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Here’s an update on the ongoing Uber/Lyft debate in Austin – Last week, City Council passed an ordinance essentially in support of the Mayor’s new Thumbs Up plan. Developed with help from a team of techies across Austin, Thumbs Up was designed to be a compromise between those calling for fingerprint-based background checks and those advocating for none at all.

The new ordinance approves the creation of a Thumbs Up-like program (possibly to be operated by a third party) that would allow drivers with ride-hailing apps to be fingerprinted and in return, receive a city-approved badge. The idea is that app users would then have the opportunity to choose whether or not they want a driver with this badge. The Mayor and his partners are still in the process of developing the longterm plans and particulars for the Thumbs Up program. More information is available here>>

In passing this new voluntary program, City Council in effect also softened its stance on its initial December ordinance, which made fingerprint-based background checks mandatory. Thumbs Up Austin

Why would drivers sign up for Thumbs Up?

The ordinance also calls for the creation of incentives for drivers who undergo fingerprint-based background checks. These could include access to special pick-up and drop-off locations during ACL and SXSW and at designated “entertainment districts” throughout town.

The Mayor maintains that these incentives are just perks that reward fingerprinted drivers without punishing those without the additional background check. The ordinance explicitly says that the incentives will open up new opportunities for ride-hailing drivers that have never been available to them before, as opposed to taking away access to drivers without the fingerprint-based check. (For example, opening up Zilker Park to fingerprinted drivers during ACL. )

Uber and Lyft however, have both come out against these incentives, labeling them as penalties in disguise.

What about the petition drive?

The ride-hailing debate continued this week when Ridesharing Works for Austin announced that the city clerk’s office had validated the signatures necessary to either force City Council to pass their alternative ordinance within 10 days, or to put the issue on the ballot.

Ridesharing Works for Austin is the political action committee who organized a petition drive in support of essentially repealing the city’s initial mandatory fingerprint-based background check ordinance that it passed in December. They also raised about $30,000 (mostly from Uber and Lyft) to conduct their campaign.

Ridesharing Works for Austin

So what happens next?

At a work session on Tuesday, City Council discussed whether or not to pass Ridesharing Works for Austin’s ordinance or to put it on the ballot in May for the public to decide. While some council members advocated simply passing the ordinance now (and avoiding the expected $500,000 – $800,000 price tag associated with an election), others warned of setting a dangerous precedent.

“So, what precedent do we set here by just accepting that ordinance? We set the precedent, you know what it costs to buy your own regulation in Austin, Texas? $30,000,” Council Member Delia Garza said. “So, what’s next? Samsung’s going to start a petition because they don’t like their Austin Energy rates?… So I really, really hope that we let the voters decide.”

City Council is expected to decide which route to choose at its February 11th meeting.

Legal challenges?

So here lies the question – can Ridesharing Works for Austin’s petition and the Thumbs Up program coexist? On a new post on the website MobilityATX, Mayor Adler says that unfortunately, the answer is no. But, he adds, there is a possible solution that would accomplish the petition’s goal of keeping Uber and Lyft in Austin, while at the same time, creating a fleet of fingerprinted drivers by rewarding those that volunteer.

This would require adopting a new Austin Innovation TNC Ordinance, different from both the mandatory fingerprinting ordinance passed by City Council in December and the non-fingerprinting ordinance in the Ridesharing Works for Austin petition. This new ordinance would specifically prohibit mandatory fingerprinting and allow incentive programs like the Thumbs Up badge.

But, here’s the catch, says Adler. This new innovation ordinance could only stand if an election is held in May and the public votes against Ridesharing Works for Austin’s ordinance.

So now, Mayor Adler wants to know – what do you think? He has opened up a forum on MobilityATX and is inviting the public to share their thoughts. You can give your opinion here>>

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