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Uber Wants to Come Back to Austin

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
Uber's Trevor Theunissen speaking with KUT's Audrey McGlinchy at the Ginger Man on November 16, 2016.

Uber does not have hard feelings about Prop 1.

In a forum hosted by the Austin Monitor, Glasshouse Policy and KUT on the patio of the Ginger Man bar downtown, a representative of the ride-hailing giant expressed regret about the tenor of the multimillion-dollar campaign waged by the company earlier this year. 

The campaign attempted unsuccessfully to overturn a city ordinance requiring its drivers to submit to fingerprint-based background checks.

“We probably didn’t run Prop 1 and the campaign like an Austin campaign,” said Trevor Theunissen, regional head of public affairs for Uber, in an interview with KUT’s Audrey McGlinchy. “It was more like a New York City or Chicago campaign. That did not translate well in a city like Austin.”

Voters were likely frustrated, he conceded, by the more than $10 million that Uber and Lyft spent in an effort to roll back the ordinance that all but two members of City Council supported.

“The debate became more about the money that we spent and the tone that we had,” Theunissen said. Many would-be supporters were also turned off by the flood of mailers, text messages and other pleas to voters to support the position held by the two companies.

He suggested that Uber’s tone during the campaign may have been the result of frustration with the new 10-1 Council changing a ride-hailing ordinance put in place toward the end of the previous Council’s tenure in 2014. That original ordinance did not require fingerprint-based background checks.

“Austin had one of the best ordinances in the country pre-Prop 1,” he said, adding that Uber had used that model of regulation as a model for other cities to adopt.

However, Theunissen conceded that Council members, most of whom opposed Prop 1, had felt that Uber and Lyft had not tried to negotiate in good faith on the measure, instead threatening to leave Austin if the city did not lift the fingerprint requirement.

Asked by McGlinchy why Uber had previously agreed to abide by a similar fingerprint requirement in Houston, Theunissen said that the company had agreed to that requirement before it understood some of its implications. Among other things, he said, the company was concerned that fingerprint-based background checks discriminate against people who may have been arrested but not ultimately convicted of a crime. That approach disproportionately impacts minorities, he said.

Uber has been pushing to undo the fingerprinting requirement in Houston, but it recently announced a deal with the city that will keep the practice in place until at least after the Super Bowl, when there will undoubtedly be a huge surge in demand.

In the wake of Prop 1’s defeat, Republicans in the state Legislature have said they intend to push for a state ride-hailing law that would likely upend Austin’s regulations. Theunissen said Uber is actively supporting such efforts, saying that a statewide law would provide greater regulatory certainty. In addition, he argued that state regulation is more appropriate since transportation “inherently crosses jurisdictional boundaries.”

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
KUT's Audrey McGlinchy interviews Uber's Theunissen at the Real Talk event on Nov. 16.

Uber still has an office with 40 employees in Austin. The company is eager to re-enter the market for the sake of riders and drivers, Theunissen said. Neither group, he suggested, has gotten quite as good a deal with the new ride-hailing options – such as Fasten, Fare and Ride Austin – as it did with Uber.

“We are willing to negotiate; we are willing to take part in a meaningful discussion,” he said.

The company is seeking to re-engage with council members to develop a compromise, and Theunissen urged supporters of Uber to contact their elected officials on the matter.

In addition to bringing its basic service back to Austin, Theunissen said the company hopes to partner with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to provide “first mile, last mile” services to help people get to or from bus stops.

He also said he hoped that Austin would be the next city in which the company would test out its self-driving cars, which it has already introduced on a limited scale in Pittsburgh. For the company to choose Austin for that type of project, he said, the city would need to put in place a better ride-hailing regulation.

“But, presumably, you don’t have to fingerprint anybody with self-driving cars," pointed out McGlinchy.

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