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August 17th, 2017

On June 15, 2016, a month after Uber and Lyft left Austin, Uber representatives Adam Goldman and Trevor Theunissen walked into Austin City Hall to meet with Mayor Steve Adler. 

Their purpose for being there, Theunissen said, was to mend a broken relationship with the city. 

Uber, along with ride-hailing competitor Lyft, had just lost a costly and intense battle with the city over an ordinance requiring ride-hailing companies to fingerprint their drivers -- a rule both companies opposed. In a May 7 special election, Austin voters sided with the city. Both companies ended service a few days later. 

Uber’s June meeting with Adler would be followed by more meetings with him, and with City Council members and other officials in what Uber representatives say has been a campaign to repair its relationship with the city. Those efforts, Uber says, began long before both Uber and Lyft returned to Austin on May 29, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a measure that set statewide rules for ride-hailing companies and superseded the city’s ordinance. 

Uber’s campaign has included changes to the company’s local leadership, the start of new initiatives that Uber promotes as benefiting Austin residents and an effort to form “partnerships” with the city on various subjects. 

But as Uber promises a “new direction in Texas,” some Austin city leaders say they remain skeptical of the company’s motives, and suggest that Uber’s Austin operations have not really changed in substantive ways.

‘New direction in Texas’

Theunissen said Uber realized it needed to make changes in its Central Texas operations after 55.7 percent of Austin voters upheld the city’s ordinance last year. 

“We recognized before but specifically after (the vote), even more so, that we needed kind of a new direction in Texas,” Theunissen said. 

“In my conversations internally, I certainly heard loud and clear that we made mistakes, and we are sincerely sorry for how we left (Austin),” Theunissen said. “We (had) a desire to be back in the city. And not just be back in the city with a (phone) app on but really understanding that we did a lot of damage with community groups and with certain parts of the community.”

After leaving, Uber reorganized its regional staff, including moving Theunissen from New Orleans to Austin, hiring David Brightman as the region’s manager and adding other staff members to the company’s downtown Austin office. 

Uber representatives have met multiple times with Adler, along with City Council members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza and Ellen Troxclair, as well as other city staffers. In those meetings, Uber representatives have expressed a desire for change and a closer relationship with the city.

At the same time, Uber representatives say, the company has begun initiatives in Austin aimed at showing a renewed commitment to the city. 

Those include launching Project Jumpstart here recently, a program not currently present in any other Texas city and one that gives funds to local causes that selected Uber drivers ask Uber to support. 

The company’s national “180 Days of Change” campaign, which gives drivers new tools like tipping on the Uber app and a 24/7 driver hotline, also affects Austin positively, said Brightman, adding that both initiatives “are indicative of our commitment to improve and to be a really active member of the community.”

In addition, the company says its employees have volunteered at places like Lady Bird Lake and that the company has held numerous social events for its Austin partners.

In a written statement, Adler said the city’s “rideshare market is still working its way through evolution and resolution. Companies that work collaboratively with us and that honor the spirit and soul of this city can do well here.” 

'Put their money where their mouth is’

At Austin City Hall, however, Uber’s talk of change hasn’t convinced some officials who say none of what the company is touting is an effort unique to Austin or one that is truly benefiting the city. Bitterness also remains that Uber, along with Lyft, went to the Texas Legislature to change Austin’s ordinance when the companies did not get their way.

While Uber says it’s making efforts to invest in Austin, it continues, for example, to refuse to share data from its driver trips, which Kitchen said would help the city better understand traffic patterns and possibly lead to improved safety measures. The other ride-hailing companies that began operating in Austin when Uber and Lyft left the city have agreed to share data, Kitchen said. 

“That would be a clear sign that they actually intend to change,” Kitchen said of data sharing. “It's very simple to make these sort of changes. I don't understand why they won't. They should put their money where their mouth is.”

Fellow Council member Garza said if Uber really wants to invest in Austin, the company needs to improve its philanthropic efforts in the community, as other companies do with food drives and other humanitarian efforts, she said.

So far, Uber’s ideas of partnering with the city are chiefly initiatives that help its bottom line, Garza said. 

