72 Hours (or So) of Ridesharing
With Uber and Lyft still boycotting Austin, we take the competition for a drive
By Kahron Spearman, Fri., June 24, 2016
With transportation concerns dominating conversation from City Hall to office water coolers, and Uber and Lyft opting out of Austin proper after voters upheld the city's regulations in the May special election, the ridesharing scene has turned on its head. Numerous players are currently attempting to fill a curious vacuum left by the disappearing megalith apps.
To this end, it was decided that I become an oversized guinea pig and try out the apps people seem to be gravitating toward. I'd also talk to the drivers trying to make a little extra scratch, or making second careers, to take the temperature of the landscape. I conducted most of my transportation experiment Downtown during a weekend crowded with the Republic of Texas Biker Rally and ATX Television Festival, plus a last-minute trip this past Monday to try out the brand-new RideAustin service on just its fifth day in operation.
I expected the drivers to be apprehensive of my presence – I'm a large, black man, which could've been off-putting to some. (The fact that I immediately introduced myself as a writer likely offset potential for tension. I became "the writer," not "the black guy." Believe me, this is no small thing.) It should be said that every driver I rode with had driven for Uber and/or Lyft, and they were all similarly curious about ridesharing's future. I was fortunate in riding along with a group of forthright Austinites – new and old – trying to make sense of it all, just like everyone else.
"Like, Fasten Your Seatbelt"
My initial experience with Boston-based Fasten is actually on foot. Walking out of Trinity Hall with a fresh ATX Television Festival badge, an enthusiastic woman puts herself between me and my next step, flashing a card with a code for $20 off. I think, "Cool, I'll check it out," and also "Man, she must love giving out cards." I tell her thanks, and sort of mutter "Fasten" to myself. I must be within earshot, because she responds with fervor: "Yeah, Fasten – like, fasten your seatbelt."
Launching June 1, Fasten (who had no comment for this piece) features some unique qualities, including no surge pricing for any reason. Riders in a hurry can also "boost" their rides, pushing ride requests to the top of the queue. You can text/call within the app, and it won't display phone numbers.
It has the most efficient rider setup of the apps I sampled. You can sign up using Facebook or PayPal – which I find much less intrusive than entering credit card information directly into the app. (I'm aware of the irony.) Fasten's bright and clean interface is similar to Uber and Lyft's. Needing to reach my ATX Television Festival panel at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz on Sixth Street by 1:45pm, I locate a driver, Luis, and his Volvo at 1:30pm.
The first thing I notice is the little purple car advancing on the map. Thankfully, they've made the guide vehicle reasonably within scale of the map – more on this later. There's also a handy tab for driver information, including a few buttons for additional info. It takes exactly the seven minutes promised before Luis pulls up.
"This is actually my second day. You're probably, like, my third or fourth ride for Fasten," he says, poking around at his map. The rider experience is seamless. As we travel Downtown through midday Friday traffic, I find there's even a handy meter for fare tracking.
The driver experience is more problematic. Noticing his fiddling, I ask him about navigation. "The nice thing with Lyft was, to get to you it gave me the route," he explains. "[On Fasten] I have to navigate. I have to manually look. It doesn't really tell me. It's not as intuitive yet, but it just started."
In choosing apps, Luis has had wandering eyes. "I chose Fasten because they only take like one dollar [flat fee per ride]. They don't do the 25 percent commission [that Lyft was taking]. But if it turns out that another one – like Fare or Get Me – are way more popular, so they have way more riders, that extra couple of cents I'm making each ride doesn't matter, because I'm losing rides."
When we arrive at the Drafthouse 12 minutes later, the close out is simple. You can give a "thumbs up," as well as a little driver/car feedback. The payment screen is detailed and clear. Overall, I'd call it a successful trip, though you have to worry about handsy navigation by a less Austin-experienced driver. I give it four out of five.
"We provide a more personal service – allowing our customers to build a network of 'preferred drivers' and receive 10 percent referral ride credits for bringing their friends to the platform," explains Gavin Washburn, founder/marketing director of Fare.
Full of potential, the Phoenix-based Fare is a bit of an ugly duckling. Its interface is unsightly – robotic and rigid. You can't use PayPal. It asks you for your Facebook information, but then wants your email and your billing address (!). There is one cool feature: adding your favorite drivers to a "preferred driver list," which could create repeat business and incentivize drivers to stick with the fledgling service.
I search for a driver, immediately after my panel at the Drafthouse, at 3:14pm. After the app's signature radar spins for a whole minute, David pops up with a nine-minute estimated time of arrival. It actually takes 10 minutes, but it's only hot as hell outside, so no worries.
