Austin prides itself on being a fun place for travelers to visit, but suddenly, with Uber and Lyft bailing in a political dispute, it’s not such a great party town anymore. Stranded festivalgoers spent a long weekend wandering downtown in the rain, looking for cabs that never arrived, knocking on strangers’ windows and begging them for rides, like drunken refugees. Brian Duncan, an IT consultant from Charleston, South Carolina, was here last weekend with his wife, brother, and sister-in-law on what he calls a “tacos, music, and cocktail tour.” He’s a tech-savvy guy and knew that Uber pulling out was going to be a problem. “Seeing the vote going down and knowing I was coming in, it was a big bummer.”
Getting to and from the airport was fine, Duncan says. He used the airport-transit app Wingz, which was on time, clean, and reasonably priced. The rest of the weekend, he says, “truly sucked.” He tried a cab-hailing app called Z Trip, which replied to his request two hours after he made it. “We walked for miles on Saturday night,” he says. “It took us forever to get back home. On Sunday night, it took us an hour to get out of a Mexican restaurant that was trying to shut down. If you’re going to pull the plug you’ve got to have a real option ready to go. It will take months for things to be anything close to helpful in terms of alternative services.”
A city of 2 million people has become virtually impossible to navigate without a privately owned car.
Overnight, a city of two million people, a major international tech business hub and the Capital of Texas, has become virtually impossible to navigate without a privately owned car. If you’re from out of town, you’re in trouble. I spoke with Josh Berezin, the VP of sales at a Southern California software company, who comes to Austin on business several times a year. He’s pretty much the target ridesharing customer.
"Uber saves me a bunch of time and money and effort,” he says. “There are hours that I’m able to talk in the car and do work. It’s become a business necessity. I’m not waiting for gas, or lost in traffic, I’m just in a car with somebody.”
Berezin had a pre-scheduled business trip to Austin the week that Uber and Lyft left town. He had to hail a taxi instead. “The cab was super loud, the structure had worn out a long time ago,” he said. “I couldn’t even hear myself when I was on the phone.” He had to travel from the airport to suburban Round Rock. The driver didn’t know the destination, so he had Berezin enter the destination on an old Blackberry. Including tip, the ride cost 97 dollars. Three months earlier, the exact same trip had cost Berezin $50 with Uber.
“When I went to pay there wasn’t a standard swipe, "Berezin said. "I handed him a card, he put it through a Square on his personal phone. And then I got a receipt not from Yellow Cab, but from this guy. There were no protections. I don’t want to hand my card to just anyone.”
Austin has gone back in time 20 years, to an era where the taxi monopoly and the Hertz cartel had a total chokehold on visitors. One of Berezin’s colleagues had a scheduled car rental. The company told him they were sold out, not likely on an average Tuesday. But, they said, they had a few cars in reserve in case of emergency, priced at $100 a day. “These weren’t Escalades,” Berezin says. “They were old Nissan Sentras.”
The price-gouge is on.
For locals, the situation is just as dire. Consider the typical case of Austin hairstylist and makeup artist Ashleigh Grounds. She has her own car to get to work or run errands. But on the weekends, she likes to meet friends and have a few drinks. Uber was helpful that way. Instead, with reliable options unavailable, she tried a local company called GetMe, which has gained notoriety because it refuses to reveal the identity of its CEO and also put up a Craigslist ad last year offering to onboard riders into its program behind an obscure car wash in North Austin. “Just look for the van,” the ad said.
“Austin’s trying to be, Oh yeah we’re so cool by rejecting ridesharing, but it’s just showing how backwards we are."
"I tried to go out for dinner on Friday and I didn’t want to drive,” Grounds says. “The GetMe app was awful. It kept crashing, so I had to restart my phone. It was kind of like Uber, where you can see the cars around you, but every time I clicked a request button, it came up with a message saying my request had timed out. After 25 minutes, I started stressing about going to dinner.”
