Uber, Lyft turn to state Legislature in battle with cities

Several cities have adopted local ordinances putting regulations on new ride-hailing services like Uber.
Several cities have adopted local ordinances putting regulations on new ride-hailing services like Uber. Star-Telegram

Representatives from Uber and Lyft urged lawmakers to adopt statewide regulations for the ride-hailing industry during a Texas Capitol hearing on Wednesday, citing what they called burdensome local ordinances that have driven them to leave Austin and other Texas cities.

The companies fielded pointed questions from members of the House Committee on Business and Industry about safety concerns and how local regulations, like those in Austin, impact their operations.

“I think we first need to recognize the obvious — technology is changing our lives,” said Committee Chairman René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, at the start of the hearing. “These changes are going to be very profound; you’ve already seen that in Austin ... but this is not just an Austin, Travis County issue.”

Currently, regulations for ride-hailing companies are handled on a city-by-city basis. The Legislature discussed potential regulations during the 2015 session, but those bills failed to gain any traction. Now, several months ahead of the next session, lawmakers are revisiting the issue after Austin citizens voted in May to keep in place a requirement for ride-hailing drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks.

After the election, Uber and Lyft ceased operations in the city and are taking their fight to the Legislature.

“Statewide legislation is a path to providing consumers, drivers and visitors a consistent experience if they choose to download the Lyft app, open it on their phone and request a ride,” Rena Davis, a public policy manager for Lyft, told the committee. “This body has a role in ensuring the safety of Texans across the state by establishing a clear, workable regulatory framework that can be applied to all [transportation network companies] regardless of size and cities of operation.”

So far, Uber and Lyft’s approach has been to pull out of cities that pass regulations they don’t like. Both companies closed up shop in Galveston, Corpus Christi and Midland over rules requiring drivers to undergo fingerprint background checks – although Midland’s rules have since changed, drawing Uber and Lyft to return. (The Fort Worth City Council has been leaning in the opposite direction, considering steps to deregulate taxis and ride-booking companies.)

Oliveira said while he tends to favor local control, “there are some issues that demand state intervention.”

During the hearing, he asked both Davis and Sarfraz Maredia, the general manager for Uber in Texas, if they had data to support claims that they offer safer rides than taxis. Neither Davis nor Maredia provided specific numbers, to the frustration of the committee.

“I can’t believe [Lyft] or Uber doesn’t have data that we could look at that involves drivers and what the incident rate is,” Oliveira said, referring to the number of violent encounters between drivers and riders.