AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Over the past several years, the word “uber” has become a verb thanks to the ride sharing company that launched in San Francisco in 2011. Because of the rapid growth of the business model, most consumers don’t even think twice about getting into an unmarked vehicle with a stranger behind the wheel.
While the two major players—Uber and Lyft—stopped doing business in Austin last May after Austinites voted against Prop 1, clearing the way for the city of Austin to implement mandatory fingerprint background checks for transportation network company (TNC) drivers. But it was when Uber and Lyft left that some say a gap was created. KXAN reached out to both Uber and Lyft, who said before they exited city limits, each had about 10,000 drivers on Austin roads. As of Dec. 15, 2016 there were 5,235 TNC drivers licensed/authorized by the city. There are currently eight TNCs operating legally in Austin and the city says all the companies are in compliance with the fingerprint benchmarks with 85 percent of trips completed by drivers who have undergone a fingerprint background check.
A KXAN Investigation found even with legal companies operating, there are still unpermitted drivers hitting the roads and seizing the opportunity to make money from the demand for rides. KXAN went undercover to show how easy it is to get a ride from someone who is neither a cab driver nor a TNC driver. In most cases, the driver will approach you as you're standing on the sidewalk.
Who Is Driving You?
Arteries of the city pump life into the heart of downtown. People like cab driver Johnny Rushing help that heart beat – a rhythm of pickups and drops offs, providing safe rides he says others are putting in jeopardy.
“It's kind of like trying to go off the grid and do things,” Rushing explained.
Off the grid. Outside of the law. Rushing is talking about drivers operating without the proper permits.
"In their [consumer] mind, they're getting a cheap ride. But at the same time, you don't know who you're getting in the car with,” Rushing said.
Without a permit, there is no guarantee of a background check or insurance and no oversight. Though illegal cabbies weren’t hard for KXAN to find downtown, the city has caught fewer than 300 in the past two years. Of those, we checked criminal conviction records with the state and found some individuals with records that may make you think twice before jumping in the backseat. Their backgrounds show assault, stalking, multiple DWIs and even a registered sex offender.
Cedric Harris was one of the drivers KXAN caught a ride with in 2014. He pleaded guilty and got three years probation for criminal mischief in the 90s. A decade earlier, he was convicted of theft.
"All you have to do is say no money was involved and we just friends,” Harris told KXAN’s undercover team at the time, when asked how he’s able to skirt the law.
Three years later, KXAN caught up with Harris again, who is still giving rides to whoever is willing to pay him cash. Harris says the exposure didn’t slow him down.
"We were doing this before Uber ever showed up, we were picking students up from UT and bringing them down to Sixth Street, taking them home,” Harris said. “I just decided to stay independent, and it's worked out."
KXAN caught up with Harris over the phone after the undercover ride. Even though the city has cited him six times for giving illegal rides in the past five years, he said, "Clearly I have no concerns about doing it this way, because I've been doing it this long."
KXAN asked why he’s decided not to just go ahead and get the proper permitting.
“I’m not interested in a limousine company, I’m not interested in a taxi company, I’m not interested in being anybody’s permanent driver like that, okay. That’s not my deal,” Harris said, adding this isn’t his only means of making money.
Show Me the Money
KXAN paid cash for all the rides we took with illegal drivers. That’s what the Austin Police Department needs to spot in order to step in.
"We have to see the money exchange. So it's a matter of being at the right place at the right time to observe that in order to issue a citation,” APD Officer Destiny Winston said.
The Austin Transportation Department says it knows the crime is happening, but the department only responds when it gets a complaint.
"If our office is not notified or we have not been told who these illegal operators are, there's very little we can do,” ATD’s Lee Davila said. “That’s why we rely on the public, as they’re soliciting services, to contact us. To reach out to us and let us know when this is taking place and when it’s happening so we can investigate it.”
With so few complaints, just three last year, and none in 2015, there’s little reason for the problem to be a priority, but police say there is a lot at stake. "Worst case scenario, should something happen, you get assaulted, or a number of things can occur, we won't have that information readily available as we would if it was someone that actually had a permit,” Ofc. Winston said.
APD says it has set up stings in the past, but nothing is in the works right now. It wasn’t hard for KXAN to catch the crime on camera, several times over. One ride was from a legitimate rideshare driver, meaning he had a background check, but he broke the rules by turning off the app he works for. He then negotiated his own rate with KXAN and only took cash. Because the trip wasn’t done through the app, it wasn’t tracked.
“It’s still risky because their companies can’t track who they gave a ride or anything. And if something happens with that person in the car with them, they don’t know who they’ve ridden with,” said Rushing.
According to the city ordinance, in addition to criminal penalties, any rideshare driver who provides rides outside the app faces suspension of their chauffeur permit.
Another driver KXAN rode with admitted he was not permitted. When asked if he had a certain rate he charged, he said, "No, I'm not that professional. So for example, I would just say pay me whatever you would have paid an Uber or a taxi."
“I just... do it sometimes, not all the time, so that’s why I didn’t sign up with another company,” he explained. "If I start doing it like every day, then there's a chance I'm going to get caught like that."
Whenever KXAN caught a ride, we also kept track of the vehicle’s license plate to check on any potential criminal backgrounds. Digging through municipal court records, KXAN found at least 18 drivers cited for giving illegal rides over the last two years who also had a criminal history. We brought the records to Council Member Ann Kitchen. Riffling through pages of criminal histories for drivers cited over the past two years, Kitchen said, "That is unacceptable.”
During the Prop 1 election last May, Kitchen and others pushed for fingerprinting every rideshare driver operating within city limits, just like taxi drivers. Despite the new ordinance, she now says there’s still a risk on the road.
"You're taking your life in your hands,” Kitchen said. “So we need to continue to take every effort, not only for our fingerprinting process for our permitted drivers, but to crack down on drivers that are just ignoring all requirements and going out there and offering their services.”
Rushing says that crackdown is years overdue and the crime, is now on a fast track.
"Nobody is putting checks and balances in place, then of course, you're going to have more and more people doing it,” he said, adding with the rideshare culture of unmarked vehicles, "It's hard to decipher who's legit and who's not.”
KXAN went back and tracked down all of the drivers in our story. Each felt what they were doing was not a big deal. One said he was not even aware it was against the law. If a driver gets caught without proper permitting, it’s a Class C Misdemeanor with a fine up to $500.
KXAN spotted the activity and hailed rides near the intersection of Seventh and Trinity Streets, a main pickup and drop off point just beyond the East Sixth Street barricades. According to city records, the area where most illegal drivers are cited over the past two years were at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the 100 block of East Second Street.
List of TNCs Operating in Austin
These are the following Transportation Network Companies that are operating legally in Austin.
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