Getting Around Town

Here's a look at the Austin ride-sharing scene after Uber and Lyft's return

A look at the Austin ride-sharing scene after Uber and Lyft's return

RideAustin ride-sharing app
CultureMap checked in with RideAustin, Fasten, Lyft, and Uber. RideAustin/Facebook

It's been nearly two months since Lyft and Uber rolled back into Austin. The ride-sharing giants left town in 2016 over a spat with the City of Austin — and its voters — about payment requirements, vehicle identifiers, designated pick-up and drop-off areas, and fingerprint-based background checks for drivers, the last of which became the centerpiece of the argument.

In May 2017, the Texas government overrode Austin's decision to require the background checks, which opened the door for Lyft and Uber's return. Their initial exit left a void in Austin that was quickly filled by smaller ride-sharing companies that agreed to adhere to Austin's original rules, including local nonprofit RideAustin and Boston-based Fasten.

Now that the big two are back, the local ride-share scene is all shook up. Austin witnessed the permanent departure of Fare in June, which cited a "recent loss of business." CultureMap checked in with representatives from RideAustin, Fasten, Lyft, and Uber to gauge their thoughts on ride-sharing in Austin and their intentions to stay in town.

"We have definitely been affected by the return [of Lyft and Uber]," Bobbi Kommineni, RideAustin's vice president of strategic and programs and operations, tells CultureMap.

RideAustin is a nonprofit helmed by a few high-profile Austinites as a direct response to Lyft and Uber's departure. Through its round-up feature, the app has raised over $250,00 for local charities since its launch in June 2016. RideAustin doesn't take any commission on standard rides, so drivers should be making more per ride.

However, Uber and Lyft's return and a lack of college students during the summer (a historically low time for ride-sharing companies) has affected the business. RideAustin CEO Andy Tryba released a statement in June discussing how the service's ridership plummeted 62 percent the week after Uber and Lyft came back to Austin, which led to a reduction in fares.

"We need volumes. We stated publicly that we need to have a market share that is about 20,000 rides per week at a minimum. We're hovering at that mark right now, where we used to be at 50,000 per week," says Kommineni. "We're not in the same position as these multimillion dollar companies to offer incentives and subsidies."

RideAustin declined to release more figures. In fact, none of the four services we contacted — RideAustin, Fasten, Lyft, and Uber — shared detailed statistics on ridership or cost.

To get back on track, RideAustin is focusing on increasing its brand awareness within the Austin community. The nonprofit, along with Community Care Collaborative, recently began offering free rides for patients at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

"We want to be here. We feel like we're a community asset. Austin prefers us," Kommineni says. "We are going to stick around."

Fasten isn't local, but it shares a similar small-business and community-first mindset with RideAustin. The Boston-based company hit the scene shortly after the exit of Lyft and Uber and quickly rose in popularity thanks to a large coverage zone and a lack of surge pricing.

"When you're talking about marketplaces, it's not money that talks longer. We have a unique business model that is the foundation of pretty much everything we do, including our values," Fasten co-founder and CEO Kirill Evdakov tells CultureMap. "We plug into each and every market and explore how the market is different, building relations with the local community."

That business model also puts drivers first. Evdakov considers Fasten the middle man who is in "charge of connections" — Fasten simply connects someone in need of a ride with someone who can provide one, leaving drivers with the "lion's share of wares."

While Lyft and Uber's return has certainly created competition for riders, Evdakov is confident that drivers will continue working with Fasten.

"At the end of the day profits will follow if you treat people better," Evdakov says. "If they're not happy with the connection you've established, they won't come back to you."

The service is only available in Austin and Boston, but the team is looking to expand across the U.S. For now, Fasten is furthering its commitment to Austin by hosting fun events like FastenFest.

"Ride-sharing in Austin right now is looking great. It's a unique place in the world," Evdakov says. "We're here to stay."

Lyft launched in San Francisco in 2012. Today, it is one of the largest ride-share companies in the U.S., second only to Uber. Despite its year-long absence in Austin, Lyft has experienced a surge from local users.

"We have heard from both drivers and passengers that they're excited to use Lyft again. Interestingly, the patterns of riders are similar in respect to when and where they ride and the type of ride, whether it is during commute hours or late night," Aaron Fox, general manager of Lyft Austin, tells CultureMap. "Ridership is growing 10-20 percent each week, and we actually have more drivers now than we did last year."

Fox also notes that the company learned a thing or two during its time away.

"The biggest takeaway is how strongly people value reliability and affordability when they choose a ride-share — and we strive to find that balance among riders, drivers, and partners. The other takeaway is our unique combination of brand and technology. For example, over 20 percent of our rides are Lyft Line [carpool], our feature that matches riders going in the same direction for a reduced price," Fox says.

Looking forward, Lyft wants to create more ties with Austin by teaming up with local business like Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) and Kerbey Lane. Additional partnerships will be announced in the coming weeks.

"Our goal is to always create the best experience for both drivers and riders, and we think working with local companies on unique offers that make Lyft rewarding and fun does just that," Fox says. "We are happy to get back to working with the Austin community on the things that make it so special and unique."

Uber is ride-share's oldest and most successful company. Since 2009, the small, Silicon Valley startup has steadily grown into a billion-dollar behemoth with operations across the globe. It was also one of the first services to arrive in Austin in 2014, and the loudest opponent of our city's ride-sharing rules.

"We've spent the last year listening carefully and learning. Whether it's improving access to transportation for Austinites in need of wheelchair-accessible vehicles or finding unique ways to support a worthy cause, we are driven by the opportunity to make our city better," Travis Considine, communications manager of Uber Texas, tells CultureMap. "Since returning to the city, the response from riders and drivers has been overwhelmingly positive."

When asked about how the emergence of smaller but equally innovative companies like RideAustin and Fasten affected its Austin operations, Considine said diplomatically that "Austin is an incubator for technology and entrepreneurship and we are excited to be in the mix."

A nonprofit element has emerged in the company's business approach for the Austin market. A new initiative called Project Jumpstart allows drivers to direct Uber funding to a local nonprofit via a quarterly voting process.

"We are focused on being a great community partner and building trust with Austinites," Considine says. "This is just the beginning."

What does all this mean for Austin?
Nearly half of the respondents in the 2017 Zandan Poll, an Austin-based survey, said they didn't support Lyft and Uber's decision to pull out of town last year. However, it seems that business is booming for both.

The bottom line? The more companies in town, the more options Austinites have for rides and jobs, and it looks like RideAustin, Fasten, Lyft, and Uber are here to stay.