Adler: ‘Thumbs Up’ badge would resolve Austin ride-hailing standoff

Austin Mayor Steve Adler is proposing to roll back the mandatory elements of a ride-hailing ordinance the City Council passed in December, and then sprinkle a revised law with incentives for drivers to volunteer for fingerprint-based criminal background checks.

But that potential change — it couldn’t be determined on a holiday what support Adler had for doing so — at the council’s Jan. 28 meeting is really an interim step to Adler. The mayor has been talking with high-tech leaders about creating and nurturing what would amount to a new business that he says could thread the needle between those calling for fingerprinting of ride-hailing drivers and implacable resistance to that by industry leaders Uber and Lyft.

Adler calls it Thumbs Up Austin.

As Adler and his kitchen cabinet of techies envision it, a nonprofit or a for-profit company would build what he calls a “third-party, cross-platform badge validator,” based on any number of measures of safety. Pointedly, Adler sees one of them being fingerprinting, and a background check based on that.

Then a peer-to-peer vendor like Uber or Lyft, or Carma (a car-pooling app) and Airbnb for that matter, could display prominently on its app, or even on the vehicles, something indicating that a driver or homeowner had passed that safety test. Beyond that, Adler says customers (for rides, overnight stays or any sharing service) could likewise voluntarily submit to this screening, providing a measure of security for the person opening their car or home to strangers.

The city would not require anyone to submit to this check, Adler said, but would provide incentives to get them to use it. In the case of ride-hailing, that could include reserving for “Thumbs Up” drivers the most convenient passenger loading spots for big events such as the South by Southwest and Austin City Limits music festivals.

“This is something that is potentially a real value addition to that sharing economy,” Adler told the American-Statesman. “This may provide them the paradigm to go to lots of different cities.”

If and when it can be nudged into existence.

“The people I’m working with want to monetize it,” Adler said. “No one else is in this space. They think it is a game changer.”

Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, who opposed the ordinance passed Dec. 17 that requires transportation network drivers to be fingerprinted, raised concerns during the debate of that ordinance about fingerprint information being hacked. Having a private third party involved could be seen as an even greater threat. Not so, Adler said.

Names and fingerprints are keep on separate, encrypted databases, Adler said, and then linked to a third piece of cyberspace by authorities for background checks.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who as chairwoman of the council’s Mobility Committee led the charge to make fingerprinting mandatory for ride-hailing drivers, said she would oppose removing that requirement.

“What we did in December was very reasonable,” Kitchen said Monday. “All those incentives are great, and there’s no problem with having a badge. But that’s no substitute.”

Uber and Lyft representatives, who have threatened to shut down their Austin operations if fingerprinting is required, could not be reached for comment Monday on the mayor’s proposal.

All of this brainstorming is occurring while Ridesharing Works for Austin, a group supported by Uber and Lyft, is speedily working to gather the signatures of at least 20,000 registered Austin voters to force an election on a transportation network company ordinance comparable to the one passed in October 2014 that did not require drivers to be fingerprinted.

Organizers of Ridesharing Works for Austin have been tight-lipped about their progress toward that signature goal, other than to say their actual target is 30,000, given that many signatures are likely to be ruled invalid. Under city law, once the Austin city clerk’s office has certified that at least 20,000 valid signatures were turned in, the City Council would have 10 days to either approve the suggested ordinance or to call for a public vote on it at the next legal election date.

To qualify for the May 7 elections, council action must take place before Feb. 19. City law does not say how long the city clerk may take to validate the signatures.

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