Innovation is the way forward for Austin and Uber/Lyft

Photo by Aman Batheja

I do not like binary choices. I would rather take the best of both sides and come up with something new. Invariably, I've found that the best solutions come when you get away from the old debates that force you into an either/or choice that prioritizes confrontation over collaboration. But the ballot initiative backed by Uber and Lyft has forced my city into a binary choice: Adopt the Uber-Lyft petition "as is" or settle the matter in a May election.

One way or the other? That is not the Austin way.

Holding an election would be costly and divert us from more transformational affordability and mobility projects. However, adoption of the Uber/Lyft petition ordinance may, as some attorneys have argued, pre-empt the city from adopting or having any other ordinance that impacts transportation network companies.

One way or the other? That is not the Austin way, and I don't think that's what the 20-odd thousand Austinites who were confirmed to have signed the petition necessarily intended. I suspect they never intended to prevent Austin from innovating or rewarding drivers that choose to give their passengers choices. I suspect, rather, that they signed the petition because they wanted to keep Uber and Lyft in Austin, just as I have been trying to do. Before we decide on Feb. 11 where we as a city council come down on this binary choice — accept the petition's rigid regulation or pursue innovation, stick to the status quo or reward the drivers who choose to provide the community choice — I want to hear from the community.

When I ran for mayor, I promised to get away from the old, either/or debates and to chart a new way forward. That is why, using eBay's trusted vendor PowerSeller badge as a model, I have proposed the concept of independent, third-party, cross-platform, virtual badges or validators that we call the Austin Thumbs Up! badge. By using these validators, cities could boost the behavior or culture the community wants by using incentives to encourage voluntary participation. In the Thumbs Up! program, a secure third party would verify whether a person had voluntarily passed a fingerprint background check. Through an API, it would be available for and across all peer-to-peer platforms. This is new not only for government but also in the sharing economy, and I believe Austin is its rightful birthplace.

Incentivizing, rather than mandating, drivers to get fingerprint background checks is the best way to ensure that Austin rideshare passengers have a meaningful choice for a ride home that they feel is safer. That's the solution that best gets our community fingerprinted drivers at scale. The Austin Thumbs Up! incentives would — crucially — accomplish this goal without requiring Uber or Lyft to do anything. I think this is the best way for government to fulfill its responsibilities in a sharing economy.

I have always wanted Uber, Lyft and other rideshare companies to stay in Austin, and I want people who feel safer with fingerprinted drivers to have a meaningful choice. We can do this. But the reason cities have struggled with it points to the problem of using old, top-down, government tools in a rapidly changing sharing economy. In Austin, our culture is to do old things in new ways, and I think the Austin Thumbs Up! incentives are a way for government to meet its responsibilities for safety in a way that is as innovative as, well, Uber. It's Uber, but for government.

Make no mistake: The safety concerns both sides cite are legitimate. Law enforcement tells us fingerprint background checks improve safety because they confirm the driver's identity and help post-incident investigations. The old way for government to respond would be to mandate all drivers obtain fingerprint background checks even though this would result in Uber and Lyft leaving Austin. And that's a problem because those same law enforcement officials tell us rideshare companies make us safer by reducing drunk driving, in addition to providing our community with a much-needed and very valuable mobility choice.

Safety should not be an either/or choice. Austin is in this box only if we do not consider the larger issue of how government should evolve in a changing economy, which is what led to the ordinance Austin recently passed.

A hundred years ago, government responded to the Industrial Revolution by creating new kinds of regulations that were not previously necessary. Today, the new sharing economy is raising new safety issues. Strangers are directly engaging with each other, not just on rideshare platforms but also on Airbnb, eHarmony and TaskRabbit. The old ways of regulating are an increasingly bad fit in an environment in which people can use an Internet connection to open themselves up to literally anyone in the world. These days, the way government should engage with Uber, Lyft, and GetMe should have as much to do with how it deals with Airbnb as with Yellow Cab.

The Thumbs Up! badge may be a more appropriate way for government to meet its responsibilities in this new sharing economy, and it could be our community's best opportunity to give a rideshare passenger a meaningful choice of having a fingerprinted driver. The program should provide a way out of the old either/or mentality and create a new choice between rigid regulation or innovation, between doing things the same way every other city has been forced to do things or coming up with an entirely new way that works for all parties, fosters innovation and rewards drivers who give their passengers a choice.

In this strange case, Austin is insisting upon its right to innovate, while Uber is demanding adherence to the status quo. Like I said, I do not like binary choices. But sometimes, the best answers to binary choices are self-evident.

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Steve Adler is a major donor and former board chairman of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Steve Adler

Mayor of Austin