In early May, when the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft pulled up stakes in Austin after the results of a contentious proposition vote, some predicted it would be a transportation disaster. Our town had become accustomed to a certain level of on-demand ride hailing, and with the two biggest players in the market abandoning Austin, it's been a subject of fierce debate as to how badly Austin's reputation as a tourist hub and a tech center would be damaged without these services.
The question on everyone's mind has been: how would ride-hailing continue here? Would it continue?
Only two months later, the void has been filled by more than a half dozen would-be successors to Uber and Lyft, some launched locally such as the nonprofit RideAustin, others arriving from other cities such as Phoenix-based Fare or InstaRyde, which recently expanded from Canada to serve Austin.
But are they any good? Is the fragmentation of the market creating confusion and spreading drivers out across too many services or is the increased competition driving down prices and giving riders more options?
That's what we set out to find out in 512tech's Great Summer of 2016 Ride-Hailing Test Run. Seven staffers were each assigned an app to test out to find out how well they work, how much rides cost, and whether these apps are good enough replacements for Uber and Lyft (which, for all we know could still return to Austin and upend the ride-hailing landscape all over again).
Want a quick summary of what we found? Read this shorter version of the story, which features a chart with pricing and other information. For a full accounting, read on...
The apps tested in alphabetical order were Fare, Fasten, GetMe, Hail A Cab, InstaRyde, RideAustin and Wingz. They were tested, respectively, by business reporter Gary Dinges, 512tech's Lilly Rockwell and Lori Hawkins, business reporter Tim Eaton, 512tech's Omar L. Gallaga, transportation reporter Ben Wear and features writer Arianna Auber.
A few notes on our testing: we excluded several service such as iCars and zTrip, which are more high-end black car services. We also excluded the peer-to-peer ride service Arcade City due to recent legal troubles; it seems risky to use it right now, legally speaking. We included Yellow Cab's Hail A Cab app to get a sense of how ride-hailing apps compare with a traditional cab company's offering.
For our main test, all seven Statesman reporters hailed a ride around lunchtime on a weekday from 305 S. Congress Ave. to Hyde Park Bar & Grill on Duval St. and back. We took notes on pricing, how long it took to get a ride, how the drivers treated us and whether the apps were easy to use. Each reporter then tried out their app for two more trips later in the week.
Here's how the tests went and some of our conclusions at the end of this story.
一Omar L. Gallaga
Length of time it took for rides to arrive once they were hailed: 2-3 minutes first time, 1-2 minutes on the ride back.
Length of time of rides: 12 minutes there; 16 minutes back
Cost of rides: $12.77 there; $14.93 back (plus $3 tip each way).
Drivers: Rifat there; Daniel back. Both used to drive for Uber and/or Lyft. Rifat was saving money to start his own business. Daniel was a Fare newbie. I was only his seventh trip.
App ease of use: Easy to install and use. One issue that arose on all trips: the ETA never updated. If it said six minutes to start, it stayed at six minutes the whole time, even though you could see the driver making progress toward the pickup location on the map above.
Overall experience: Both very nice, very chatty, knowledgeable about roads/traffic. Prices were higher than Uber and Lyft, but cheaper than most of their replacements. It appears that Fare offers actual phone numbers each way when you call or text your driver instead of a proxy (unlike, say, Uber), which could be a major safety concern.
Two more tries: Third trip was from the Arboretum area to downtown midday Friday. Outside of downtown, the wait time is considerably longer because there are fewer cars available. I’ve noticed this with all services. I had a 12-minute wait for this trip. The driver, Kevin, was awesome when he arrived, though. A very nice guy. Fourth trip was from downtown to the Arboretum area Friday night. Picked up by Sonja on W. Sixth Street in 2-3 minutes. Both these drivers had previously worked for Uber and/or Lyft, as well.
一 Gary Dinges
Length of time it took for rides to arrive: Four minutes on the way to the restaurant. On the way back, it took 10 minutes.
Length of time of rides: 12 minutes; 18 minutes.
Cost of rides: $10.51; $10.74. No tip required.
