Uber, city of Houston reach agreement over driver background checks
HOUSTON – Maria Martinez catches a ride with Uber almost every day.
"I don't have a car because I am only living in Houston for a very limited period of time," Martinez said.
She is like thousands in the city who have grown to rely heavily on the ride-sharing giant.
Like those thousands, she hasn't always been certain about Uber's future after the company disagreed with the city over its requirement for background checks and fingerprinting.
"If they eliminate Uber, I don't know what I would do," Martinez said.
Martinez doesn't have to worry, now, at least not for a few months.
"We have reached an agreement with Uber," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Turner announced the terms of a new agreement with Uber. New details of a multimodal transportation app were also discussed.
Since coming to Houston, Uber has wanted to do away with fingerprinting and has threatened to leave the Bayou City if the requirement stayed in effect.
The company said it already has drivers go through a commercial background check, which takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to approve a driver.
The city said it is not going to budge on its fingerprint requirement, which Uber agreed to in 2014. New York City is the only other city in the nation that requires Uber drivers to undergo an FBI fingerprint background check.
Turner has been outspoken about what the city sees as gaps in Uber’s commercial background checks.
The city issued a white paper claiming that hundreds of criminal records showed up for drivers who applied for a Transportation Network Company license when they underwent the fingerprint background check.
Uber disputed this finding, claiming that these individuals weren’t ever actually approved through Uber’s platform.
There is no way to check who has actually obtained a TNC license with the city to drive for Uber because the company filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston and the Texas Attorney general asking that the information remain private.
A court ruled in Uber's favor in March.
The fingerprinting is actually the final phase of a six-step process to get a TNC license.
This includes getting a fire extinguisher and Uber window sticker, completing a physical and drug test, completing a warrant check and then taking all this information to a city-operated licensing center to get a permit.
The city allows drivers to operate for 30 days on a temporary license after completing the first phase of the process while they complete their fingerprinting.
"The number of licensing requirements have been cut in half," Turner said. "And the cost to drivers will drop from nearly $200 to $70."
Turner said drivers can now get a license in 20 minutes and drive the same day.
"We have worked with Uber to draft a policy that is a win for drivers and passengers alike," Turner said.
Riders said they are thrilled with the announcement, and said it's hard to imagine Houston life without Uber.
"I would be stuck at home, and I would not be using the economic vitality of the city, the restaurants, or going to work even sometimes," Carlos Espinoza said.
Uber released a statement regarding the agreement saying, "Uber fully intends to continue operating through the Super Bowl under the city's proposed licensing changes."
Uber drivers, known as partners, are allowed to operate elsewhere in the greater Houston area outside city limits on the company’s background checks because there are no local ordinances in place requiring additional screening.
According to the company’s own survey, 67 percent of driver partners that were approved through Uber’s screening process chose not to complete the city of Houston’s TNC licensing process because it was too time consuming, too expensive and too complex.
During the press conference, the mayor also announced a new app called Arro which puts all 9,000 drivers for taxi and limos on a centralized dispatching app. Turner said app users can virtually hail a ride. It also features a secure and easy payment flow, Turner said.