SXSW is known for having breakout apps of the year. There was Twitter, Foursquare and, most recently, Meerkat.
But this year it's not about anything innovative in tech that's got every attendee pulling out their smartphone and opening the app store.
In Austin, Texas, there's no Uber or Lyft. To make the 25-minute drive from the airport to downtown Austin, you have to either rent a car, hail a taxi, or download a new app.
And yes, you read that right: Not even Lyft.
In Austin, for almost the last year, the two biggest ride-hailing companies in the United States haven't operated. It's a complicated tale of citizens versus corporations, of distaste for a duopoly and annoyance for not complying to town rules, that's left Austin as one of the few areas in the U.S. where "Let's get an Uber" just doesn't fly.
Instead, you'll see this:
Image: uber screenshot
Austinites and visitors, like the 70,000 people who traveled for SXSW, have to use Ride Austin, Fasten, Fare, Get Me, Arcade City, Wingz, zTrip, Chariot, pedicabs, taxis, and walking instead—just to name a few options. In a world (well, city) without Uber and Lyft, innovation's emerged, some say, with dozens of new players seizing the opportunity to grow a transportation business.
"I would say Austin is innovative and developing. Frankly, I'm just proud of my city for being able to adapt in real-time for the loss of the big players," Austin city Mayor Steve Adler said.
But others critique that what has happened in Austin isn't really that innovative. "Is it really innovation, or are they just less sophisticated ride-sharing platforms?" said Austin city council member Ellen Troxclair.
Over a week spent taking cars, interviewing the new players, the tech giants, the legislators, the drivers, the riders and the visitors in Austin, we came to learn that in some ways, the city's just created another duopoly, which has led to a state of confusion and mismanagement. Is it worth it? Is it really safer? And then, of course, what about that black market player we discovered, the one operating a service on the blockchain?
What's really happening when you catch a ride in Austin?
Welcome to Austin
When I arrived at SXSW on March 9, the Austin airport greeted me with a sign for Ride Austin.
I was joking, of course. But when I cracked open the local-use app, I found a design strikingly similar to Uber itself. How do they get away with it? Well: Just ask Facebook how they get away with all three of their Stories products. They do it because they can.
My Mashable colleagues, who I tasked with sharing their ride-hailing experiences with me, found Ride Austin to be their go-to service of the trip.
"I used RideAustin just now and it was basically exactly like Uber, but I didn’t feel like shit for using it (given all the recent news/management problems)," one colleague wrote to me on Slack. "Nothing bad about the service. It was great. The car I had smelt like cigarette smoke, but the driver was so lovely that it didn’t bother me too much."
Another one of my colleagues, who's quite familiar with product design, didn't have an enjoyable time with the app, however.
"Ride Austin on Android is a really bad experience, to the point where I couldn't even use it. The first screen gives you single option to sign in, on the next screen you can authenticate with FB, or use an existing email/PW combo. If you do FB it lets you go through the whole rigamarole and then gives error that you have to sign up first," she said. "On the plus side, the cab line went fast."
According to my first Ride Austin driver from the airport to the hotel, Austinites and visitors should have multiple ride-hailing apps on their phone in case of congestion. He drove for Fasten, as well.
"The app was crashing a bunch the first time I used it, and kept signing me out, but it seems to be holding up now," another one of my colleagues said. "All in all, it doesn't feel like I miss Uber all that much."
Companies drive in
So why no Uber and Lyft? The two companies left the city last year after losing a fight against a ballot measure to eliminate the need for drivers to have fingerprint background checks. Lyft and Uber argued that this safety measure was unnecessary and funneled millions of dollars into lobbying against it.
But when the giants left, smaller players looked ahead, such as Fasten, a ride-hailing app that had so far only operated in Boston.
"We saw opportunity to do something good here. Multibillion companies have been built on top of drivers who do all the work. Why would we take a quarter out of each driver’s dollar just because we can? We recognized the mistakes that Uber and Lyft were making. We saw room for a company for putting people first," Fasten CEO Kirill Evdakov tells me in their WeWork space a few miles up from downtown Austin.
Sitting across from four men at a table, I learn that while these men consider their business to be the third biggest player under Uber and Lyft, they don't see ride-hailing as an innovative business.
