AUSTIN (CN) - A company that makes a carpooling app sued Austin, claiming the city threatened to ticket and impound the cars of drivers who use its SideCar app.
San Francisco-based Side.cr sued Austin in Travis County Court. It claims the state capital is misinterpreting its own City Code, falsely claiming that SideCar is operating a "ground transportation service."
"We're going to defend this in court because SideCar is not a transportation service," SideCar CEO Sunil Paul said in a statement on the company website.
"SideCar is a technology platform that enables peer-to-peer ridesharing. The city code regulates 'chauffeured vehicles.' We don't own or operate vehicles, dispatch drivers or mandate shifts.
"The City Code regulates 'chauffeured vehicles' for a fee. Members of the SideCar rideshare community pay what they want and it's voluntary.
"SideCar is protected under federal law."
The complaint states: "SideCar is, in essence, a Match.com or 'dating service' for carpoolers and ridesharers. People can download the SideCar mobile app to their smartphones, and use that app to locate other people who are driving or need rides. SideCar provides the software and the interactive computer system that facilitates the communication, but does not own or operate vehicles or direct drivers as to routs or riders."
It's a somewhat ironic complaint, as Austin is the center of Texas's high-tech industry, and one of its unofficial slogans is "Keep Austin Weird."
SideCar says in the complaint that it went to court to defend ridesharing and carpooling in the city.
"If the code is improperly stretched to cover SideCar, as the City of Austin is doing, the code would apply to practically every carpooling and ridesharing arrangement in the city, making every 'soccer mom,' ridesharing college students and carpooling worker potentially liable for citation and impoundment of their personal vehicle," the complaint states.
Sidecar claims it sued only after weeks of fruitless negotiations with the city.
It claims the city's Transportation Department Director Robert Spiller contacted it on Feb. 23, telling it, "your intended operations which connect passengers with drivers using a mobile application requires permitting and authorization through our Ground Transportation Office."
Sidecar says the letter did not specify what part of the City Code it was violating. It says it responded on Feb. 27, saying its operations and users were not violating local law and that the city's threatened enforcement was preempted by federal law. SideCar says it has not received a written response.
Paul said on the company website that the city passed the ordinance two weeks ago: that the Austin City Council made sharing a ride in exchange for cash a crime.
In response, Paul said, Sidecar announced free rides through its app until March 17 for the city's South by Southwest music and film festivals.
"What happens here matters for the entire sharing economy," Paul said on the website. "Sharing resources is not a crime - it's a solution for a better and more sustainable way of life."
SideCar seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.
It is represented by Peter Kennedy with Graves Dougherty in Austin.
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