As Uber And Lyft Race Back To Austin, Riders And Drivers Proceed With Caution

May 23, 2017

Aubrey McIntosh sauntered out of an office on East Seventh Street, a new pink moustache in hand.

“I would hate to not be able to drive,” said McIntosh, a retired chemistry professor who had just reactivated his Lyft driver account at the company’s local office.

McIntosh drove for both Lyft and Uber before they left town last May. He said he likes driving for Fare, which pays him almost twice as much as Uber did, but he feels he needs to drive for multiple ride-hailing apps.

“The other companies may quit doing business because Uber’s got a deeper pocket or some other reason,” he said. “Nobody knows the future.”

One thing that is close to certain: the future will most likely include Uber’s and Lyft’s return to Austin. Last week, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 100, which transfers the power to regulate ride-hailing companies from municipalities to the state.

The bill paves the way for the companies, which left Austin over fingerprint-based background checks of drivers, to return to the city. On Thursday, both companies said they'd be back on Monday.

If the bill becomes law, ride-hailing companies would still be required to conduct background checks, although fingerprint-based checks wouldn't be mandated. The city would also no longer be able to collect fees from the companies. In the past year, Austin earned a little more than $915,000 from ride-hailing companies.

Will drivers go back?

On a recent Friday afternoon, Martin Martinez held the hands of his two young children as he walked out of the Lyft office. He had just reactivated his driver account, too.

“The only reason why I came to do this is because competition is going to be hard,” he said.

Both Uber and Lyft left Austin last year over a city ordinance that requires fingerprint-based background checks of drivers.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

Martinez said he was able to pull in more money driving for RideAustin and Fasten, but if the riders flock back to the international companies, he will follow.

“If [current ride-hailing apps] are slow, I still have to make money,” he said.

Harlan Beverly, assistant director of Texas Venture Labs at the University of Texas, said brand loyalty may be hard to find among drivers.

“I think their biggest issue is fear,” he said. “[That] if they just stick to one service, or maybe just two, and they don’t go back to Uber and Lyft, that they’re going to miss out on the rides and therefore not have enough work.”

In the year since Uber has been out of town, the company has kicked up some controversy. Most recently, the Department of Justice announced it was investigating the company for software it allegedly used to circumvent local ride-hailing regulations; the investigation includes the City of Austin.

One driver said she was thrilled to hear of the big dogs – at least one of them – returning to Austin.

“I really love Lyft, so I will start driving for Lyft again when we can,” said Amy Morris, who drives part-time for ride-hailing companies. The Round Rock resident said she liked how Lyft treated its drivers.

But was her excitement a rejection of the current ride-hailing options?

“I drove for Fare and I really love them,” she said.

Where do riders stand?

Brothers Paul and Sam Cook sat at a wooden picnic table in the side yard of Cheer Up Charlies on Red River Street, waiting for a friend’s band to play.

“I remember when Uber and Lyft left initially, I started using Fasten, and I couldn’t tell that much of a difference besides frequency of drivers,” Paul said. “For me, honestly, [their absence] really hasn’t been a big deal.”

But the new apps were not without their kinks. Of the seven ride-hailing companies currently operating in the city, at least two crashed on New Year’s Eve and during the first weekend of SXSW 2017.

Regardless, Paul said he feels a sense of loyalty to homegrown options.

“I honestly feel like I would probably stick with RideAustin just because Uber and Lyft left,” he said.

But Nick Roland, a recent PhD graduate, said he had been counting the days until Uber’s and Lyft’s return.

“I can’t wait for it to happen,” he said. “Competition is great and I’m glad that there are local providers. But at the end of the day, there's a reason why Uber and Lyft are leaders in the field, and that’s because they provide the best service, they have the best network.”

Because HB 100 received overwhelming support in the Texas Legislature, it’ll go into effect immediately once Gov. Greg Abbott signs the bill. Uber and Lyft have indicated they will resume Austin operations immediately.