A World Without Uber: Dispatches From Austin

What was life like before Uber and Lyft? Austin, Texas is finding out the hard way

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jun 16, 2016 at 6:06 PM ET

Austin, Texas has become a ridesharing wasteland. One month ago, Uber and Lyft left the city, abandoning their 10,000 drivers—and leaving the city’s residents in a state of transportation chaos.

“Nobody really thought this was actually going to happen,” said driver Sarah Cooper, who spoke to Vocativ on a stormy afternoon in Texas. “There’s too much to lose in Austin, everybody said.” Cooper had been providing about 150 rides a week between Lyft and Uber before they left.

It’s been a month since Austinites narrowly voted down Proposition 1, which means rideshare drivers must now be subjected to a fingerprint-based background check in order to work for a ridesharing company. The defeat prompted the two Silicon Valley-based companies to leave Austin on May 9.  

In their place, they left a patchwork of rogue Facebook groups, drivers struggling to find rides, bartenders terrified to over serve, and stranded drunks trying to get home.

“I Don’t Think They’re Actually Gonna Leave”

This was a common refrain Cooper heard from her passengers as she schlepped them home in her 2012 Kia Sorento, which she has been using for Uber and Lyft since December. Austin is a city of nearly one million people with a paltry 900 licensed cabs.

On May 9, 10,000 Uber drivers effectively lost their jobs. So they did what anyone in 2016 does, they turned to Facebook to mobilize—and soon enough the passengers followed. In the month since Proposition 1, a “Request A Ride” group has more than 35,000 members and another underground page contains another 7,000 members.

The new system works like this: A prospective rider posts their pickup location within the group and within minutes several drivers usually comment with their contact information and screenshot of their Uber and/or Lyft profile. From there, the passenger and chosen driver negotiate a trip price privately. Forms of payment vary from driver to driver, but most people pay with cash, or with mobile apps Venmo, Square, or Paypal.

“There have already been people who were not previously Uber or Lyft drivers just hopping on the page and giving rides,” said Cooper, who now serves as a driver in the Facebook group. “Who knows who they are? Who knows if they’re a felon or not?”There’s a few immediate red flags about this new Facebook-driven system. First and foremost, there’s the obvious concern of hundreds of people posting their exact locations and destinations to a group of 35,000 other locals. Equally alarming, there’s no way of knowing who’s actually picking you up. Anyone can join the group, make a Facebook profile, and photoshop a fake Uber profile to their liking.

Cooper said she saw a passenger in the group reporting a driver who had been drinking. The group’s admins immediately banned the accused drunk driver, “but still, one is too many,” she says.  

Drivers assume the same risks, of course. Without a passenger rating system, drivers are essentially going off of a Facebook profile, which again, can be easily faked.

“With Uber and Lyft, you had to have a credit card. So that helped weed out some of the more dangerous people you’d run into,” Cooper, a former software developer, said.

The absence of ridesharing insurance is another safeguard that drivers miss. Uber and Lyft both charged passengers if they damaged the vehicle. Under the current system, that’s all gone. “For example if somebody vomits in your car, which is a very true, high-risk scenario—especially with college students—Uber gave you a cleaning fee,” Cooper said. “Now you just hope and pray that person will help clean it up or give you extra money.”

From the passenger perspective, the ease of summoning a ride nearby is mostly gone. Instead of hailing the closest cars, you’re posting to drivers all around the city.

A desperate driver could say she’s around the corner, even if she’s actually across town.

“The closest driver isn’t dispatched anymore, it’s really the driver who’s sitting on Facebook,” Morgan Taylor, a former Uber passenger said. “It’s great we have this option right now, but it’s not reliable.”

So has this system worked for former Uber and Lyft drivers, financially? Cooper says that while the volume of rides have drastically decreased, earnings have remained about the same thanks to passenger generosity and the realization that drivers are going farther out of their way than they used to. Another driver recently told Bloomberg he’s making “stripper money” through the group.

“The community as a whole has been very receptive to us. For a ride that would cost $6 or $8 on Uber, people were giving us $20 just because they were so thrilled to have a ride,” Cooper said.

The Zombie Apocalypse of Drunk People

Austin drinks—a lot. The city’s downtown area has more bars per capita than anywhere else in America. Its residents drink harder than all other Texans. That’s not even accounting for the thousands of tourists who travel to Austin for huge events like South by Southwest, the X Games, and Texas Longhorn football games each year.

Combine the city’s affinity for drinking with a largely despised transportation system, cabs that refuse to take people on short trips, and severely limited ridesharing options and you’re asking for midnight mayhem.

“The first Friday and Saturday after Uber was gone, we were joking that it was like the zombie apocalypse of drunk people,” Cooper said.

People were so desperate for rides, she said, that she’d pull up to a corner and pedestrians would offer to hop in her car as soon as they spotted her old Uber and Lyft emblems in the windshield. “They don’t even know who I am,” she chuckled in amazement.

Even more troubling than the late-night pedestrian concern is Austin’s rampant drunk driving problem—last year the city had more than 5,800 DWI arrests, according to police data. Back in December the city’s Police Chief Art Acevedo expressed concern for how an Uberless Austin would affect the road safety. “If we take away the (ride-hailing firms) here and in other cities, it definitely will impact DWI,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Recent data obtained from the Austin Police Department would seem to support Acevedo’s narrative. In the first three week after Uber and Lyft left Austin, DWI arrests were up 7.5 percent over the same time last year. City police made 359 DWI arrests from May 9, 2016 (the day Uber and Lyft shut down) to May 31, 2016. During that same period in 2015, Austin police made 334 DWI arrests.

