Austin Looking at Lyft and Uber

A new kind of transportation option has been rising in popularity around the country, and now Austin city officials are looking into whether it would be a good fit here.

Services like Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and others are basically smart phone apps that allow you to find a ride. The driver is just another person, someone offering to use their car to provide that ride for a fee. The biggest advantages seem to be that these services provide an element of crowd sourcing, and opening up the provision of rides to many more people means greater flexibility to respond quickly at peak times, during large events or evenings were there is a lot of demand at the same times – say closing time for bars. The catch is there are very few regulations in place for this kind of service.

130412145946481On May 15, City Council approved a process that would include City staff and stakeholders such as taxi companies, companies like Uber and Lyft, and interested citizen groups in discussions about how to allow these hybrid ridesharing services to operate while protecting passenger safety and promoting fair competition. Look for a progress report in 90 days and recommendations for Council action within 180 days.

Meanwhile, Lyft announced at the end of May that it plans to start service in Austin, even before city rules are potentially amended. The company has said it will not charge for rides initially. According to Lyft, more than 15,000 Austin residents have downloaded the Lyft app.

California has the most experience with services like Uber and Lyft – formally known as Transportation Network Companies. But allowing the TNC’s into cities around Texas is not a cut-and-dry process, as noted in Texas Monthly recently.

Some people love the service. Arguments for this new service range from claims that it will increase options, create improvement in other services like taxis and public transportation through competition, and fill needed gaps in service – thereby solving problems from traffic congestion to parking overflow into neighborhoods and drunk driving. Even if the benefits are greatly exaggerated, almost everyone for and against agrees that Austin needs more service and more options.

There are horror stories. The arguments against these services include concerns for passenger safety and accessibility, or for fair competition with taxis, which have been providing a needed public service in a highly regulated environment. Most agree there is a serious public interest in ensuring drivers pass criminal background checks and have insurance, valid drivers licenses, etc. There is also some interest in making sure the operating companies have some level of accountability for what happens during the rides they arrange.

The Burnt Orange Report provides a good summary of the two hours of testimony and you can watch the entire event at Channel 6.

For Austin Councilmember Chris Riley, the primary author of the city’s resolutions to examine these services, protecting consumers and being fair are important goals, but so is bringing more transportation options to Austin. “Austin really ought to be in that leading edge of cities who are figuring this out,” said Riley.


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