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Uber Launches In-App, Online Campaign Against Austin City Council Member

A screenshot of an ad from ridesharing company Uber's campaign targeting Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen.

Austin City Council members are considering regulations for ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft. If passed, the City would collect fees from these companies, and also impose fingerprint-based background checks on drivers. On Thursday, Uber launched a campaign against the Council member who initiated these regulations.

When you open the Uber app on your phone, there’s a sliding bar at the bottom. It lets you choose between types of rides – like UberXL, which will send you a large car, or LUX – for passengers who only want the fanciest cars. If you opened the Uber app today, you might have noticed another option among those: Uber Kitchen.

Not named for the room in your house, but District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen. The service area spans from five square blocks downtown – from Nueces Street to Congress Avenue, stretching from Cesar Chavez Boulevard to Fifth Street – charges a flat $50 fee, doesn’t operate before 6 p.m., and won’t operate in the rain. There’s another caveat to the service: its drivers only operate a horse and buggy.

“When you open it up no cars are available right now and you see what life was like before Uber in Austin,” says Chris Nakutis, general manager of Uber Texas. He says the ridesharing requirements proposed by Kitchen will push Uber out of Austin, Kitchen begs to differ.  

“These rules are not about about getting rid of Uber,” she says, responding to Uber’s campaign today. “The fact that a corporation is attacking the Council because they don’t want to comply with safety rules is disgraceful.”

Kitchen says fingerprint-based background checks ensure a thorough assessment of a potential driver’s criminal history. Uber says its internal background checks are just fine. Background check and fee requirements for ridesharing companies will be heard by the City’s Mobility Committee meeting on Nov. 16.

The company's also debuted a digital spot targeting the council member and urging users to call the Austin City Council. 

Uber’s tried similar tactics before, creating a “de Blasio’s Uber” feature in the ridesharing app during especially terse negotiations with New York City over a driver cap this summer. While that app-based call to action didn’t feature a horse-and-buggy mode, it did offer wait times of 25 minutes for a ride, or blocked out drivers from the app entirely, to simulate wait times under the city’s proposed cap, according to TechCrunch.

A screenshot of the Uber Kitchen service area.

  It’s worked for the company in New York. A week after unveiling the deBlasio's Uber, as well as a smattering of television ads, the New York City Council voted down the proposal.

Similarly, fellow sharing economy leader Airbnb also attacked San Francisco ahead of a citywide proposition on restricting the service that allows users to rent out their homes to guests, something the City of Austin is also keen on restricting. 

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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