Yellow Cab Austin

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Editor’s Note: Associate Editor Noah M. Horwitz is lobbying on behalf of cab companies this summer in Houston, where on Wednesday the City Council voted to allow Lyft and Uber to operate. Horwitz was not involved in any way in the editing of this column.

Getting downtown on a Friday night from anywhere in Austin is more than a hassle, and being forgotten about by taxis during peak hours does not make it any better. A friend told me about Lyft, an app that would provide a car and driver at the push of a button. In the 15 minutes it took me to download the app, put in my information and request a ride, a car with a pink mustache across the front pulled up in front of our house and we were on our way with Starbursts and water provided by our driver. We’d found a solution.

But I was surprised to learn after describing my discovery to another friend that transportation networking companies (TNCs) like Lyft and Uber, which have both launched branches in Austin within the past three months, are actually considered illegal by officials not just in Austin, but also in other big cities like New York City and Brussels. Despite the official cease and desist orders, Lyft and Uber continue to operate in Austin.

Austin is a tech-savvy city, often welcoming creative alternatives to traditionally stable industries, so the pushback from the city comes as somewhat of a surprise. Samantha Alexander, public information and marketing manager at the Austin Transportation Department said, “A ground transportation company must have an operating authority permit in the City of Austin in order to provide ground transportation services. At this time, [Lyft and Uber] do not have the required operating authority.” A resolution adopted by the city in May cites concerns such as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, driver qualifications and vehicle inspections that have implications for rider safety and equality.

In this light, TNCs operating in Austin without the required permits offer a service without complying with regulations to which competing entities must adhere, theoretically giving TNCs an unfair advantage. But the undeniable popularity of TNCs show that there is something fundamental lacking in the current on-demand transportation system, whether it’s user interface or simply the quantity of drivers, to which TNCs provide an answer. Instead of banning them, the city needs to analyze why people are using TNCs and use that information to improve the existing regulations.

“The laws have anti-discriminating components to them,” said Ed Kargbo, president of Yellow Cab Austin. “The City of Austin sets the rates so that on-demand transportation services are affordable for everyone in the city, so the folks that have more money don’t get to cut the line. You can’t increase the price when people are most desperate for transportation,” Kargbo said.

In a hypothetical anecdote, Kargbo described a situation where, in a system of variable rates, people with means get to skip the line while an elderly lady on a fixed income that needs to get to a dialysis appointment has to wait.

“It would be an unfair system. The city is playing their role as protector of the consumer,” Kargbo said.

But this anecdote only works when on-demand transportation services are considered a right rather than a privilege and are therefore not subject to the free market. TNCs take the existing taxi model and apply a prototypical capitalist supply-demand price scheme, notoriously with Uber’s notorious surge-pricing where fares increase with demand, and entrepreneurial opportunity for the drivers. This innovation shakes up an established system with old ideas.

Launched before the first Formula One race held in Austin, Yellow Cab’s Hail A Cab mobile app offers many of the same features of the TNCs, including taxi requests at the push of a button, GPS tracking of the certified driver and estimated time of arrival.  When asked about the difference between Hail A Cab and the TNCs, Kargbo said they are very similar.

“It is just another method that allows people to connect to a potential transportation provider,” Kargbo said.

According to Kargbo, one out of every three Yellow Cab trips is dispatched through the app.

But despite regulatory concerns, TNCs offer an important alternative in the existing transportation structure.

TNCs allow opportunities for drivers who, after a background check, can use their own car and connect with riders via a mobile platform. As participants in the emerging ‘sharing economy,’ TNCs provide peer-to-peer opportunities for drivers to make money through innovative use of an asset otherwise intended for personal use, in addition to providing alternative transportation solutions for riders. After requesting a ride, the rider can see the name and picture of the driver and the car, know how long until they are picked up and track the driver along the way. The rider’s fare and tip payment are made directly through the app; no money is exchanged directly between rider and driver.  

Marketing senior Jessica Wong first tried Lyft after hearing about the promotions offering free rides to first-time users, including the driver’s tip.

“The whole Lyft experience is great,” Wong said. “I've always had pretty personable drivers, and I'm always offered waters and snacks in the car. The GPS tracking is a huge plus; you know exactly where your driver is and exactly how long it'll take for them to get you, and it helps that they include a picture of the driver and the car. Its convenience far outweighs a taxi. Cost-wise they're not so different, but amenities-wise Lyft and Uber far outweigh a taxi service.”

