Austin is America’s 11th largest city. When the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft rolled into the city back in 2014, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Austin prides itself on being an oasis of progressivism in the deep south, with a can-do attitude and commitment to keeping things both weird and green. However, as of Monday, the environmentally conscious are without rides. That’s because Uber and Lyft lost a referendum about whether they would be regulated by municipal government. Uber and Lyft had threatened to leave if their loss was a reality, and they effectively showed themselves to the door.
The Battle of Austin is a new chapter in the ride-sharing wars. Both companies had effectively deployed the threat to leave cities in the past. Uber and Lyft were ruthless in their campaign, spending an astonishing $9 million on a local election. They conceptualized the referendum as an all-or-nothing proposition. This ruthlessness was not lost on anyone, including the 10,000 drivers who would be out of jobs if the companies left the city.
As for Austin’s culture, the defeat was yet another pushback from Austin’s counterculture. Austin originally turned into a haven for people who were not of the conservative, Reagan Revolution during the 1980s. Local college students and professors populated the town, making it a bastion of liberal thought and politics. Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, Austin went through huge changes as it became one of the leaders in the technological space. It is home to huge music festivals and South by Southwest, a leading festival of corporate thought.
All these changes may have convinced the ride-share companies that the city was the perfect place for its service. Young, tech-savvy professionals were desperate to have an easier way around the very spread-out city. Although things went well at first, the referendum is an example of old Austin flashing its muscle again. Locals dealt the new order many defeats, including surprising wins for the Barton Springs salamander which was being threatened by developers. Those victories showed that when it came to corporate profits versus people and even animals, the living often triumphed.
It’s not so much that Austin doesn’t like outsiders, but the community is wary of outsiders seeking to impose its ways on them. Austin signaled early on that it expected Uber and Lyft to play by its rules. That meant its drivers would need to be treated just like taxi drivers, with fingerprints and other safety precautions. However, Uber and Lyft balked, even after faced with a serious issue over a series of sexual assaults by the company’s drivers.
Rather than deciding to play by Austin’s rules, Uber and Lyft responded by the ballot issue. This radicalized the locals, demanding the city exempt them from fingerprinting. This kind of arrogance is when things really went wrong for Uber and Lyft, which had won concessions from other cities when they threatened to bolt.
The impact of the Referendum was hard to overstate, and it unleashed a litany of complaints about ride-share. Many people complained about negligent drivers, drivers stopping in the middle of the street, and disruptive people from out of town being drunk and disorderly, and the ride-shares actually adding more traffic rather than less. Despite the enormous sum of money spent by Uber and Lyft, the locals beat them where it matters: at the ballot box.