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Could Lyft & Uber Soon Be Legal in Austin?

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The battle between ride-sharing companies and the city has been going on for years, but a new proposal could allow the services to function within the law.

As of right now, ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft aren’t exactly legal.

They operate, sure, but the services' drivers face fines of up to $1,500 if they're caught driving-while-ride-sharing. While some tout the apps as a convenient alternative to cabs, many, including the City of Austin, argue the drivers don’t face the same regulatory and safety standards as their cabbie counterparts.

But yesterday Austin City Council member Chris Riley announced he'll introduce a resolution next week to legalize the services.

In case you’ve never used Uber or Lyft, it's worth describing how they work.

People use an app on their phones to say where they are and where they want to go.Then a driver, in their personal vehicle, picks up the ride-sharing user and takes them to their destination, with a pricing system dependent on user demand.

When ride-sharing companies showed up in New York City, they disrupted a pretty stable system run by traditional cab drivers.

The spokesperson for Yellow Cab in Austin, Ed Kargbo, says New York did the right thing by taking ride-sharing companies to court.

"We are looking at a situation where two companies have chosen to break the law," he said.

Both Uber and Lyft are now operating legally in New York City, but they had to change their business models drastically.

In contrast with New York City, Austin City Council member Chris Riley is proposing that the city be the one making the changes to accommodate Uber and Lyft by amending the city charter to permit ride-sharing if Uber and Lyft step up regulations.

"I'm proposing a way to legalize services like Uber and Lyft, now, through operating agreements," Riley said at a press conference Monday. "In order to qualify for an operating agreement, these app companies will have to meet certain criteria."

The list of criteria include expanded insurance, driver background checks and being upfront about fares. Ride-sharing drivers would also need to provide accommodations for people with disabilities. In other words, they would have to operate under near-identical regulations as taxis.

In May, the Austin City Council created a group with the goal of coming up with a permanent solution to the city's perennial ride-sharing dilemma, but the group's recommendations are not ready. The deadline for their recommendations is not until December.

Council member Riley believes something needs to be done in the meantime, and ride-share supporters argue Uber & Lyft create jobs.

Alfredo Santos, a Lyft driver, say his job as a publisher of Spanish newspapers keeps him in his car a lot. So, why not make some extra cash by providing rides?

Santos has a daily goal of ten trips, but there are days where he makes up to fifteen.

"It's a way to run around, talk to people and make money," said Santos.

Other advocates say it's also a way to provide rides at night when few buses are running and some cabs choose to refuse riders.

For detractors, the view is different. They say Riley's proposal is a way to turn a blind eye to the unlawful behavior of ride-sharing companies.

Riley's proposal comes before the Austin City Council next week.

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