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Can City Officials Create a Level Playing Field for Cab, Uber and Lyft Drivers?

Raido Kalma/flickr

Many things have changed in the five years since the Austin City Council last approved a contract with taxi franchises.

For one, ride service companies like Uber and Lyft have become more of a norm than an anomaly. Still, cab companies say their drivers are not operating on a level playing field when it comes to regulations.

Now, the Austin City Council, for the first time, says it's going to do an analysis of exactly how level the field is.

The first thing council tackled at its meeting Thursday was the imminent expiration of the taxi franchises' contracts. The contracts were due to expire in August. Once council committed to their renewal, the next step was to commit to doing a comprehensive analysis regarding transportation companies.

Dozens of cab drivers showed up to speak at City Hall, and council member Delia Garza assured them these steps were just the beginning of the process.

"We anticipate changes," Garza said, "In fact, we anticipate significant changes."

As significant as the changes may be, council member Don Zimmerman summarized them as follows: "To me the policy direction is [this]," Zimmerman said, indicating two possible options. "We [either] ask the TNCs (Transportation Network Companies, Uber and Lyft) to be more regulated like the taxis, or we allow the taxis to be less regulated like the TNCs."

The council is giving itself five years to have the comprehensive analysis ready. When Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo objected saying the timeline was too long, council member Ann Kitchen said she believes the city's Mobility Committee, which is overseeing the discussions, will be done within a year. But she said all the matters at hand are complicated. The conversations start Wednesday. 

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.