Austin City Council Passes Framework for Ridesharing Regulations (UPDATED)

Dec 17, 2015

UPDATE Friday 1:15 a.m. – The Austin City Council moved forward on new regulations for ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft last night.

On a 9-2 vote, the Council passed a framework that, among other things, would require fingerprint-based background checks for drivers. The expanded background check requirement would be phased in over the next year. But some key details remain to be worked out, including what the penalties will be for failing to comply with the law.

The council will take that up next month.

Original post Thursday 2:33 p.m. – Hours before the Austin City Council is expected to vote on proposed regulations for ridesharing companies in Austin, the council announced a new framework they're hoping will be seen as compromise between the city and companies such as Uber and Lyft. 

According to Mayor Steve Adler's office, the fingerprint checks would no longer be mandatory, under the new proposal. But Councilmembers Ann Kitchen and Ellen Troxclair say they would still be mandatory.

The ordinance does lay out a series of deadlines for ridesharing companies to come into compliance with the fingerprinting requirement:

25% compliance by May 1, 2016
50% compliance by August 1, 2016
85% compliance by December 1, 2016
99% compliance by February 1, 2017

But instead of revoking the companies' operating authority, the revised ordinance now calls for "incentives" for drivers to undergo a fingerprint check and penalties for companies that don't meet the compliance targets. Those incentives and penalties are not spelled out in the revised ordinance and would be part of a subsequent ordinance that the council would take up in January.

The revised ordinance also changes proposed inspection requirements; an original ordinance would have required all Uber and Lyft cars to have additional inspections between the standard Texas state inspection. This new ordinance would do away with that.

"The bottom line is, I did not want to choose and do not want to choose between two very real safety concerns," said Mayor Steve Adler. "The safety of drivers, specifically women, driving in a car alone and the safety concerns associated with our community and a technology and device which is at least anecdotally taking impaired off of the streets."

Austin Police are investigating seven reports of alleged sexual assaults by Uber and Lyft drivers this year (and three by traditional cab drivers). 

Originally, the proposed ordinance, if passed by Council, would have required all drivers to undergo a fingerprint background check. Uber and Lyft opposed the proposal and said they would leave Austin if approved. 

Mayor Adler says he doesn't believe the amended ordinance would cause these companies to leave the city. 

In a statement, Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock says the company is waiting for additional details.

"We haven’t had time to fully examine the details, but it appears the only substantive change is the implementation date is now after the next election. Similar to earlier proposals, these rules reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how drivers use ridesharing platforms and the safety features inherent in our app. Hundreds of thousands of Austinites open the Uber app each week, either to get a ride or make a little extra money, and we hope the Mayor and City Council keep them in mind as they move forward with regulating ridesharing."

Lyft says does not see it as a compromise and is still reviewing the revised language.

The full Austin City Council is expected to vote on the amended ordinance during today's meeting.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. Dueling interpretations of revisions made to the proposed ordinance have led to some confusion about whether fingerprint background checks for ridesharing company drivers would be "mandatory" under the amended ordinance. An earlier version stated the checks would be optional, though the ultimate effect of the ordinance now appears to be in doubt. That change is reflected here.