Cars are disproportionate to the map's scaling. The black and green colors, and radar – presumably, it's tracking drivers – look like I'm delivering launch codes in a 1980s Cold War movie, or playing an updated MS-DOS game. I'm happy to put the phone down as I converse with David on his recent driving experiences – he's driving for both Fare and Fasten.
"I like Fare, but there is one problem. The ride [doesn't just pop] up on your screen – it pops up on multiple drivers' screens. It's like Family Feud. [The driver that] hits the screen first gets the ride. It could be a driver that's farthest away."
So, you're at the whims of thumb speeds. That would explain Fare's lag time hidden behind the radar, and the almost 10-minute pickup in the middle of Downtown. The close out is straightforward, but the payment page looks like it's asking me to put in initials for my high score.
I'll give it four out of five; ungainly interface aside, it works. A single update to the hailing process, putting drivers and riders closer together, would turn up Fare's increasing appeal.
"Go to the Next One"
Dallas-based Get Me emphasizes tight focus on safety and accountability, per their site. (Get Me did not respond to my inquiries.) From what's understood about their driver integration process, their vetting is thorough.
Get Me's app setup is middling at best. It allows you to scan your card, but has no PayPal or social media log-in. Logging in and out requires your phone number, then entering a code that's texted to you. Making a move from Patika Coffee on South Lamar to Dominican Joe on South Congress, I hail my driver, Reynaldo, at 2:26pm. The pickup is in 13 minutes. Glad I didn't need to get anywhere in a hurry.
On the app, he appears to be floating toward me. As with Fare, the car looks cartoonish, but more fun. However, Reynaldo is serious business. Even his name commands respect. RAY-NAUL-DO. It's a real man's name. Fifteen minutes later, his Nissan Versa arrives.
During the ride, the mapping doesn't seem exact or responsive, and is a bit slow in providing guidance. Though glad to be driving, Reynaldo thinks the infrastructure leaves a little to be desired, too.
"I like Uber a lot better [than Get Me], personally. It seems to be more accurate. [Uber] would ping the closest driver to the rider. [Get Me shows] one, or five, or 10 different riders requesting rides, and you've got to actually hold the phone in your hand and look at the zip code. Then you press on that ride, and it will say, 'Job taken.' Go to the next one, press it, 'Job taken.' Go to the next one." In other words, more Thumb Olympics qualification times.
There is a star rating system for driver performance, and descriptive payment and receipt pages. Reynaldo's good service is sullied unfairly by the driver app architecture. It just takes too long – though as with Fare, a single update could turn the tide. For now, I score it two out of five.
The Great Unknown
Arcade City, wholly unregulated and untamed, has flipped the ridesharing concept on its ear. It's a peer-to-peer system with no middleman – and currently no app, either, though there's supposedly one on the way. Completely anarchist in approach (you hail a ride by posting to its Facebook group), its intriguing ecosystem has earned fans and detractors alike.
Currently the subject of a police sting operation, its system is being tested, likely because these exchanges occur without the city receiving its cut – though, technically, rides not exceeding the 54 cents per mile federal reimbursement rate are legal.
It takes about 10 minutes to get accepted into the nearly 40,000-member Facebook group. It's like the Deep Web of ridesharing. You select all rides and can schedule them for any time. There isn't anything you can't get, short of an airliner. There's even one request for a trailer pull to a Midwestern state.
After posting for a ride on Facebook, I catch a ride with "Beth" (not her real name)in her luxury SUV, from the Riverside/Congress Chevron over to Patika to meet a friend. The seats have adjustable A/C, which I highly appreciate. Having no app to discuss, I ask "Beth" about Arcade City's efficacy and workload.
Appreciative of the community, she acknowledges it can be too much community. "Uber and Lyft, and with these other ones too, you go online, you work and then you go offline. [With] this, we're giving out our personal phone numbers. [I'll] get texts at two in the morning on Tuesday, so I'm like, 'What are you doing out drinking on Tuesday?' It's definitely a round-the-clock thing. I mean we're in essence running our own business, but with the way that the regulations are in the city, we can't make ..." She trails off. More or less finishing her thought: The whole operation isn't exactly legal.
The trip is amazing, of course, because she's exceedingly pleasant, and also my whole body is refrigerated at this point. The service is hand to hand, and "donation"-based, so I came prepared. I ask for change for a $20.
"This is another part of it – I'm going to trust you," she says, pulling out a small packet of bills. There's an inherent security risk built into Arcade City's system, in that drivers will most likely have to have some cash on hand.
"There have been times when people have been, 'Oh, do you have $10 or do you have change?' I'm trying to get in my pocket because I'm driving, and it's like, 'Oh, let me pull out all this money,' you know what I mean? At the end of the night, I could have a couple hundred bucks in my pocket. Who's to say they don't rob me?"