Uber has said it is interested in helping the city solve issues such as downtown parking, but there are no concrete initiatives that the city and Uber have started together, Austin transportation director Robert Spillar said.

Stephen Spillman/For the American-StatesmanAustin Mayor Steve Adler says the Austin ride-hailing market “is still working its way through evolution and resolution.”

At the corporate level, Uber has also promised changes after a year that has seen it be hit with claims of sexual harassment from workers and allegations of an inappropriate workplace culture, the ousting of former CEO Travis Kalanick, complaints from drivers about insufficient wages and resources and federal investigations into the company’s practices. The privately held company valued at nearly $70 billion will reportedly name a new CEO soon.

“They have a long way to be convincing that they are striving to be a corporation that really has Austin in their best of mind, as well as their divers in their best of mind," Tovo said of Uber. "Their actions are not consistent with their words."

Complicated relationship 

Since beginning service in Austin in the summer of 2014, both Uber and Lyft -- a younger company than Uber and one with a smaller presence here -- have shared an up-and-down relationship with the city.

Both companies began operations in Austin without city approval.

After Texas legislators didn’t pass statewide ride-hailing regulations during the legislative session in 2015, the Austin City Council approved stricter ride-hailing rules in December 2015 that included fingerprint-based background checks for drivers.

That’s when the real issues began. Both companies vowed to leave town if the ordinance was not reversed. In February 2016, the City Council crafted the language for Proposition 1, which would have eliminated the ordinance if voters had approved it. 

Uber and Lyft spent more than $10 million trying to convince Austin voters through an onslaught of advertisements to approve the proposition while city officials lobbied the other way and both sides continued to publicly disagree.

The companies had run into similar issues in other cities, including Houston and San Antonio. But Austin’s tech-heavy culture, as well as the significant traffic issues that give ride-hailing companies extra opportunity here, put a spotlight on the rift and came at a time when the companies’ brands, particularly Uber, were surging. 

Deborah Cannon/American-StatesmanAustin City Council Member Ann Kitchen celebrates during a party held  in opposition to Proposition 1 on Saturday, May 7, 2016.

Prop 1 damage ‘runs deep’

While skepticism lingers at City Hall, Uber is not without support there. 

Troxclair, one of two council members to vote against the city’s ride-hailing ordinance in in 2015, says she believes Uber is changing for the better.

Uber “made a lot of mistakes during the Prop 1 campaign, but they were the first to admit it,” she said. “Ultimately, their brand and reputation will be reflected in their customer base. It's more about the customers in the community and less about the people who work at the city."

Uber and Lyft’s return to Austin was met with both joy and bitterness by the public. Uber drivers who spoke to the American-Statesman since the company’s return expressed both disappointment at how Uber left -- but also relief at its return. 

“Uber is like the Nike brand; people go to it” said Sylvester Williams, a 36-year-old Uber driver in Austin. “As drivers, we want that.”

The return of Uber and Lyft to Austin also impacted the ride-hailing companies that stepped into the market while they were gone. 

Fare, which started operations in Austin when Uber and Lyft left, has since shut down, citing the companies’ return as being detrimental to its business.

RideAustin, which had grown its brand as the only nonprofit ride-hailing option in town, told the Texas Tribune in June that its ridership was cut in half after Uber and Lyft returned. Joe Deshotel, RideAustin’s director for community engagement, also recently left to join Fasten, another ride-hailing company in Austin. Other companies -- GetMe, Wingz and Yellow Cab’s ZTrip -- continue operations as they attempt to remain relevant. 

Uber’s management understands its influence in Austin and beyond, Theunissen said, and it also understands that it has significant strides to make to repair its relationship with the city.

But Uber’s changes are just beginning, Theunissen added.

"It's only been three months, and we've accomplished a lot," he said. "Clearly, not everyone sees yet what we want as our commitment to the city. I'm very hopeful that over time, the city and council members who say that will certainly see our true commitment in the coming months and years. That's incumbent on Uber to show that. 

“The damage that was done during Prop 1 and over the course of the year runs deep. We understand that."

Top photo illustration: Santo Brocato, an operations and logistics manager for Uber, demonstrates a ride down Congress Avenue toward the Texas Capitol in Austin on August 15, 2017. Nick Wagner/American-Statesman

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