By Tyler Whitson
April 22, 2015 – As Austin’s ground transportation service industry faces upheaval due to new competition, taxi drivers are using a looming expiration of the city’s taxicab franchises as an opportunity to push for, among other requests, a cooperative, driver-owned franchise.
Dave Passmore, president of the taxicab union Taxi Drivers Association of Austin, garnered attention Tuesday morning when he and association members, taxicab drivers and supporters rallied in front of City Hall, waving signs and shouting in unison. “Today, we are trying to get the driver’s voice heard,” he proclaimed during an impromptu news conference.
Passmore gestured toward a supporter holding a sign with the number “405” on it, which refers to the total number of new taxicab permits that Transportation Department staff have recommended City Council make available as part of the city’s franchise renewal and an upcoming overhaul of taxicab regulations.
“We’re asking the city to allow the drivers to have these permits to form a co-op, so that we may be able to compete. We keep hearing that the landscape is changing,” Passmore said, referring to smartphone hailing and transportation network companies, or TNCs, such as Uber and Lyft. “We don’t want the landscape to change and be broadened, and we are left behind.”
Passmore referred to Union Cab of Madison in Wisconsin as an example of a co-op franchise that Austin taxicab drivers could emulate.
Currently, the city’s 756 taxicab permits go directly to its three franchises, Yellow Cab Austin, Lone Star Cab and Austin Cab Company. The changes staff has put forward would allocate 100 additional permits per franchise, plus 105 for a theoretical franchise that would provide a fully accessible and green fleet, for a total of 405.
Due to requirements in the City Charter, Council must adhere to a strict timeline and process for approving the ordinance that would renew the current agreements, which expire in August. That timeline involves three separate votes, the first of which takes place at this Thursday’s Council meeting, with the last scheduled for June 4.
Council Member Kathie Tovo dashed out of a closed Council executive session meeting during the rally to grab a bullhorn and briefly address the crowd.
“I look forward to continuing to work with you and to work with your representatives,” Tovo said, “to explore the ideas you’ve raised about a cooperative taxi franchise, about provisions that would be more protective of workers rights and the other kinds of issues that you’ve raised in the last couple of years.”
Tovo stopped to speak with the media before rushing back inside. “I think they’ve raised a very good idea. We’ve had a long discussion in this community about ways to make it possible for drivers to get a permit directly from the city so that they have the flexibility of being able to go among the companies,” she said.
“That’s an idea that this Council and the previous Council has talked about before, and I think it’s time to consider it seriously and see if there’s a way to implement it,” Tovo continued. “We’ve got a transportation system that’s really undergoing tremendous changes with the introduction of transportation network companies to Austin.”
Yellow Cab Austin President Ed Kargbo, who has spoken on behalf of all three franchises, was not prepared to comment on the co-op proposal when the Austin Monitor reached him Tuesday evening.
Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the Council Mobility Committee, brought up the issue during a Council work session Tuesday afternoon. She explained that the committee’s recommendation that Council renew the existing franchises this week — without staff’s recommended changes and the suggested 10-year term — is “kicking the ball down the road.”
This, Kitchen said, will give the committee an opportunity to delve further into the issue at its April 29 meeting, ahead of the second scheduled Council vote May 21.
“One of the reasons that we’re pushing this down the road now, besides the timeline, is that we are looking at three related issues all at one time,” Kitchen said, referring to the franchise agreements, taxicab regulations and overall ground transportation service issues, which include TNC regulations.
“I personally am expecting a change between the first reading and the second reading, and possibly with the third reading,” Kitchen added, referring to the three votes Council must take on the franchise agreements.
Uber and Lyft have been operating in Austin since May 2014, though Council did not pass an interim ordinance to legalize them until October. In a Tuesday news release, Uber stated that, in Austin, it has “empowered nearly 10,000 entrepreneurs since launching in 2014.”
Kitchen and Tovo, as well as Council Members Don Zimmerman and Delia Garza, expressed either an interest in or an openness to extending the franchise agreements for a single year if they feel more time is necessary to re-evaluate the city’s ground transportation service industry.
Photo by Tyler Whitson.