Ride-hailing platforms Uber and Lyft are both expected to return to operations in Austin on Monday, when Texas Governor Gregg Abbott will likely sign a bill overturning the state capital’s strict driver screening rules. It’s unclear, however, what kind of reception the companies can expect after winning a dirty fight with one of the country’s largest, most influential, and most cantankerous cities.
Both Uber and Lyft ceased operations in Austin last year because of those rules, first implemented in late 2015. A particular sticking point was a requirement that all drivers be fingerprinted, a rule which applies to other professional drivers in the city, but which Uber and Lyft described as burdensome.
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In a blog post about their return, Uber struck a conciliatory tone, writing “we’re sorry, Austin – for leaving the way we did; for letting an honest disagreement about regulations and consumer choice turn into a public fight.”
That fight began when the companies tried to overturn Austin’s regulations by pouring nearly $9 million dollars into a local repeal referendum, saying they would leave if they didn’t win. But as Austinite Richard Parker put it in an op-ed at the time, “We don’t take kindly to threats,” and the overturn effort was soundly defeated. That was widely seen as an embarrassment for the rideshare companies.
After that defeat, state legislators immediately began promoting the idea of using state law to overturn Austin’s regulations. They were nudged by dozens of lobbyists on which Uber and Lyft have spent as much as $5.5 million dollars since 2014. The legislators sponsoring and backing the subsequent bills were largely Republicans, potentially further alienating mostly left-leaning Austinites.
And those looking for an alternative to Uber and Lyft in Austin have at least two firmly-established options. One, RideAustin, is a locally-founded nonprofit. Another, Fasten, is a small platform based in Boston. While Uber and Lyft will likely pour substantial incentives into the city to regain market share, Austin’s deep independent streak could make the taint of the companies’ interventionism hard to shake.