Friday, May 13, 2016

How Uber and Lyft blew it in Austin

I confess I was as surprised as anyone at Donald Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination.

Had I been a consultant to Bush or Cruz or any of the others in the herd that began the campaign last year I would have offered the conventional advice: Ignore the guy.

He’s going to step on his tongue once too often and disappear.

It seemed like such a safe prediction.

But my surprise at Trump’s success is tempered by the fact that I don’t regard myself as particularly knowledgable on national political dynamics.

I remind myself regularly that on election eve in 1980 I predicted Mondale over Reagan.

But after watching Texas politics for 50 years, I do think I understand its political currents.

So I was even more surprised this week when the citizens of Austin told ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft they could take a hike.

I had my first Uber ride nearly two years ago in Austin.

It felt so natural.

A hi-tech, cool new transportation option in Texas’ hi-tech, coolest city.

Not only does Austin feature Dell, but in the past year it has become host to Apple’s second largest workforce, 5,000 workers in a brand new million-square-foot office complex.

Google has also invaded downtown Austin office space.

And there are hundreds of smaller tech companies.

One of these days Austin’s classic slogan, “Keep Austin weird,” will likely morph into “Keep Austin wired.”

(News flash: I thought I was being clever but I Googled the phrase and guess what: You can already get the t-shirt.)

I felt a strong connection between Uber and Lyft and the hi-tech community for two reasons.

One is that both companies are based in San Francisco.

The second is that when San Antonio’s City Council passed an ordinance practically designed to push the two firms out of the city, it was the budding Tech Bloc activist organization that led the charge to change City Council’s mind.

One of their main arguments: You hurt our ability to attract a tech-savvy workforce by painting us as a backward small town.

As with Austin, the key issue was whether Uber and Lyft drivers would have to pass fingerprint security checks like cabbies do.

A smart compromise was reached:

Drivers could voluntarily submit to the FBI fingerprint check, and customers who wanted that could choose drivers from that pool.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler suggested that same compromise more than a year ago, but Uber and Lyft weren’t interested. Instead they invested in a 20,000 signature petition drive asking voters to overturn the city’s ordinance requiring fingerprinting.

Then the companies combined to spend roughly $8.5 million to blanket the city with TV ads, mailers and other communications.

For perspective, consider that Mayor Adler set a record two years ago when he spent $1.2 million on his mayoral election.

To put it gently, Uber and Lyft made a few mistakes.

One was to air ads that didn’t fare well under fact checking.

Then there was this:

Apparently after exit polling showed them not faring well in early voting, they texted and called their customers to urge them to the polls.

This resulted in at least one lawsuit and one Federal Communications Commission complaint.

One irritated loyal customer was long-time Austin journalist Harvey Kronberg, who admits one of the reasons he likes Uber is that, “I occasionally enjoy a bottle of wine and like being outside jail more than in it.”

Kronberg said Uber has his cell phone number as part of an “implicit contract.”

“They use it to locate me and send a car,” he said. “To get 12 messages a day and also texts as part of a political campaign was a violation of that contract.”

I suspect there’s one more reason Austin voted down Uber and Lyft.

Unlike San Antonio, the home of South by Southwest doesn’t have to worry about being seen as uncool and backward for doing so. 

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