Out of Step: Uber, Lyft and Prop 1

by Brian J. Audette

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“It may sound cliche. I don’t care.
I’ve seen the way you cheat at all the games you play.
Misuse trust to get what you want it’s so easy to believe you.”

– Kid Dynamite, Shiner

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of writing something about Austin’s Prop 1 vote for some time now. On the one hand: I don’t want to let the vote go by without saying anything more than 140 characters long. On the other hand: I wrestled with the idea of doing this “Out of Step” column about it because while I feel that on a meta level the implications of Prop 1 do effect Austin music, it’s a much larger issue as a whole. Still, I feel the need to say my piece and this is the venue I’ve chosen. Take it or leave it… do both if you choose.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 9 months, here’s the deal: in 2014 the city of Austin made TNC’s (Transportation Network Companies) like Uber and Lyft legal in the city. Both companies had already been operating in the area (illegally) for at least year prior at that point and had faced stiff opposition from the city’s existing cab companies both traditional and otherwise. At the time I supported the TNC’s. To me the cab companies’ opposition smacked of a corporate blockade against new ideas and competition and in my book, you don’t get to block a new idea simply for fear that it will cause you to make less money and/or have to do your job better.

A year after the vote Uber and Lyft were again the subject of city council discussion as an ordinance was proposed to require (among other things) TNC drivers to get finger printed as part of the background check procedures already run by their employers. Uber and Lyft fought against the ordinance and lost. What happened next was what set up the current situation. Uber and Lyft decided that “the people” should decide whether the ordinance should go into effect (ignoring the fact that “the people” already did this by electing representatives– locally and by district– to the city council) and formed a political action committee (PAC) called Ridesharing Works for Austin to spearhead an effort to get a referendum on the ballot for this May. The PAC went on to spend lots of corporate money to gain signatures and force a vote.

It’s estimated that between their own money and the PAC, that Uber and Lyft have spent over 8 million dollars attempting to rewrite a law (that they have been forced to follow elsewhere… in Texas even) that all other taxi companies (and pedicabs) in Austin have to follow and whose primary goal is to increase public safety. In doing this Uber and Lyft have behaved like nothing less than spoiled children, even before the ordinance was voted on threatening to pick up and leave if it did pass, a move tantamount to a tantrum. Even worse has been their “information” campaign: a media assault on all fronts that has dispersed misinformation at best, outright lies at worst.

I was on Uber and Lyft’s sides when they were trying to gain a foothold in Austin against an entrenched and greedy opposition, but now that they have their foothold, to see them behave thusly has caused me to rethink that position. Many people have tried to frame this issue in many different ways, but for me it’s about money versus people and the idea that one can buy voting power. I don’t oppose petitions and referendum as a concept. As an old school progressive I’m all about them, in fact. However, I believe in leveling playing fields and in the will of “the people” over the will of corporations. Uber and Lyft are using money to create an advantage over the decisions of the people’s elected representatives and that’s not the kind of democracy I support. On this matter I support our city council– a ruling body elected by the people in our separate districts– to represent us in matters of governance. If I disagree with them then I support voting against them in the next election, emailing their offices, and (as a citizen) petitioning them.

One might say that this petition and resulting vote is no different than an election the money involved therein, but to me it’s not. It’s more nuanced than just “money and politics.” Where that money comes from and who is using it matters. Granted I have plenty of problems with the way money is used in elections in general, but this is not a case of two potential representatives attempting to curry (or buy) public favor leading up to a vote. This is a pair of corporations who don’t like a law and are seeking to buy public support to change it. In many cases I can even accept that, but it’s the outright lies of their campaign that have finally broken me. It’s one thing to oppose legislation, petition for a referendum, and allow the vote to happen. It’s another to lie and cheat in order to ensure the result you want. I can only assume that either Uber or Lyft have little faith in their own protest or little faith in the people of Austin to not let the issue be decided based on facts.

I wouldn’t vote for Uber or Lyft to represent me on city council and voting “yes” on Prop 1 may as well be doing exactly that but for a single issue. It’s a bad move and it sets an even worse precedent and it saddens me that a city that fought for our 10-1 city council representation would then sell legislative authority to the highest bidder.

For the record, I’m voting “No” on Prop 1 tomorrow, for me to do otherwise would be to say to corporations or anyone with enough money to do what Uber and Lyft have recently done that I think decisions should go to the highest bidder and that democratic processes should be subverted by lies and deception. I know that our existing system of governance often includes all of the above, but in this instance I’m being given a chance to vote my opinion. I’m voting “No” and I think if you want a future for Austin that’s decided by its people (not corporate entities) then so should you.


Ovrld No Prop 1

Official voting for Prop 1 will be held across the city on May 7th. See http://traviscountyclerk.org/eclerk/Content.do?code=E.4 for Travis County polling locations.