Ride Hailing Makes Austin Better -- For Those Who Can Pay (Opinion)

Ride-hailing, while it comes in handy in certain instances, is far too expensive to be the sort of transportation game changer that its more vigorous supporters portray.

by Ben Wear, Austin American-Statesman / July 26, 2016
(AP/Richard Vogel)

(TNS) -- I’ve been app-hailing rides lately, as you might have read elsewhere on American-Statesman terrain.

Our tech coverage team enlisted me to be one of seven reporters who did test runs on the various ride-hailing apps (and the one for Yellow Cab) that have crowded the Austin landscape in the wake of Uber and Lyft skedaddling in May. I was the RideAustin guy, and frankly my team finished in the back of the pack. It was pricier than most and a bit slower to get me where I was going on our comparison jaunt between the Statesman building and a Hyde Park restaurant.

I’d like to tell you how my rides compared with Lyft’s and Uber’s, but I can’t. I never got around to taking a ride using the two “legacy” apps before they went dark in Austin on May 9 in protest of the electoral defeat of a substitute ordinance they wanted put in the city code.

I happened to mention my status as a ride-hailing virgin to a Lyft public relations rep the day before the May 7 election, and he didn’t really try to hide his incredulity or his contempt. How could I write about something that I hadn’t even used, he asked. I said that by that standard, there are a lot of reporters who had better take their hands off the keyboard. I had talked to plenty of folks who had taken rides, including my daughter, and really, how mysterious could it be?

You hail the ride, it shows up, you get in and go, and then you get out at the destination and rate the driver on the app. Shows up faster than a cab, costs less, the car is often nicer, and the driver might be more cheerful. Done.

But, truthfully, I probably should have taken some rides before the election.

I did starting May 9, when the departure of Uber and Lyft left GetMe as the only game in town (though that didn’t last long). I figured I should find out whether GetMe would take a long time to show up, for lack of drivers, or cost a huge amount. I took two short rides downtown that Monday. The drivers showed up quickly, and I paid the minimum of about $6.50.

Now, thanks to the Statesman’s comparison gambit, I’ve taken five more rides. And what it says to me is that ride-hailing, while it comes in handy in certain instances, is far too expensive to be the sort of transportation game changer that its more vigorous supporters portray.

I paid just over $63 for those five RideAustin trips (more than $12 per trip), traveling about 28 miles. That amounts to $2.25 a mile, or about four times the Internal Revenue Service’s figure for the cost per mile of operating a car. Put another way, at that rate, if I took ride-hailing vehicles for 10,000 miles a year (low for me), it would cost $22,500.

Now, I’ll stipulate here that the figure would be lower on Lyft or Uber, or even Fare, which did well in our comparison runs. But I’m guessing it would still be $15,000 or more. Even that figure would be way out of reach for most people.

Owning and driving a car carries its own substantial cost, of course, in buying the vehicle and using it for a few years, and paying for gas, repairs, parking and insurance. These costs can vary widely, depending principally on what kind of car you buy (new or used, Kia or BMW), but most estimates I’ve seen have it well below $10,000 a year. And once the car note is paid off, that dips even more.

I talked about all this with a ride-hailing veteran last week, one who has been living in Austin without a car for some time now. The enthusiast, whom I can’t name because of her employer, talked about how one service was offering a carpool option in some cities and how that cuts the cost in half or more on those rides. But of course, that means you have to share the car with strangers and chance being the first one picked up and the last one dropped off, adding time to the trip.

Beyond that, my correspondent is single and lives not far from downtown. Try living without a car if your home is in Circle C, Pflugerville, Anderson Mill or even farther out. Throw a child or two into the mix. The ride-hailing bills would be astronomical. And, by the way, that ride hailer I talked to is now shopping for a car.

Fans of “Silicon Valley,” the cable comedy about the tech industry, will recognize the phrase “making the world a better place.” On the show, the mostly young engineer/entrepreneurs flacking their software innovations reflexively trot out the phrase. The scathing joke is that while what they really want is to become the latest instanta-millionaire with a mansion on the side of a California hill, they have to tell themselves their particular product is being put out there for the good of mankind.

Particularly if, as is the case with ride hailing, the disruptive technology renders an entire industry and its workers anachronistic. Like, say, taxis and taxi drivers.

No doubt catching an Uber or Lyft or Fare or RideAustin is better than getting behind the wheel when it’s 2 a.m. and you’re plastered. Or even back at home at 7 p.m., in anticipation of drinking too much later. Downtown, paying the minimum to go back and forth (about $6 or $7 each way) might be cheaper than parking and certainly less troublesome. It makes great sense for airport rides and for the many out-of-towners whom Austin hosts. Someone depending on ride hailing might eliminate some trips, or walk or bike more. And, as many have noted, the taxi industry was ripe for the picking.

Ride hailing has its place, obviously, or Lyft and Uber would not have blown up in just a few years of existence. Austinites want it, use it and need for the victors of the ride-hailing gold rush here to provide a reliable and affordable service (while compensating the drivers fairly).

But don’t pretend that, for most people, it is transformative. Ride hailing is making Central Austin a better place … some of the time … for those who can afford it.

©2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.