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Austin Could Start Impounding 'Gypsy Cabs' - Including HeyRide Drivers' Cars

Police may begin impounding the vehicles of unlicensed drivers who offer rides for money – and that includes drivers using online apps like SideCar.

Item 30 on this week’s Austin City Council agenda would allow police to impound “a ground transportation service vehicle operated in violation” of the city code governing transportation franchise agreements, like the ones in place with Austin taxi companies.

The item could be passed on an “emergency” basis, meaning it could be implemented quickly – in ample time for the upcoming South by Southwest conference, for instance.

At the council’s work session this morning, council members and city Transportation Department officials both emphasized that the item isn’t meant to single out any one business. Council member Bill Spelman said it applied to “gypsy cabs” in general.

But then, he asked transportation director Rob Spillar, “Tell me about HeyRide.”

Heyride is an Austin-based smartphone app that lets people find and offer rides to strangers for money.  It received a cease and desist order in November from the city of Austin, which argued Heyride amounted to an unlicensed taxi service.

Last month, the city issued citations to two people offering services as drivers using HeyRide, and to the company itself for operating an unlicensed cab service, but it’s since been bought up by a San Franciso-based competitor, SideCar – which was planning a launch at SXSW.

Spillar said allowing for impounds was modeled after legislation in San Antonio; he said that city “rarely impounds drivers, but it acts a significant deterrent.” Spillar added whether to impound a car or ticket the driver would be up to officers’ discretion, noting that action could only be taken after an officer procured the service and experienced it themselves.

“In the police world, this is referred to as a ‘buy and bust’ approach,” Spelman said. “You’re buying a ride, then you’re busting them for having given you the ride … This is not something where you’re going to try and identify people who are offering rides on the street, on the basis of casual observation. This is going to require someone to actually be on the ride, see the whole thing, from beginning to end.”

KUT News has emailed representatives from SideCar asking for a response. We will update this post with any response we receive.  

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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