By Ben Wear Austin American-Statesman.
At the risk of reporting the obvious, Uber really doesn't play by the rules.
In this case, I don't mean literally city of Austin rules and regulations, although last year they certainly scoffed at those.
No, I mean the rules of politics.
Case in point: "Kitchen's Uber."
The company, along with fellow ride-hailing company Lyft, are now in the final innings of a debate about the Austin City Council's move to tighten rules on these app-based ride providers. The council, led by Mobility Committee Chairwoman Ann Kitchen, later this year could vote to require drivers for Uber and Lyft (and any such businesses to follow them into this booming marketplace) to have fingerprint background checks, much like drivers at traditional taxi companies.
The council is also considering charging the companies an annual fee based on revenue, and requiring them to report to the city various measures of how they're doing business.
The companies disagree with much of what the council has in mind. But they truly hate the fingerprint part, noting they already run their own public records checks based on drivers' names, Social Security number and other information that applicants provide online.
Require applicants to go somewhere and provide their fingerprints, the companies argue, and many prospective drivers won't sign up, fatally wounding a business model that relies on having a healthy number of part-time drivers on the roster, and on the street, at any given time.
Lyft has refused to operate in most cities that require fingerprint checks. Uber is rattling sabers about doing so here.
Which brings us back to Kitchen's Uber.
The company Thursday, with tongue seemingly in cheek (but serious intent nonetheless), announced it was debuting a horse-and-buggy service named after Kitchen. Get on the Uber app and tap on a Kitchen button, the company said, and "get a glimpse of what life would be like if the Austin City Council adopts Council Member Ann Kitchen's ridesharing regulations."
Kitchen, the company said, "would impose 19th Century regulations on 21st Century technology" and "eliminate this reliable transportation option." Uber on Thursday released a 30-second Internet ad showing a couple calling for an Uber ride and then waiting disconsolately for a while for an oh-so-Texanish buggy driver and his rig to show up.
Actually, based on a preliminary vote last month, the regulations would actually belong not just to Kitchen but to everyone on the 11-member council, except for Council Members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair who voted against them. But, to give Uber its due, Kitchen has been the moving force for the rules.
When an Uber rep told me about this gambit, I assumed it was just a publicity jab. No, the company indeed will hook up interested parties with a horse, buggy and driver, she said, assuming that the rider was willing to pay $50 for a one-way ride, downtown only, and travel between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
The time frame, the company maintained, is tied to when the city allows horse-powered conveyances to prowl downtown. As for the $50, one can only assume that is a jab at taxicab fares.
For the record, I have never paid anywhere near $50 for a cab ride in Austin, although I'm sure some people in the northwestern metro area have dropped that much getting to the airport.
As it turns out, the Uber rep told me, the company had only one horse and one buggy lined up, which would seem averse to its flood-the-zone business concept. Maybe that's just part of the message.
Kitchen, for her part, when I called her, said, sure, she got the joke. But she wasn't laughing.
"The rules are not about getting rid of Uber," she said. "The fact that a corporation is attacking the council because they don't want to comply with safety rules is disgraceful."
Young women in particular, she said, are vulnerable when they get in a vehicle with a stranger. Department of Public Safety officials have told her that fingerprints are the only way to nail down the identity and criminal background of that driver.
"With the assaults that have occurred," Kitchen said, "we don't need to be changing our rules for the convenience of a corporation."
By the way, Kitchen added, did they even use fingerprints for identification in the 19th century?
Based on some quick research, it appears that the use of fingerprints in law enforcement in fact did begin late in the 19th century. I doubt, however, that the hack drivers squiring swells around New York City circa 1895 had to clear a fingerprint background check. Score that one a tie.
What does strike me as true, however, is that, as a political strategy, publicly insulting a council member a few weeks before a crucial vote is a novel approach. Does Uber really think that will bring Kitchen around to its way of thinking? Makes you wonder about all that money companies spend on lobbyists, and the money spent by lobbyists wining and dining politicians.
It's cheaper to just make fun of them. But effective?
This summer, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio took on Uber, pushing a measure to limit the number of ride-hailing service vehicles on the city streets. So Uber released a feature on its app called, yes, de Blasio's Uber. In that case, tapping on the de Blasio feature caused the map of the city to suddenly appear devoid of any Uber vehicles. The strategy was to mobilize the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of ride-hailing service drivers and customers in New York against the mayor's proposal, perhaps putting him (or any other city council member who supported the limit) in fear for their political futures.
It worked. De Blasio backed down.