My Life on Apps

With help from Favor, Instacart, Car2Go, Uber, Lyft, Spokefly, B-cycle, and more, we try to survive Austin with little more than a smartphone

My Life on Apps

The jerk who hit my car last month didn't bother to leave a note. He backed into my driver's side one Sunday; knocked the hatch and window out of whack. When I took it into the shop, they said it would cost $1,100 to repair.

I waived the rental car being offered free of charge that day. I'd arrived with other plans. For that week, I'd get around exclusively on apps downloaded to my iPhone. Any trip, every purchase – annoying errands would be run for me.

The timing was right for an experiment like this. So much has been made lately of our civic need to be more agile in our habits of transit that it's begun to feel dirty owning a car. Think congestion, environmental impacts, and all that money to keep it running. My car's my most expensive possession to maintain, and I don't even like its color.

While it was temporarily out of sight and out of mind, I tried to learn if I could leave it.

Hot Wheels

The Car2Go I found had a Styrofoam coffee cup in the front holder. "Is the interior clean?" the pre-start prompt system asked as I sat down inside the two-door Smart car. I delighted in tapping "No."

Since 2009, when it launched in Austin, the subsidiary of European auto company Daimler AG has deployed 375 different cars around an amorphous zone within the city, extending from Stassney Lane to Highway 183 between Springdale Road and MoPac. It boasts the most extensive sign-up process of any online transport service that I tested. That's for good reason: With Car2Go, you're temporarily acquiring your own car.

Along with ZipCar, which operates under a very similar model (its inventory includes many different makes and models), Car2Go stands as the most flexible and personally empowering rideshare service in Austin. For $0.41 a minute, you get a car that you can drive wherever you'd like within the city. Get past the cheap transmission and lack of decent storage space, and that's a pretty solid deal. My first trip stretched three miles, cost $5.74, and lasted 14 minutes.

The next day had me cruising to the office before a meeting in East Austin. I wanted to use Carma Carpooling, a commuter rideshare program that caters to 2,000 in greater Austin, but nobody on the program rides east-to-west through Central Austin. I took a Lyft to the Chronicle (1.3 miles, $6.60) and cruised to the meeting via city bus (where single rides just jumped to $1.25). If you can get past the wonky address entry tabs on Cap Metro's app you'll find a pretty reliable resource; better than any of the grids laid out in Cap Metro pamphlets. An inefficient route up Chicon and around campus had me in a Car2Go back home.

Dinner that night required I do some shopping before cooking. Rather than run out, I tapped into Instacart, a San Francisco-based online grocery-delivery service recently valued at $2 billion, and ordered $43.28 in groceries from H-E-B. Choosing what to order took less than five minutes altogether. I finished work for the day and went out for a long run. Shortly after returning, a college-aged kid knocked on my door and presented two bags of groceries. He said H-E-B didn't have two products I requested. Like everything else this week, my refund was automatic.

Anything You Want (You Got It!)

That Wednesday, I took a Car2Go west on 38th Street to an office on Glenview Lane.

I was there to check out Favor, the order-anything-you-want app responsible for the cars around town decked out in blue bowties. Specifically, I was there for an afternoon ride-along.

Founded in 2013 by Zac Maurais and Ben Doherty, Favor currently services four cities: Austin, Dallas, Boston (where "runners" ride bikes around the city), and, just recently, Houston. Each town has an office, but the company is headquartered in Austin. Excitable college kids maneuver throughout the boxes and desks around the converted residence. A sign on the wall reads: "'Love' is a strong word. All we did was bring you food."

Avalon, my liaison for the afternoon, is a senior in UT's Radio-Television-Film department who wants to produce bad reality television after she graduates. She started working for Favor last April, beginning as a runner before jumping to a salaried position as a moderator (think dispatchers for a taxi company). She's back on the road with me, she says, because she can talk both sides of the business.

Though its brand and messaging centers around food delivery, Favor will actually deliver anything (except alcohol) to most corners within the city.

"Yesterday, we got one [order] for a Christmas tree," says Avalon. "It took a while to find a runner with a truck."

Avalon has delivered everything from watermelons and condoms to a full set of furniture to furnish someone's rental home, but admits the job consists more basically of cell phone chargers and hurried dinners. She recounts one night in which she delivered a pizza to a family: "I guess their kids were being bad that night, because they were screaming when I got there. The mom was crying. She gave me a hug and $50."

Indeed, in a city long lacking an ample supply of restaurants that deliver, it's nice to finally have someone go out and grab your dinner when you're busy. That Favor's runners also run annoying errands to CVS makes the business model more attractive.

"They don't care [how long a delivery takes], as long as you're talking to them," advises Avalon. "You could be like, 'I'm in standstill traffic on I-35,' and they'll say, 'At least it's you and not me.'" Which is damn true, and something I'd see firsthand: You can chop a lot of produce in the time it takes to run to RadioShack and get some speaker wire for your stereo.

Like Instacart, Favor makes its money by charging process and delivery fees to every order a customer makes. Each processing costs 1% of the order total. In November, Favor adjusted its tiered model on delivery fees so that all orders cost a flat rate of $5.

