For Austin voters, an upcoming election will decide whether the city council or the ride-hailing companies has a better plan for ensuring passenger safety. For the rest of the country, the May 7 vote could have ripple effects.
At issue is a city ordinance the council passed in December that requires Uber and Lyft drivers to submit fingerprints for FBI background checks, just as cab drivers already do. Appealing directly to voters, the ride-hailing companies proposed their own requirement that would block the rule, although they would still mandate national criminal background checks.
Debates over fingerprinting requirements aren't unique to Austin. Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, New Jersey, St. Louis and San Francisco, to name a few, have all taken up the issue. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, for instance, failed to convince state regulators to let the city impose a fingerprinting requirement after the Los Angeles Times found that Uber drivers who were cited for traffic violations had been arrested previously for drunk driving, manslaughter, identity theft and child exploitation.
Uber recently agreed to pay at least $10 million to settle a suit brought by L.A. and San Francisco prosecutors, who said Uber misled customers by claiming its background checks were better than those used by cab companies.
But what sets the Austin fight apart is the companies' direct appeal to voters. Uber and Lyft have donated $2.2 million to boost their proposal, and observers expect that number to climb as high as $5 million.
The company has also used its app to build support for the ballot measure by printing promotional messages on its receipts. This comes after it offered horse-and-buggy rides last year when the city's ordinance was being discussed, to pillory the new rules and their sponsor.
"Austinites looking to Uber around town today will get a glimpse of what life could be like if the Austin City Council adopts Council Member Ann Kitchen's ride-sharing regulations," the company wrote at the time. "Kitchen's plan would impose 19th century regulations on 21st century technology."
Both Uber and Lyft have threatened to leave Austin if they are forced to use fingerprint-based background checks. Uber has already stopped operating in three smaller Texas cities after they passed fingerprinting requirements, and it left San Antonio briefly until the city rescinded its requirement. Uber has actually agreed to use fingerprinting in Houston and New York City, but those are rare concessions.
Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft's opponents in Austin have raised less than $20,000 at last count, and the city is prohibited from spending money supporting its ordinance.
Kitchen, the head of the council's mobility committee, said she took up the measure to make sure the ride-hailing companies were treated like other transportation providers in the city.
More important, she said, cities should be worried about Uber's approach in Austin as it could impact other regulations, such as environmental and food safety requirements.
"This is clearly the case of a multibillion-dollar corporation spending millions of dollars to try to write their own rules, and to try to override what the city council has done on behalf of the public," she said. "Can a company just buy whatever rule they want? That's just not good government. It is a very dangerous precedent for our democracy."
For his part, Austin Mayor Steve Adler says he doesn't like either choice on the ballot, although he's come out against Uber's proposal. Mandating fingerprint-based background checks is pointless if the companies leave, he said. Without the services, Austin wouldn't benefit from their ability to reduce drunk driving and better serve areas with limited transit options. But he doesn't think the city should sit on its hands, either.
Instead, Adler unsuccessfully pushed for the city to rely on voluntary fingerprint-based background checks by an outside company. The third-party verification system could have helped screen drivers, passengers and anyone using peer-to-peer applications, like rentals at Airbnb.
"[The ballot fight] will probably be played overly simply as yet one more place that tries to overregulate a peer-sharing economy, but it's actually just the opposite," the mayor said. "This is a city that was demonstrating advanced innovation, flexibility and creativity."