Whether ridesharing services actually affect the rate of drunk driving in cities remains up for debate. Some studies cite a drastic drop off in DWIs, while others claim there’s no correlation between the two at all. Regardless, local Austin drivers say they’ve seen more alarming behavior downtown than ever before.

“You can literally hear people leaving the bars saying ‘just forget it, I’ll drive, it’s not that far,’” she said of the bar crowd frustrated by the late-night transportation limitations.

With the limited number of ways to get home, Morgan Taylor, who works as a bartender, says the situation has not only caused a noticeable drop in sales but also changed the way she serves her customers. Should someone leave her bar, decide to drive drunk, and cause an accident, the Texas Beverage Code holds both the bar and individual bartenders responsible in civil suits.

“I used to say ‘hey are you taking an Uber or Lyft home?’ now it’s just three drinks and ‘I’m sorry I have to cut you off.’”

The Window Of Opportunity

It didn’t take long for ridesharing entrepreneurs to flock to Austin after Uber’s departure. One of the new entrants, Arcade City, is leveraging the 35,000-person Facebook as a placeholder before its app launches later this month.

Arcade City hopes to be the “Uber killer” and establish a system that removes the middleman in ridesharing. Passengers will be able to choose drivers based on proximity, profile, and rating as opposed to being assigned a driver, as is the case with Uber and Lyft. It’s cheaper, too. Riders and passengers will negotiate a rate just like they do within its massive Facebook community. The only way Arcade City gets a cut of the ride is if there’s a payment through the app (passengers still have the option to pay with other methods). But until the app gets off the ground, the group faces organizational obstacles by operating off a social network.

“There’s this confusion [on the Facebook page] of what’s the standard on Arcade City,” said Nick Fowler, a longtime Uber driver who recognizes that its founder, entrepreneur Christopher David, is doing his best to get its app out quickly. “The riders aren’t very informed about the page and it’s making it difficult for drivers to service their requests.”

When the Arcade City app does eventually launch, it’ll give drivers the option to undergo an Austin-mandated fingerprint screening and attach it to their profile. “Our drivers are entrepreneurs, free to make their own choices about how they want to comply (or not) with government regulations,” the company states on its website. “Some of our drivers want to get fingerprinted and comply with the Austin regulations. Some do not. We respect their choices.” Arcade City will face a decision early next year though, when rideshare companies are forced to fall in line with the new ordinance on Feb. 1, 2017.

On the other hand, other apps like Fare, Fasten, and GetMe are more than happy to comply with the new fingerprinting policy. The problem, Fowler says, is that the slow registration process has prevented companies from properly scaling their driver force.

“I respect what these other apps are doing but they cannot onboard fast enough because of the fingerprint background check,” he said. “You’re seeing these apps struggle because you can’t onboard 10,000 drivers since the city has to be involved in these checks.”

Deserted Drivers

Nick Fowler says he quit two part-time jobs to work exclusively for Uber, and over the course of nearly two years, he gave more than 4,000 rides. When the ridesharing giant left Austin, so did most of his work. He now wakes up early each morning and makes the hour-long drive to San Antonio, an area where Uber still operates, and then comes back home to service clients he’d cultivated through his Uber career.

“I’ve probably taken about a 50 percent cut in earnings,” he said over the phone. “When everything disappears all at once, your life changes dramatically, I’ll tell you that.”

Fowler says his work days are longer and harder than they were during the pre-Prop 1 era, but he’s also taken the time to pursue an opportunity he’s been mulling: A ridesharing cooperative that complies with city policies but also sets its own fares. He hopes to gather a band of drivers who can freely operate around the city and gradually build a clientele base for itself.

“Uber and Lyft left town and opened the door for entrepreneurs like myself who have great ideas to improve Uber service but they won’t listen to us,” the former delivery driver said. “They don’t care about drivers. They don’t care about lowering the rates. But their end game is not drivers, it’s logistics.”

Uber and Lyft threw everything they had at Proposition 1. They made robocalls, they texted drivers, Lyft even brought out Taylor Kitsch, the actor who played loveable meathead Tim Riggins on “Friday Night Lights.” When all was said and done, the two giants dropped more than $8 million lobbying against Proposition 1 (the anti-Prop 1 PAC spent just $170,000 in opposition). According to some, that push might’ve been too aggressive for the city’s liking.

“We’re not gonna allow a corporation to call the shots around here. They could’ve handled this a lot better. They’re acting like big babies,” Fowler said, noting that the city has given ridesharing companies several months to comply with the new fingerprinting rules.

This is the current environment in Austin, where the two ridesharing goliaths are still invited to operate. Drivers miss the ease of universally-used apps, riders long for the days of speedy pickups and seamless transactions. Both parties, however, feel at least somewhat spurned by Uber and Lyft’s harsh tone and immediate exit.

Morgan Taylor, the bartender now prisoner to the city’s spotty transportation system, doesn’t believe in letting billion-dollar startups make the laws in her city any time soon.

“If you wanna play the game,” she said. “It’s time to play by the rules.”

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