Let me begin this by saying: generally speaking, I’m a supporter of ride-sharing. I know a few of the people who formed the original Ridesharing Works coalition that passed around the petition. They’re good people, who do good work in the city, and whose values I generally share. I plan to vote for Prop. 1 when it comes time for me to do so, if only (at this point) to be done with this whole thing for two more years. But, man, what a mess it is.
Thing #1: I wish that Uber and Lyft had been smarter about local politics.
It all began with the advertising, when Uber started picking on Ann Kitchen. It continued with the somewhat disingenuous–or, at the very least, convoluted and difficult to explain–claims that ride sharing was being “forced out” of the city. And now it’s continuing with a PAC that’s receiving upwards of $2 million.
All of these moves, in my opinion, are indicative of an utter cluelessness about the local political scene. While some people have been animated to support Uber and Lyft because of their aggressive messaging on this issue, many more have been completely turned off.
In a city that prides itself on being a pale blue dot under constant attack from the sea of red surrounding it, outsiders running ads attacking prominent progressive leaders isn’t going to win you many friends. In a city that is very suspicious of corporations, and whose most prominent news source is an alt-weekly, making claims about onerous regulations isn’t going to win many friends either. And lastly, in a city that is probably significantly more pissed about Citizen’s United than the national average, pumping loads of cash into a PAC to influence an election isn’t going to make you look particularly good either.
The most annoying thing about all of the above is that it’s made it increasingly difficult for people who oppose fingerprinting to justify that position. Do you like using Uber and Lyft? Do you feel like the regulations that were in place before this past December were working OK? Well, too bad. Because now you’re a corporate shill.
That brings me to Thing #2…
Thing #2: I wish people in Austin could re-think our narrative about the local power dynamic.
I’ve been participating in lots and lots of online discussion on this issue, and it never really takes long for anyone taking a pro-Uber position to be called a corporate shill. On reddit, it’s gotten to the point where people are pretty quickly called out for being astroturf, paid commenters. And while there’s good reason to believe that that might be true (see Thing #1), my experience in this town is that people are really, really quick to go to the “you’re being paid” explanation whenever someone seems to disagree with them.
For whatever reason, one of our favorite stories about the city is that it’s been bought and sold. We love telling ourselves that corporations moved in and sold Austin’s soul, and now it’s ruined forever. Due to Thing #1, the ride sharing issue is now getting sucked up into the “greedy-corporations-ruined-Austin” narrative. Kudos to the Travis County Democratic Party and the Our City Our Safety Our Choice PAC for connecting those dots for people. That’s really, really excellent messaging.
If and when Prop. 1 fails in May (which I think it will), I can hope against hope that people will revise what they think about who really pulls the levers of power in this city. Maybe we’ll look at the $2 million Uber and Lyft spent to no real good purpose and reconsider whether corporate money can really buy an election. Maybe we’ll finally realize that–surprise!–it isn’t greedy developers or greedy corporations who run things in the city but rather central city homeowners.
More likely, the narrative will stay intact, ready to be used by the next constituency that wants to cloak their narrow economic self-interest in the mantle of progressivism.
Which leads me to…
Thing #3: I wish that we could be talking about taxi regulations instead.
A common argument that people make about Uber and Lyft is that they’re really just a taxi service, and they should be regulated as such. That seems to me to be a fair argument. Except, my sense is that most people making this argument don’t really know exactly what our taxi regulations are.
Dan Keshet has already done a great job discussing these on his blog. The bottom line is that they’re absolutely terrible. For whatever reason, our city council has decided that it’s only appropriate to allow 3 cab companies to operate in this city, despite the fact that they’re universally hated by their customers. The owners of these franchises all live in nice houses in West Lake and keep their drivers toiling at around the poverty level.
Did I mention that the cab companies suck for customers, too? The reviews on Google are… like, my God. They’re bad. Really, really bad.
At this point, I honestly think it would just be better if we regulated the taxi companies the way we regulated Uber and Lyft, and not the other way around. The regulations we have have brought us a state of affairs in which full-time drivers are getting mercilessly exploited all while providing seriously shit service in a sector that is in very, very high demand.
And this brings me to my last Thing, Thing #4: I wish city council had done things differently. My most immediate preference is that I wish they’d just left well enough alone with Uber and Lyft and then quietly re-written the taxi regulations so as to better serve the public. That might have been impossible, but I’m sure there is at least one other alternate universe where this issue could have been handled more effectively.
At least, I hope there is.