Before Uber & Lyft, Austin's ridesharing regulations targeted passengers, too
This story was originally published on May 18, 2016.
Austin’s in a new era of ridesharing. In the exhaust of Uber and Lyft’s departures, a salvo of ride-hailing providers (some app-based and others not) are vying to fill the pothole left by their industry standard-bearing predecessors. Some of those providers and their practices have been questioned, with some calling current options “gypsy cabs” – like the proto-ride-hailer SideCar was in 2013. But in the early 20th century, the unlicensed ride-hailers were called bootleg cabs and the city’s 14-year fight with them helped galvanize its extensive taxi regulations.
Before bootleg cabs, there were jitneys – Austin’s first ride-hailing option that undermined both traditional cabs and public transit by allowing riders to flag down cars for a cheap ride.
After a city crackdown on jitneys, in which the city placed them under the same regulatory yoke as buses – they couldn’t respond to ride-hailers and had to have a pickup and drop-off point – the city turned its focus to beefing up cab regulations.
In 1932, the Austin City Council also required that taxicab drivers be bonded and licensed, with council approving every license as they had since the first horse-drawn cabs. But, there were a few conditions: Cab drivers couldn’t operate on the same streets as public transit, and they had to have a minimum fare of 20 cents.
In 1933, a “large delegation” of cab drivers asked the city to lower that minimum. The city didn’t.
So, at first, drivers began transporting packages across town for five and 10-cent fees. Then, drivers offered to carry passengers transporting the packages and then dropped the package requirement altogether. Then, the practice of bootleg taxis began in earnest.
Bootleg drivers typically operated on the East Side, giving short rides to Austinites going to and from work, often charging 15 cents per ride.
"Any officer out there knows they’re bootlegging."
The practice became so popular, some licensed and bonded drivers let their licenses expire because they figured they’d make more money as bootleg cab drivers. Then-Mayor Tom Miller didn’t fault East Austin customers for taking the cheaper option.
“You can’t blame cooks and maids who use taxis a lot to get back and forth to work for turning to the cheaper [taxis],” he said at a June 1938 council meeting.
Still, Council Member Simon Gillis called for a new taxi ordinance “with teeth in it – and I don’t mean store teeth,” according to the Statesman.
Cab attorney G.A. Martins testified before council, alleging at least 35 drivers were driving illegally, some “operating three or four cars.”
So, council passed a resolution beefing up trade dress, requiring permanent identification and requiring taxi meters.
Still, Austin Police Capt. Roy J. Smith argued the practice would likely continue, as black drivers were regularly turned down by bonding companies, and a driver couldn’t get a city permit unless they were bonded.
"...passengers, who could be charged with a misdemeanor for knowingly taking a bootleg cab, with fines ranging from $5 to $200."
Twelve years later, the city was still in a regulatory fight over bootleg cabs. Enforcement was impossible, as drivers would say they weren’t on the meter (because they didn’t have one), and passengers often told police officers that they were related to drivers – a ridesharing loophole. It cut into business, particularly on the East Side, so much that Austin cab patriarch Roy Velasquez (of the famed and former Roy’s Taxis) testified before council, calling for city-backed protection for cab drivers.
“Any officer out there knows they’re bootlegging,” Velasquez said, delivering a list of 10 license plate numbers, which, he said, belonged to bootleg drivers, according to an August 1950 Statesman write-up of the meeting.
So, the city stepped up enforcement and eventually passed an amendment to the ever-revised cab regulations that would penalize anyone who “shall aid, abet, or assist” in violating the ordinance. That included passengers, who could be charged with a misdemeanor for “knowingly” taking a bootleg cab, with fines ranging from $5 to $200.
That provision was later written out in (yet) another revision of the cab ordinance, but the argument from the dais in the ordinance is a familiar one: It's necessary for public safety.
“The fact that traffic on the streets of the City of Austin has greatly increased with the growth of the City's population, and the fact that existing ordinances of said City do not afford an adequate and comprehensive regulation and control of the operation of taxicabs on the public streets of said City, create an emergency and an imperative public necessity for the immediate preservation of the public welfare and safety…”