"Ride-sharing being an innovation was so much of a hype," said Fasten CMO Roman Levitskiy. "Ride-sharing is a new business for America, not for Russia."
Still, the men are competitive against their rivals in Austin—particularly with Ride Austin. Fasten has 60 percent of the market in Austin, according to Fasten.
Image: created by fasten
Some riders, and drivers, preferred Ride Austin due to its nonprofit status. Riders can choose to roundup to the dollar and donate the rest to a charity of their choices.
So while there apparently seems to be another duopoly at play in Austin, SXSW attendees did have some other options. Chariot, a startup acquired by Ford last year, was running its shuttle vans throughout downtown.
"Our goal is to become the first global mass transit," Chariot CEO Ali Vahabzadeh said. "Food, clothing, shelter, and transportation has become the fourth standard of living. We're really excited that Chariot can become a part of the solution."
Wingz also runs in Austin as a personal driver service, coordinated through an app. "Our drivers are waiting for you, rather than you waiting on the curb for Uber and Lyft," CEO Chris Brandon said. "You are completely under the control of the Uber and Lyft platform. On Wingz, you schedule the time. You schedule the driver."
An underground option also exists. Arcade City takes rides via Facebook Messenger (and an app) and is built on the blockchain to bypass regulations. I asked for an interview with the regional director in Texas only to be told in an email: "I'm out there running on the front lines with the other drivers as well. So I sleep very little and drive all the time."
SXSW didn't run seamlessly. Ride Austin and Fasten had "glitches" Saturday night—arguably, the busiest time for SXSW events.
The mayor, who spoke with me on the phone several times over the week, was quick to defend and champion the apps. "We had a glitch on Saturday. I can remember being at the [Democratic National Convention] in July and Uber didn’t work," he said.
"I think the real thing you should look at is how did they recover last night? I haven’t heard from Fasten, but Ride Austin was 14,000 [rides] strong," he continued.
There's always other, non-tech options in Austin. The weekend after Uber and Lyft left a conference across the street from City Hall hired pedicabs, according to Council Member Troxclair.
Image: ellen troxclair
Uber and Lyft may come back soon. During the second week of SXSW, a new ride-hailing bill was presented to the House Transportation Committee of Texas.
"Uber wishes to be in many, many more cities in Texas, and our hope is that one day we can cover the entire state," Trevor Theunissen, Uber's Public Affairs Lead in Texas, said in his testimony before the committee. "However, the local regulations under which we currently operate vary as much as Texas’ landscape, and it presents unique challenges when it comes to moving people across multiple lines of jurisdiction."
Several of the drivers I rode with during SXSW used to work for Uber and/or Lyft. One driver said he didn't really miss Uber. "They were so douchey to deal with. They could care less about us," he said.
"As a consumer," he said, "they were a good deal. I had to get a regular job when I was driving for them because there was no minimum fare. The cost got so low."
Austinites are rather apprehensive over Uber's return. "There are a lot of people in Austin that do really miss Uber though just for convenience factor, just because it's a little cheaper, but most of us would rather pay $2 more," said Elise Graham, an Austin resident and cofounder of Olivia AI.
Sometimes, though, technology—be it a major player like Uber or a minor one like Ride Austin—just doesn't work. My boyfriend was left stranded at a strip mall after his Ride Austin ride took him to the wrong address. It was either walk in the rain for 30 minutes, wait for another driver, or find a different solution.
Turns out a few kids in the parking lot were willing to offer a ride back to downtown. Good ole Southern hospitality.
Back in New York
Walking through New York's LaGuardia airport, after eight days in Austin, I was quickly reminded of Uber and Lyft.
Lyft!!!! You've been missed pic.twitter.com/Sp6WVQyNal
— Kerry Flynn 🐶😴 (@kerrymflynn) March 17, 2017
— Kerry Flynn 🐶😴 (@kerrymflynn) March 17, 2017
Three Uber employees were stationed by the exit, dressed in Uber shirts, holding Uber bags and handing out cards for $10 UberPool rides.
One of the employees said she "loved working for Uber because I get to help people get home. It's a good company full of loving people."
I thanked her for her time and said I had to go catch my Lyft outside.
"Lyft, they're good too," she said.