Editorial note: Noah M. Horwitz is not currently employed or contracting with any entities designating a conflict of interest on this topic.
The Houston Chronicle reports that Lyft, the popular taxi service based off of an app, will be ending its services in Houston just days before new laws go into effect regulating its operation. Since February, Lyft has operated illegally in Houston; however, Mayor Annise Parker’s administration tolerated the lawbreaking because she was sympathetic to their proposed changes to the vehicle-for-hire industry, along with those of their chief rival, Uber. In August, the City Council approved regulations largely accommodating Uber and Lyft into the marketplace. Technically, Lyft is still operating illegally, since the new rules do not go into effect until next week.
One of the provisions in the new law is that drivers for these so-called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, can abstain from city-mandated background checks (ones that involve fingerprinting) for up to 30 days. This was done at the behest of Lyft lobbyists, as Uber doesn’t have a problem with these fingerprinting background checks. Now, Lyft is threatening to leave Houston unless the meager background provision is eviscerated entirely.
Lyft claims they do their own background checks, and that they are superior. Of course, from a municipal regulator’s point of view, I don’t see how secret checks could be evaluated or trusted; we are a little old to use the honor system for something like this. And given that Uber has no problem with the fingerprint background checks, it is obvious that this business model can sustain these types of checks.
Supporters of Lyft showed up en masse at City Hall today and attempted to lobby the City Council into relaxing the rules. Miya Shay, a reporter for KTRK, tweeted a picture of them loitering in the hallway. Personally, if there are people who are this vehement in opposing fingerprint background checks, they honestly freak me out a little bit.
From what I have heard, City Councilmembers are somewhat unenthusiastic about changing the rules, with some of them even pestered by this whole idea. Given how hard they fought over the rules this summer, I doubt many representatives — or the Mayor, for that matter — want to revisit this divisive issue. Additionally, even most of the tribalistic supporters of TNCs could probably not care less about this issue. If Uber is the favorite son of the new entrants into vehicles-for-hire, Lyft is the red-headed stepchild.
You know my overall opinion on TNCs, but I would hope that everyone could be behind background checks that include fingerprints. The risks are just too high otherwise. For the safety of everyone, the Council should stand firm on this issue.