Friday, October 16, 2015
There's a new political force in town
The announcement this week of the return to San Antonio of Uber introduces a new force on San Antonio’s political scene.
Call it Geek Power.
There was no evidence of political cyber sophistication a year ago when the city was crafting its rules for Uber and Lyft and other ride-sharing companies.
City Hall ordered Uber and Lyft to cease their operations — which clearly violated the city’s taxi cab rules — while a new set of rules was developed to cover them.
The companies thumbed their noses, clearly hoping to become so popular with the public that City Council would have to buckle.
But the taxi industry contributed generously to Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, who headed the committee in charge of drafting the rules.
And taxi drivers noisily packed council chambers when the ordinance came to a vote.
The result, passed last December by 7-2, was an ordinance that looked like taxi barons wrote it.
Most notably it featured insurance requirements for Uber and Lyft stiffer than ones cab companies carry.
The Old Order prevailed.
Mayor Taylor said the issue could be revisited, as was planned, in May.
But two new council members, Roberto Trevino and Alan Warrick, had won special elections and both were pro-Uber and Lyft.
It became an issue in the mayor’s race.
By late February, Taylor decided to put the draconian new rules on hold and revisit the issue.
The council moderated the insurance requirement in early March and tweaked other rules.
But Uber and Lyft said one provision was a non-starter.
It said the companies internet-based screening of drivers was not enough.
They had had to submit to a fingerprint-based criminal background checks by police.
That, said the companies, was too onerous.
They both quit operating in San Antonio.
It was not an unreasonable requirement.
Uber said its background check was rigorous.
Still, the company had agreed to police fingerprinting in Houston, a much bigger and more lucrative market.
But in March, a woman accused a driver of sexually assaulting her.
It turned out he had not undergone the police screening, and the Uber check had not caught a previous prison sentence on a felony drug conviction.
And in July, a Dallas woman accused an Uber driver of sexual assault.
Uber had missed a previous federal prison sentence on weapons charges.
But in May, during her election run-off, Mayor Taylor was persuaded to attend a meeting of San Antonio’s newly formed Tech Bloc.
Led by former Rackspace executive Lew Moorman, the organization of computer industry wonks argued that the young tech workers wouldn’t read the fine print.
They could work in a lot of cities and wouldn’t choose one that rejected ride sharing.
What’s more, Rackspace has to fight off companies like Google who want to steal their best employees.
Taylor listened, and appointed Councilman Trevino to head a new effort.
Meanwhile, Tech Bloc didn’t sit by.
According to the Express-News, it organized 2,000 citizens, including business heavyweights, to email council members.
The result: A compromise in which Uber and Lyft drivers can voluntarily be fingerprinted, and potential customers will be able to choose them over other drivers.
Ironically, San Antonio may end up being one of the more Uber-friendly cities in Texas.
Hip Austin is talking about raising fees and requiring fingerprint-based security checks.
So is Abilene.
But here, the message is clear.
The tech sector is on the rise.
Warning to Cab companies: Beware of Geeks cheering Lyft.