According to Uber Spokesperson Lauren Altmin, the TNCs provide an alternative to drunk driving. The company estimates that the entrance of Uber in Seattle caused the number of arrests for DUI to decrease by more than 10 percent. In a city that made 46 DWI arrests during the July 4 weekend alone this year, TNCs could provide much needed relief to an already burdened Austin taxi fleet.

TNCs have found an underserved on-demand transportation market in Austin which has allowed them to thrive, a market whose demands Kargbo thinks the cab companies can meet.

“Our hope is that the city leaders, as a byproduct of this, recognize that there is a need for more taxi cabs because they provide the same service,” Kargbo said. The city currently has a cap of 756 registered cabs that can be in operation at all times. “[Consumers] want more on demand transportation providers. We hope that over the course of the next few months the city takes action to stop the illegal operators.”

Because of the sheer demand for on-demand transportation providers, the city has not completely given up on TNC alternatives. “Our team has been meeting with representatives from TNCs, the taxi industry and a handful of other stakeholders to discuss a possible pilot program for TNCs in Austin,” Alexander said. “We intend to bring that back to Council this fall or early winter, and then it will be at the City Council’s discretion as to what the next steps could be.” This fall will be pivotal in the Austin transportation world with the continued debate over TNCs as well as the fate of the proposed urban rail plan being decided. The TNC debate in Houston found a solution Wednesday, allowing taxis hailed through an app to fluctuate their prices depending on demand while taxis hailed on the street must adhere to the metered rate. While this specific solution has its own unique concerns, it presents a creative precedent that welcomes innovation and opportunity for Houstonians. Acknowledging regulatory and equality concerns, the city of Austin must consider a tailored solution in its pilot program that integrates TNCs into the existing system to provide the efficient and affordable transportation network Austin needs.

Haight is a Plan II and linguistics senior from Austin.

This column has been updated to reflect the Houston City Council's decision on TNCs.

Austin City Council members are debating two different versions of an ordinance penalizing patrons who vomit inside a taxicab during their ride in the vehicle.

Each version of the ordinance states cab passengers will be charged an added fee for vomiting, although the exact charge has not yet been determined, said Ed Kargbo, president of Yellow Cab Austin. The statement of the final ordinance’s details is expected to be released Friday, Kargbo said. He also said the vomit ordinance is not in effect yet, so Austin residents need to know that taxi drivers cannot yet legally charge a fee for vomiting.

Education junior Haley Jones described her recent experience with taxicabs and vomiting and said a taxi driver attempted to charge $275 after one of her friends vomited in his taxicab on their way home from downtown.

“He freaked out and it took him a while to pull over,” Jones said. “We just wanted to get home, but he kept rudely complaining. We never imagined the fine to be so expensive.”

Eventually, one of Jones’ friends called 9-1-1, and a policeman “came to their rescue,” Jones said. Jones said the cab driver was affiliated with a licensed company, but could not remember the company’s name.

“The cab driver kept saying ‘It’s the law, you have to pay me the fine,’ but the cop insisted there was no law in effect for such a matter,” she said. “We ended up paying the cab driver $50 because we felt bad for inconveniencing him. The vomit was in between the seat but not all over the place, and definitely not worth $50 of damage.”

Biology sophomore Bryce Tracy said he thinks it is a good idea, however, to implement some sort of legitimate penalty for the damage caused by vomiting in a cab.

“Cleaning up vomit is gross, and passengers who are about to throw up in a cab should try to communicate with the cab driver to pull over prior to it happening,” Tracy said.

Although some people have had bad experiences with late night intoxication and taxi drivers, Yellow Cab Austin, which produces 97 percent of Austin’s taxi dispatch business, continues to advocate the company’s concerns for drinking and driving, Kargbo said.

“We want to make sure there are cabs available for the folks who make the responsible decision to get a cab after they have gone out and had a few drinks,” Kargbo said.

Yellow Cab Austin works with organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Sober Ride and other entities to make sure enough options are provided for intoxicated passengers, he said. MADD allows Yellow Cab Austin to participate in their anti-drunk driving events in order to make sure enough awareness is raised about drinking and driving. Sober Ride subsidizes their cab rides on busier nights of the year such as New Year’s Eve and Halloween, helping out the partygoers, he said.

“We have to remember one thing,” Kargbo said. “People are going to go out, and they are going to drink. We want to make sure people, students or anyone else have the possibility of getting in a cab so they don’t drink and drive.”

Printed on Thursday, February 16, 2012 as: Law may fine passengers who vomit in cabs