AUSTIN, TEXAS — On Monday morning, ride-sharing customers in America’s 11th-largest city awoke to a disconcerting message on their phones: “Uber not currently available in Austin.”
Having lost a referendum over whether they would be regulated by the local government, the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft followed through on their threat to effectively fire 10,000 drivers and strand thousands of customers who had come to rely on them for transportation in this hot, spread-out, car-centric city.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the companies spent nearly $9 million, one of the largest amounts ever spent on an Austin election. And yet by making this an all-or-nothing referendum, Uber and Lyft made it about much more than, well, Uber and Lyft. It became a referendum on who is in the driver’s seat (pun intended) when it comes to the public weal: new-economy powerhouses out to “disrupt” society for fun and profit, or the people they’re seeking to disrupt. In Austin, it wasn’t even close.
Uber and Lyft arrived in the Texas capital in 2014, and it probably seemed like a perfect fit. The metro area has more than two million people and attracts 20 million visitors a year, many to its two huge music festivals. There are lots of young people and a strong tech economy that would flock to ride sharing. But Austin probably also looked like a pushover, as a city — even now it retains a certain sleepiness, a vestige of its provincial college-town past, before anyone thought it even necessary to remind us to “keep Austin weird.”