Over the weekend, I made the 170-mile trek to Austin and back from my home in San Antonio three times in three days to attend the South by Southwest Interactive conference.
As anyone who has ever visited Austin knows, the traffic on a normal day can be near gridlock. During SXSW, more than 70,000 people flood the city, the roads are blocked or congested, and available parking is minimal.
So when I reached Austin, I ditched my Honda in the nearest mud-puddled parking lot (at $30 a pop) and chose to test out the city’s walkability. Since that will literally only get you so far, I used a ride-hailing service on several occasions, an option I've used countless times in San Antonio and during visits to New York City and Dallas.
But in a city where popular ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft were shown the door by voters last year, other transportation network startups are picking up the slack – RideAustin, GetMe, Fasten, RideFare, Tride, Wingz, and zTrip – as you might expect from a tech-forward city like Austin.
I waited about 20 minutes for the GetMe driver to drive me near Rainey Street for the ride over to Sixth Street. I wasn’t in any real hurry, but he apologized for the long wait and suggested I call for RideAustin next time – more drivers mean quicker pickups and it’s cheaper, too, he said.
So I installed yet another ridesharing app to my iPhone, set up a profile, and for my return trip, requested a driver from RideAustin.
That driver, Jerry, pulled up to the curb within five minutes and saved me about $4 off the last fare. The app gave me the option to “round up” my payment and donate the change to a local nonprofit of my choosing, which made me feel pretty good.
Jerry also told me RideAustin pays him better than other services, so he’d be taking the night off in preparation for the busy weekend ahead.
Only it wasn’t so busy.
The RideAustin network experienced a surge that crashed the system Saturday evening, leaving many SXSWers stranded, and drivers without fares. The same thing happened to Fasten, the “official” rideshare app of SXSW 2017.
RideAustin sent “personal apologies” and a full explanation via its Facebook page, adding “we hate to fail.” One commenter called for the mayor to do something about the embarrassing situation.
After all, Austin is hosting some of the world’s most talented and smart creatives, entrepreneurs, techies, and thought leaders at SXSW. Let’s show them what we’ve got.
But on Tuesday, the City of Austin issued this statement:
The bills regarding Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) being given hearings this week in both Texas House and Senate Committees will undermine the safety of residents by stripping away best practice public safety measures, and in doing so, also undermine the will of local voters in Austin. In May of 2016, Austin voters decidedly rejected similar legislation that lacked adequate safety provisions. The City of Austin stands adamantly by the democratic process and the voters’ choice.
“Voters being able to make their own local decisions is the bedrock of liberty. Government closest to the people governs best,” said Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin. “Austin voters chose a system which fostered ride hailing competition and innovation and which delivered the safety choices they wanted. It’s working well and the people’s will should be respected.”
Those battle cries may sound all too familiar to rideshare supporters in San Antonio, where Uber and Lyft returned to operations last fall after a brief hiatus as City Council worked out fee agreements and credentialing.
Operating as a nonprofit for the greater Austin area, RideAustin seems to have those issues figured out. Their mission statement says RideAustin was created by the community “as a way out of our current situation” and “will be how cities of the future embrace the ride-sharing movement.”
By all accounts, Austin’s ride sharing apps are back up and running smoothly now.
“Super easy, efficient, and on time. Drivers were courteous and appropriately friendly,” said Jeanette Honermann, San Antonio coordinator at REI, who used RideAustin while attending SXSW. “I noticed a sticker on the car that essentially said that they fingerprinted for safety. It was painless and comparable to cab fare.”
“It was a nearly identical process to Uber. It was very intuitive and familiar,” Thomas told me. “I spoke with one of the drivers on the way home and he told me that RideAustin is much more financially beneficial for drivers compared to Uber.”
Another friend, Melanie Mendez-Gonzales of Qué Means What is a San Antonio mom and blogger who spoke on Monday at the SXSW panel titled, “Pathways to Diversity in the Outdoors." She and her roommate have been sharing RideAustin trips during their stay.
“At first, I did mind because it's hard to be in another city and get around without a car. And I'm used to Lyft and Uber,” Mendez-Gonzales said. “(But) both experiences were great: Clean cars, friendly drivers. The biggest surprise is that the app feels just like Uber.
“So, in the end, I was happy – despite having to download another app and entering more payment information,” she said.
And that, in the end, is how the TNC business is going to play out, with users in the driver’s seat ultimately shaping the future of the gig economy.