last year in San Antonio. Uber proved more than willing to incorporate successful fingerprint background checks into their application, as long as the requirement was not mandatory.

Unfortunately, adoption on the ground in San Antonio has been stagnant, which is why Austin isn’t willing to simply mirror our neighbor to the south. Voluntary fingerprinting can work, I have come to believe, but only if coupled with certain rewards. It can’t just be a hopeful gesture. Incentives have to be well-aligned.

Why this debate matters

Something that many people miss is that Uber and Lyft’s objection to mandatory fingerprinting is really about their vision for the future in which their technology is used not only to transact ground transportation, but nearly every shareable service imaginable. They want to avoid being regulated as a taxi company, because in five years they plan to offer dramatically more. We’re already seeing experiments like this with UberEATS, for example.

That’s a valid consideration for these companies’ resistance to regulation. From a business standpoint, being locked in (and regulated) as a TNC may seriously complicate future growth in other verticals. Yet right now these companies are TNCs, and of course need to be treated as such.

Without a shadow of a doubt, our cities are safer with ridesharing companies because they take drunk drivers off the streets and provide more transportation options. These are not theoretical concerns. Both Austin’s police chief and the county sheriff say that ridesharing companies dramatically reduce drunk driving.

At the same time, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the FBI say fingerprinting drivers will make passengers safer, and dismissing their analysis is a non-starter for key members of our city council. Their point-of-view is confirmed by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and two studies conducted by CUNY and the city of Houston.

In short, both positions are compelling when you put aside your preconceptions, dig into the data, and speak candidly with subject matter experts. As such, I think that we need to say “yes” to measures that prevent both dangerous driving and physical violence, simultaneously.

The question of how local governments regulate business in a sharing economy is of course about more than one company, one industry or one city. The sharing economy is changing business for the better, and how Austin collaborates with Uber, Lyft and others could provide a template for how governments can successfully change with it.

Getting into a stranger’s car presents some danger, certainly. How much is hotly debated. It’s a very complicated issue. If you want a balanced view of the back-and-forth from a national standpoint, this Atlantic article is a great start.

Read about what has allegedly happened here in Austin, but look also to Boston, Chicago, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. This incident was particularly stunning, not just for the offense itself, nor the assailant’s felony history, but also the fact the case was ultimately dropped for lack of evidence (though several lawsuits remain).

What’s also important to remember is that many violent crimes are not reported. Austin nonprofit Safe Place, which helps victims of sexual and domestic violence, has emphatically testified before our city council that behind the statistics lie real and recurring risks.

The potential costs of the sharing economy are not fun to think about, of course. Is even one rape or assault too much? If you are or know someone who has been affected by such a crime, the answer to that question is immediate and visceral.

The sharing economy is changing business for the better, and how Austin collaborates with Uber, Lyft and others could provide a template for how governments can successfully change with it.

I’m certain that ridesharing brings with it risks that government has a responsibility to guard us against. On this point I am crystal clear. Beyond that, we’re still figuring things out. We can’t reasonably aspire to prevent all crime. And over-regulation has its own, often dire consequences. We, therefore, have a pressing obligation to exhaust ourselves looking for a more intelligent solution, a “third way” forward beyond the stark, contrasting options that have been offered to-date.

What makes Austin special in this debate?

Austin is really a proxy for a larger fight, but perhaps the highest-profile battleground yet. This debate is about more than Austin.

Moreover, with Uber in class-action limbo in California over independent contractors, Austin’s new city council learning how to govern on a 10-1 system, and SXSW right around the corner, tensions are running particularly high.

Ours is a prototypically free-market state, and one that has softened the ground for Google’s Fiber and self-driving cars in recent memory. We intend to be a proving ground for a wide variety of new techniques and technologies, and yet we are grappling like everyone else with thoughtful protections that keep our citizens safe.

I think that the national media have seized upon this debate here in Central Texas because we are perceived to be a harbinger of things to come. Our city’s brand is also built on progressiveness and forward-thinking; the council’s recent vote was emotionally jarring for some, and cognitively dissonant to many.

The dilemma is nonetheless unacceptable. No city should have to choose between sexual assault prevention and reducing drunk driving. Each side would have you believe that the other’s been co-opted by special interests and hell-bent on a game of political chicken. I don’t see it that way.

We won’t be forced into a choice in the way so many others before us have. The mayor is determined to avoid picking a side or a winner between the taxi companies and TNCs. That’s not his job. Rather, our mandate is to design and implement an alternative. And while the pressure cooker is intense, the options currently on the table each aspire to live up to our mantra of “what starts here changes the world.”

What’s next?

As I wrote, the city council recently voted to create safety incentives to increase the number of fingerprinted ridesharing drivers in Austin. Contrary to popular belief, neither the mayor’s office nor the city council voted Uber and Lyft out of Austin.

But we do have a very real deadline of January 28 by which time the specifics of such a plan must be outlined; the ordinance does not yet have provisions for enforcement. We have at least a few weeks to figure out a solution that works for everyone.