Politics & Policy

Uber vs. the Second-Rate Cities

Austin decides it isn’t as hip as Provo.

Residents of most cities, even Cleveland, have a sense of civic pride. New Yorkers have Stockholm syndrome, and they will tolerate almost anything from their city: Show them hideous subterranean vermin and Pizza Rat becomes an unofficial city mascot. Renting a one-bedroom apartment for $5,000 a month, paying punitive taxes, walking past garbage bags piled up head-high on the sidewalk, being governed by Bill de Blasio — New York can do wrong, so long as it does wrong big. The one thing New York cannot bear, municipally, is being second-rate. There was never going to be a long-lasting situation in which you could get an Uber in Provo or Las Vegas but not in Manhattan.

Austin, on the other hand, is cool with being second-rate.

It always has been. Austin spent about 30 years (including the time I lived there) desperately pretending to be Berkeley, until it realized it was bigger and more important than Berkeley, at which point it immediately began pretending to be Brooklyn. Las Vegas revels in its cheesy derivativeness, its miniature New York City skyline and its pyramid and its ersatz Roman palaces. It’s all good, cheery fun. Austin, on the other hand, suffers from sad just-as-good-ism: Just as good as Silicon Valley, just as good as Brooklyn, just as good as . . . wherever.

But Luxor isn’t a real Egyptian pyramid, and Austin isn’t just as good as the places it wishes to compare favorably with.

You can get an Uber in Iowa City, Reno, or Fargo, and in Medellín, Lisbon, Bangalore, Taipei, Perth, or Tel Aviv.

But not in Austin.

Given a choice between annoying its long-established transit cartels and confirming itself as second-rate, Austin voted for second-rate.

RELATED: A Victory in Florida for Uber, and Us 

In December, Austin’s city council passed a set of regulations that make it difficult for companies such as Uber and Lyft, another app-based ride-sharing outfit, to operate in the Texas capital. A referendum would have overturned those regulations, but Austin’s voters rejected it. Austinites are conservative in the old-fashioned sense of that word, the way politically progressive people in San Francisco and Tribeca tend to be deeply conservative, desiring to preserve their favorite coffee shops in amber. Even Austin’s unofficial city motto — “Keep Austin Weird” — is fundamentally conservative, in that sense.

Disruptive innovation? Not in my backyard, says Austin.

#share#The anti-Uber forces in Austin claim, predictably, that this isn’t about protecting a politically influential taxi cartel and its generous campaign donations, but about taking a stand against the Ayn Rand–style unregulated capitalism endured by the poor, oppressed people of . . . the Upper West Side, Zurich, and Copenhagen. This is pure poppycock. As our friend Avik Roy points out, the same city council that is demanding criminal background checks on Uber drivers had, only six weeks before, prohibited other companies from asking job applicants about their criminal histories. This isn’t about safety — it’s about the taxi racket and the gentlemen who operate it, an old-fashioned Democratic interest group.

RELATED: The Case of Uber vs. San Antonio

New York has had its regulatory fights with Uber, and it probably will have more. Even Las Vegas, whose anything-goes ethic is in the case of Uber very much reinforced by the desire of the local authorities not to arrest any more money-spending tourists for DUI than is absolutely necessary, had some issues. Uber walked away from Vegas, and Vegas walked back most of its demands. New York has found a way to accommodate Uber and others. Even lefter-than-left San Francisco came to an accommodation, because San Franciscans will not tolerate living in a place that as a matter of culture and technology is behind Salt Lake City.

This isn’t about safety — it’s about the taxi racket and the gentlemen who operate it, an old-fashioned Democratic interest group.

Austin is, like Las Vegas, one of those places where the average drunk gets drunker than average. Parties on Sixth Street, South By Southwest, University of Texas football games, and a hundred other public events in the city are accompanied by a fair amount of Shiner Bock and Tito’s. Two Temple University researchers found that the low-cost Uber X service had helped to substantially reduce drunk driving in California. Reproducing those results nationally would save billions of dollars and thousands of lives — and avoid the creation of thousands of new criminals. But Austin has cronies to protect.

Uber suspended its operations in the city on Monday. If you need a ride, you can take a trip back in time to 1933 and have somebody call one for you, perhaps with one of those old-fashioned crank-operated telephones, and wait the better part of an hour. Maybe he’ll even say, “Meter’s running, Mac!” for the full-on retro experience. Because that’s what you’re looking for at 2 a.m. after making the wrong call on that fourth margarita.

RELATED: Why Hillary Hates Uber

Drunk driving is something to think about. But in the end, this isn’t a question of cost-benefit analysis. It’s a matter of transit relations between consenting adults’ being not one damned bit of the Austin city’s council’s business. Uber connects people who need rides with people who need money. It isn’t perfect, but perfection need not be our standard — not if you’ve ever tried to get a taxi in Murray Hill at 5 p.m. Is ride-sharing better than the status quo? How about we let people decide for themselves, like adults?

People in Austin apparently cannot trust themselves to make those kinds of decisions. They’re second-rate, and they know it.


The Latest