The New York Times

The New York Times

Uber and Lyft End Rides in Austin to Protest Fingerprint Background Checks

By MIKE McPHATE

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Uber and Lyft were not bluffing.

On Monday, the two leaders of the booming ride-hailing industry halted service in Austin, Tex., after losing a legislative fight over how they screen their drivers.

The decision to leave an energetic city known for its young, well-educated population offered a stark illustration of how strenuously the companies oppose new rules that would require them to perform fingerprint background checks on drivers.

Ending the service also meant that about 10,000 drivers would be out of work, Taylor Patterson, an Uber spokeswoman, said.

“Folks are devastated,” she said. “People are saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent.’”

The legislative fight playing out in Austin, the Texas capital, has been watched closely by municipalities across the country as they ponder how to handle public-safety issues posed by the so-called sharing economy.

Austin’s City Council voted in 2015 to require that the companies subject their drivers to fingerprint background checks, which could turn up criminal records. The regulation was fiercely opposed by the industry as unnecessary and less effective than its own system.

Uber and Lyft, both based in California, responded by underwriting a nearly $9 million campaign against the ordinance that culminated with an up-or-down vote by Austin residents on Saturday. Nearly 56 percent voted to preserve the measure, which also includes requirements for identifying vehicles and data reporting.

Both companies described the result as bitterly disappointing on Monday.

“Unfortunately, the rules passed by the City Council don’t allow true ride-sharing to operate,” Lyft said in a statement. “Instead, they make it harder for part-time drivers, the heart of Lyft’s peer-to-peer model, to get on the road and harder for passengers to get a ride.”

Lawmakers and some law enforcement professionals have argued that fingerprint checks, which are required of Austin’s taxi drivers, are the best way to establish a person’s identity and weed out those with criminal records.

Uber has said that its own checks, performed by the third-party provider Checkr, include scrutiny of court records and other biographical information and are more effective than the fingerprint checks, which it said rely on incomplete federal databases.

Industry experts have noted that the fingerprint rules, which go into effect next February, could pose a potentially time-intensive and costly new burden on the companies and their drivers.

Yet Uber still operates in two cities that require fingerprint checks: Houston and New York. Ms. Patterson, the spokeswoman, said the company was in New York for good, but that it was pressing its case in Houston and could potentially pull up stakes there. Lyft left Houston in 2014.

Last week in Miami-Dade County, after a battle of more than two years,transportation officials legalized ride-sharing services with no requirement that drivers be subjected to fingerprint background checks.

David Butts, a political consultant in Austin who helped lead a campaign to preserve the new ordinance, accused Uber and Lyft of putting corporate strategy above public safety.

“But we’re a progressive city,” Mr. Butts said. “We happen to believe that government has a role to play. And the idea that we’re just going to give them a blank check and say, ‘Self-regulate and we’ll take your word for it’ was not acceptable to the majority of voters in this city.”

In addition to Uber and Lyft, at least three ride-hailing companies are operating in Austin, a center of technology that hosts the South by Southwest festival and is home to the University of Texas’ flagship campus.

City officials said other companies were making inquiries on Monday after the announcements by Uber and Lyft.

Get Me, a new ride-sharing company in Austin, said it had been asked repeatedly how it would respond if its larger rivals left. “The open and honest answer is, as it’s always been, we’re not going anywhere,” the company said in a statement on Facebook.

Councilwoman Ann Kitchen, who led the effort to tighten the regulation of ride-hailing companies, said in an interview on Monday that the city was open to continuing talks with Uber and Lyft.

“Of course, we have always said to Uber and Lyft that they are welcome here and we didn’t ask them to leave,” she said. “But we have got to respect the will of the voters.”


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Phone: 512-229-7788
Dated: May 10th 2016
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About Andrea: Andrea has lived in the Austin area for 40 years. Her professional background, active in the commun...

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