The change puts runner compensation completely on the buyer. While runners do pocket a percentage of each delivery fee, the bulk of their earnings comes through tips. And since tips are essentially optional, you can technically live in East Austin and send for Wholy Bagel west on William Cannon (a lengthy trip) without dropping an extra penny. Quoth Avalon: "Our suggested tip will raise, but you can also lower it. It's kind of up to you." (Always tip generously, people.)

The company keeps one spot on its "No Fly" list: Franklin Barbecue. "We recommend other local BBQ joints in town," writes director of operations Roger Chavez. "If they are dead set on Franklin, we will recommend another service." San Francisco imports Postmates and TaskRabbit are available. And they won't supply booze: There's BrewDrop and Boston-based booze delivery app Drizly for that.

One of these nights I used Drizly to pick up six bottles of wine, which worked perfectly; with wine, I don't know what I'm actually pulling from the racks anyway. I posted payment info, picked out whichever bottle's labels looked interesting, took a 40-minute snooze, woke up, and started drinking the delivery.

Pedaling Density

By Thursday it wasn't so much that I missed driving my own car as I dreaded the constant considerations I'd have to take whenever I left the house. Where was I headed? Was I bringing anything? Is a Car2Go within walking distance? Couldn't someone else just bring it to me?

I was bumming about Carma Carpooling's dearth around my neighborhood and didn't like the idea of using Uber and Lyft unless I absolutely had to. Intelligent people who study trends on transit pricing professionally believe both companies will eventually lower rates enough to compete with plans like Car2Go, but for now – for daily use – they're just too pricey. Bus routes rarely work for quick trips (unless they're on an ideal route) and sometimes the nearest Car2Go's not close. Thursday afternoon after work I walked so far to find one that I ultimately chose to forgo the Smart car and hoof it home.

What I needed was a bike. That's exactly what I could not get.

Austin provides plenty of ways to rent a bike but only two in which you can pick up a two-wheeler on-demand: Spokefly, a San Francisco-based company founded last spring by native Austinite Nate McGuire, and B-cycle, the civically run bikeshare program with the baskets and red bicycles you see hitched along the many futuristic vestibules Downtown.

Both companies have found markets around the urban core. Get outside the city center, though, and you'll find your options lacking: a few bikes available around UT, East Sixth Street, and Travis Heights, but sincere scarcity elsewhere within the city. It would have taken me 20 minutes to walk to the nearest Spokefly on the days in which I tried to use the program; for B-cycle, add 10 minutes.

"You need geographic density," McGuire explains when I ask him about Spokefly's geographic constricts. "It's really hard to just create."

Spokefly connects privately owned bicycles with riders. Bike owners list their second or third set of wheels on the app, and potential riders can then rent it for $0.15 per minute up to $45 per day. (Providers get paid monthly, Spokefly's website says, "based on how often your bike is used.") It's an old model given a new sheen thanks to the smartphone. McGuire's seen it grow throughout San Francisco, a confined city more taken with on-demand living (check Washio for laundry!).

"Our most active users are using it to commute," he says. "But where we're at now is not where we intend to be. In order for this to be useful, you have to be able to walk to a bike pretty quickly. That requires density. We need more bikes, and we're expanding acquisition." Soon, he hopes to expand services around Hyde Park and South Lamar.

As Spokefly becomes more prevalent, its competition with B-cycle will ride further into focus. B-cycle launched November 2013, and has grown to now include 375 bicycles within its fleet. Executive Director Elliott McFadden said that the service's stations could eventually expand up to the university but that growth into more residential neighborhoods is less likely. Right now, the focus remains on beefing up density within its current service area.

"We're speed competitive with cars in that [half-mile to two-mile] range," says McFadden. "The shorter the distance, we're actually faster."

There's less certainty surrounding its being cheaper, however. At $8 to unlock a bike for the day and additional charges for more than a half-hour of use, B-cycle's economic advantages cater only to those within the city center who take on a series of short trips each day.

The High Cost of Easy Living

In fact, very few of these options are actually cheaper.

That goes foremost for the delivery apps. Immediately cut them from future conversations concerning frugal living. That's "time is money" mathematics, and you're paying for convenience. Moreover, the service neglects little things like accounting for sales on certain food at the grocery stores it features. $0.49/pound bananas could go for a dollar if you're shopping on Instacart. Highway robbery, and then you tip your driver.

The transportation debate carries more confusion, and varies from person to person. Take my situation: Excluding emergency maintenance, owning my car costs me $11 per day. Without calculating for maintenance, that includes insurance, a low monthly payment, and $75 in the tank for gas (though that's obviously lessening as the cost of oil plummets). I can get around the city by bike and bus for $2.50 per day, but that would result in a significant decrease in the amount of time I have to do other things. Buses are slow, and transfers can be a hassle.

Uber and Lyft get expensive quickly – especially if you're trying to get around during an hour in which dynamic pricing's in effect. Car2Go's currently your cheapest option of the three, though that may soon be changing. Uber dropped its prices in Austin in early January. To stay competitive, Lyft will likely follow.

I haven't used either since getting my car back from the shop. In fact, for reasons pertaining to both cost and convenience, I've largely neglected using apps and services in the new year. Okay, one night I ordered chicken wings through Favor. Some things are worth 10 extra dollars to ensure that your delivery driver's the only soul who sees you bought it.

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