Still, the sense of community, and implicit ask for mutual safety, seem to be working. As of this writing, I've heard of no reports of violence or robbery – nothing short of amazing given the number of interactions. Even with the potential dangers, I give it four out of five.
Austin nonprofit RideAustin has considerable local muscle, with enthusiastic backing from the tech community and a launch led by Austin entrepreneurs Joe Liemandt of Trilogy and Andy Tryba of Crossover. It aims high civically, including features that ideally should enable drivers to earn more, while creating an altruistic sense of "local" for riders. Having just launched on June 16, it's the newest ridesharing service on the market – and clearly a work in progress.
The Uber-like app is easy to look at, very clean in its approach. I was able to sign up via Facebook, but it still asks you to create a profile. Central to RideAustin's aspirations, there's a function enabling riders to "Round Up" fares, which brings up a list of charities you can donate to.
Looking at the map, I would've expected more cars. Over a thousand drivers have been on-boarded by RideAustin, with Downtown being a focus. (The service area is currently limited to the airport and 78701-05 zip codes.) Monday afternoon definitely isn't prime time, but no more than six cars appear at any one glance. Hailing a ride is clear-cut, with minimal lag in acquiring a driver, but the wait time is seven minutes.
Bill – London-born, New York-raised – and his Isuzu Rodeo arrive for my quick jaunt from Cenote on Cesar Chavez to Easy Tiger on Sixth. He asks me if my destination is on West or Dirty Sixth, which drew curiosity. "The navigation isn't functional at all, but it's only been three days," he says, completely unconcerned. "There's going to be bumps. Other than that, I find it quite functional. It's easy to get a ride."
On the driver's side, the app operates similarly to Uber's where, as Bill describes it, a rider request "pops up, and you have so many seconds to hit it." Payment and review page are uncluttered and painless following drop-off. However, there is no page to review previous rides.
Barely hatched at the time of my ride, the app needs more development time, and couldn't be fairly judged. It gets an "incomplete."
The well-funded San Francisco outfit Wingz typically does scheduled airport/black-car service, but has started a citywide service called WingzAround. It's not a ridesharing service in the same vein as the aforementioned apps – more of a depth-creating wrap-around service, with a hint of class. Drivers must use spotless vehicles, models no older than 2011. You can re-select a favorite driver, as with their regular service. I decide to use it because it's aimed at a particular, moneyed share of other "normal" ridesharing apps' collective base.
As it's more or less a booking service, signing up for the service is simple and non-intrusive. I take a ride from Starbucks near the Mueller H-E-B to get to a story interview at Apothecary on Burnet Road. You enter the locations, rider count, and a pickup time (which must be at least two hours out). It is intentionally more expensive, as it caters to your typical black-car rider. (It cost $15, where Fasten would've charged $9 for the same ride.) The driver is put at ease, not having to chase rides or beat a clock. For the rider, there's no map or tracking. You'll get a text from your driver within 40 minutes of booking, and that's it.
The finish is easy, and a driver rating can be done. I personally would not use this service, unless for a very specific purpose that required forethought. But it's a top-end experience, and I'd give it – for what it actually is – a five out of five.
Brave New World
Among the apps I test-drove, Fasten offered the strongest experience on my initial and subsequent trips. It must be said that long wait times outside of the coveted city center aren't uncommon. The capable Fare, and middling Get Me, will suffer if they continue forcing drivers to fish open waters with pistols. These issues are not drastic, however, and could all be easily fixed in future updates.
Fasten's experience ranked just ahead of Arcade City, simply on the basis that it was legal, insured, and had Uber/Lyft familiarity. Though the Arcade City encounter was unusually liberating, I understand getting into a car with a stranger, beholden only to an honor system, could be unsettling for rider and driver both. With regard to the reported sting, Arcade City is offering to pay fines and legal fees for those caught.
As for Austin's ridesharing future, as with anything, the cream will rise to the top. Only the most agile, adaptable, and well-paying will survive. Overall, there's a curious lack of urgency concerning fingerprinting and background checks – odd following its emphasis during Prop 1. Save RideAustin's rules-following (it pays for drivers' fingerprint-based background checks) and Get Me's supposedly stringent on-boarding process, safety does not seem to be an all-essential focus since the proposition.
Rumors of Uber contacting former drivers are already making the rounds. If Uber and Lyft re-enter Austin with some resolution with the city in hand, the apps and Arcade City will face a considerable uphill battle in retaining drivers, who bear no allegiances except to livable, and preferably legal, wages. The driver jostling alone speaks volumes about employment and cost of living in Austin.
"We're in that weird position where we're scrambling to work," explains Luis, from Fasten. "There's always gonna be a couple of winners. If it turns out Fasten is just not cutting it, I would switch over – no problem."
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