Instead, she downloaded an app called Hail A Cab. It said her cab was 15 minutes away. Ten minutes later, her cab was still 15 minutes away. Finally, she decided to just take a bus. She got to the stop just as the bus was pulling away, and there wouldn’t be another one for half an hour.
Finally, a GetMe driver contacted her, picked her up, and took her to dinner, complaining the whole time that the company is so overwhelmed that the help desk won’t return his calls. But she did get to dinner. She started trying to score a ride at 5 PM, and didn’t arrive at her destination until 6:15, all for a trip of about three miles.
“Austin’s trying to be Oh yeah we’re so cool by rejecting ridesharing,” she says, “but it’s just showing how backwards we are. I probably should have just walked.”
Meanwhile, ten thousand drivers are out of a job—or at least a second job. The city’s huge phalanx of former ride-sharing drivers finds itself scrambling for work. The city responded by setting up a useless hotline and a “job fair” that consisted of little more than telling people how to apply for expensive chauffeur’s licenses and cab medallions. Most people can’t afford those, so instead drivers are offering their services on hastily assembled underground Facebook ride-sharing communities, marketing themselves in the same way a freelance handyman or pool-repair guy would. And desperate riders are responding. By the hundreds, people are posting messages like:
“I’ll be needing a ride at 3:30 PM from 721 Barton Springs to 900 W. 38th St. I know it’s early but if anyone is free let me know. If you could text me an estimate I’d appreciate it.”
Then there are the opportunists who are actually thriving. I talked to one driver who seemed to be enjoying himself in this bizarre ecosystem of random auto-barter. Because of his “local media presence and history of bartending in the city,” he immediately scored an under-the-table gig providing two to three rides a day to executives from a prominent entertainment company, as well as whatever else he could cadge up on Facebook.
“I’m actually driving less and making more,” he said. “I put up a post and five minutes later I had a call for a ride. Ten minutes later, I had a call for another ride. I’m not paying any percentage to anyone. I can’t believe that Uber and Lyft are taking 20 to 25 percent.”
Not everyone is so sanguine. I talked to another former rideshare driver whose backup plan is “reaching out to friends who are finding various opportunities to help me make extra money with odd jobs and things like that, and maybe it’ll be enough until Uber and Lyft come back.” He’s not willing to be an illegal gypsy cabbie. “What if I get into an accident while doing one of these rides? I’m not protected by anything, at least with Uber and Lyft both rider and driver were insured if anything happened.”
Other than the occasional savvy low-scale entrepreneur and sharky car-rental and cab companies, no one appears to be benefitting from this insane transit apocalypse. Though the city frightened voters with terrifying depictions of a plague of Uber-rape, it’s now come out that people with sexual assault convictions, and even drunk-driving arrests, are actually allowed to drive cabs in Austin, few questions asked. "If you have ever been convicted of theft at any point, you could never get a chauffeur's permit,” a city council member told a local news station. “That just seems like too much.”
Also, the city allows cab drivers to smoke in their cars.
Changes in the world of transportation are accelerating faster than a Model S in ludicrous mode. On a macro level, big auto appears to be adapting, gradually submitting to fuel-economy mandates, developing electric vehicles, partnering with ride-sharing companies, and setting up self-driving laboratories in Silicon Valley. Ford and General Motors will survive the era to come. But the real disruption will arrive at the local level, where moribund low-tech businesses—cab companies, parking garages, personal-injury lawyers, insurance vampires, used-car dealers, and city governments that depend on parking-ticket revenue to pay their pensions—find themselves completely unprepared and underfunded in the face of massive social and technological transformation.
The last week has been the first major American city pushback against the new automotive era. It’s been a disastrous test case, an object lesson, and a warning. Demanding fair wages and labor practices for Uber drivers is one thing. The new livery drivers are workers, and workers deserve rights. But what’s happening in Austin right now has nothing to do with that. It’s more like ink-fingered machine patronage, 1970s Chicago-style, with all the resulting inconvenience and petty injustice. Cities can try to roadblock the shared-car express if they want. But no one’s going to enjoy that ride.