Austin Council Passes Voluntary Fingerprinting System for Ride-Hailing App Drivers

Jan 28, 2016

The Austin City Council today passed a plan to further regulate ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft.

The language in the ordinance is not entirely clear – but it calls for the “preferred ability” of drivers who do get fingerprinted to pick up and drop off passengers in the downtown entertainment district and around major events such as South by Southwest. Drivers who don’t get fingerprinted would pay higher fees and be barred from some wait areas. They may also be restricted from operating during certain hours.

“Austin is best served with widely available rideshare options in which passengers have a meaningful choice of selecting a validated driver,” wrote Mayor Steve Adler in an email a day before the vote. “I want Uber, Lyft, GetMe and other rideshare companies to stay in Austin, and I also want people who feel safer with a fingerprinted option to have a widely available, meaningful choice."

At the council meeting the Mayor said he did not know whether Uber and Lyft were onboard with such a program. The companies have opposed the voluntary fingerprinting scheme and have said broadly that they will not operate in cities that require fingerprint-based background checks.

"It would effectively mandate duplicative background checks for drivers to access the busiest parts of the city where Austinites and visitors need a ride," wrote Uber spokesperson Debbee Hancock in an email. "Removing drivers' access to the airport, the entertainment district, and major events, such as ACL and SXSW, would cause increased congestion and limit transportation options where they are needed most. This is not about choices or incentives, but about protecting incumbent transportation providers. It's weird, even for Austin."

Lyft representative Chelsea Wilson shared a similar sentiment by email: "Segregating rideshare drivers into different groups, with different economic opportunities - all without any benefit to public safety - hurts drivers, consumers and the City of Austin. The badge proposal on the table makes it harder for the people of Austin to find a safe, reliable and affordable ride."

The companies funded a petition drive to get their own ordinance on the ballot later this year. They turned in 23,000 signatures to the city clerk's office. If those are validated, the initiative will go to the city council, which could pass it or send it to a public vote. That election would likely happen on May 7.

Council member Delia Garza was among the minority voting against today's proposal, because she said the council should wait until the outcome of the public vote.

"I do support that we put this on the ballot and let the voters decide because I’m confident that Austin will defeat a measure that allows a corporation to buy its own regulations,” Garza said.

Councilmember Ellen Troxclair was also among the "no" votes - also arguing the council should heed the will of the petitioners and wait for the public vote, though she did not express any doubt about its passage. 

The council also voted to extended the implementation date for new ride-hailing app regulations. Other regulations passed in December were due to go into effect on Monday. They pushed that back to Feb. 28.