Last Saturday, Austin voters overwhelmingly voted down Uber-and-Lyft sponsored Prop 1, which would have overturned a number of basic ridesharing oversights, including requiring cars to be clearly marked and prohibiting cars from picking up passengers in traffic lanes or at bus stops. This is a landmark victory for local democracy and public safety, given that for years rideshare companies have skirted the law and levied threats to avoid these measures in cities across the country. If Uber and Lyft begin targeting the State Capitol with requests for intervention, as they did in the last legislative session, that would undermine local control and show a deep disregard for local democracy. It is important that state legislators respect the will of the people and the clear message Austin voters sent on where they stand.
While Uber and Lyft are locked in a heated battle with a number of larger cities (including neighboring Houston), the Austin case showed just how far the companies would go to shirk even the most basic of standards. The vote follows the most expensive political campaign in Texas city's history. Through their jointly funded "Ridesharing Works for Austin" campaign, Uber and Lyft launched TV and mail ads, used push alerts, ran phone banks, threatened to leave Austin (a promise they've since made good on), offered free rides to the polls and even continued their troubling trend of hiring former officials and city insiders to support their cause. Ultimately, they spent an estimated $8.6 million in a heavy-handed attempt to avoid basic safety standards.
Despite the campaign flooding the Southern city with cash, the will of the voters to uphold the law passed by their city council prevailed. Voters reasserted the importance of companies like Uber and Lyft following basic safety measures.
Unfortunately, these companies want to make sure that voters do not have the last word. After other cities and local voters acted to hold ridesharing companies accountable, Uber and Lyft backed bills to undermine that progress in the Maryland, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan and Ohio state legislatures. These statewide bills often undermine safety measures adopted locally. For example, the City of Columbus' requirement that ridesharing vehicles be inspected on a regular basis was voided by a law passed by Ohio's legislature. There are already signs that this could be ridesharing companies' strategy in Texas. They a backed a bill calling for state interference last year and legislators have already announced plans for another.
Local government has traditionally been responsible for ensuring safe, reliable and equitable transportation within their boundaries. This makes sense because local officials have the deepest understanding of the needs of their communities. Cities are also where voters can exercise the most direct power, as illustrated with Prop 1. That makes cities an important actor in protecting their residents and making sure that all local transportation options are safe for riders and drivers alike.
If Uber and Lyft choose to take their fight to the state level against basic local safety standards, the results may undermine the will of the voters and would certainly demonstrate a disregard for local democracy. If ridesharing companies want to operate in our cities, they should adhere to the local standards set by their potential customers rather than running to the next level of authority for special treatment.