Drivers: The Fasten driver who picked me up from the Statesman was Eric, a microbiology student who has lived in Austin for 9 years.
“I’m pretty competitive,” I told him, “So it would be great if we could get there first.”
He took the Ride-Hailing Challenge seriously and we arrived at the restaurant first! No laws were broken, he just knew the fastest route to take, which turned out to be, strangely, I-35.
My return trip driver was Aisha, who was a little more laid-back and took a slower route back to the Statesman, going down Red River and then the I-35 access road. Not great if you’re in a hurry to get back to the office from a midday meeting. I came in 4th.
In the end, I gave both drivers a “thumbs up” on the app, which is Fasten’s driver rating system.
App ease of use: The app is extremely easy to download and sign-up was a breeze. Hailing a driver is also fairly easy, although when I used it to hail a ride to the restaurant the first driver assigned to me inexplicably canceled on me. One issue I found is that sometimes the app assigns you the wrong address based on where you are standing, and I couldn’t easily fix that.
Overall experience: Using Fasten was a great experience, though the app frequently underestimates how long it takes for the driver to arrive at your pick-up spot. The drivers I spoke to all said they liked Fasten because it was similar to Uber/Lyft.
Two more tries: I used Fasten a second time to attend Blues on the Green at Zilker Park. Hailing a ride from my house in South Austin was fairly easy, though the app listed my address incorrectly. On the way back, I had to “boost” my ride to get a driver (which is like surge pricing) but it ended up being cheaper than the trip to the park. Both rides were about $11. I also took Fasten on a short downtown trip, which cost around $5 from the Statesman.
一 Lilly Rockwell
Length of time it took for rides to arrive: Nine minutes and seven minutes.
Length of time of rides: 14 minutes and 17 minutes.
Cost of rides: $16.86, plus $2 tip; $14.72 plus $5 tip.
Drivers: Abe N arrived in a modest Toyota Corolla which clearly has a number of miles on it. He was great, very friendly. He has driven for the past two and a half years, mostly for Uber. He prefers GetMe by far because it doesn’t have surge pricing. “I hated charging people $60 for a $20 ride,” he said. “This is a much better system for riders and drivers.” Julie E, who has been a driver for six weeks, was very friendly and talkative. She is the mom of a disabled older child whose care previously made getting a job impossible. Driving for GetMe is perfect because she can work for a couple of hours, whenever she has availability. “No way would anybody hire me before,” she said. “This is a dream, because now I can make my own schedule. It has been huge for me.”
App ease of use: The GPS system overrode the Statesman address and kept telling my driver that I was on Lady Bird Lake. That stressed me out because I couldn’t change it, but my driver said that his GPS told him exactly where I was. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have worried. But as it was, I was sure he would never find me.
Overall experience: Both great experiences after the initial GPS worry.
Two more tries: I took GetMe round trip to Whole Foods on North Lamar on Sunday afternoon. My first driver, Ruth O, arrived in eight minutes. She was a hoot. She is a senior and used to play online poker for fun, but now she gets out and drives. Smooth jazz was playing and she had cups of complimentary mints in each back seat door. Ruth also drives for Wingz, so she takes a few scheduled rides and then drives GetMe and Fare during down times. “I only drive during the day, and I’ve never had a bad experience driving,” she said. “People are so friendly, I’ve had the best time meeting them.” Price for a 2.64 mile trip was $9.51, plus $2 tip.
My return driver was Jonathan C. Five minute arrival time, and he showed up in a Mercedes Benz C-class sedan. He shook my hand and introduced himself, and he was a talker. Price for 2.79 miles was $10.67, plus $2 tip.
Observation: These fares seemed high for a trip that was less than three miles, but both drivers made it such a positive experience that I would consider GetMe again, even if it costs a little more.
一 Lori Hawkins
HAIL A CAB AUSTIN
Length of time it took for rides to arrive: 7 minutes; 10 minutes.
Length of time of rides: 17 minutes; 18 minutes.
Cost of rides: $22.50 plus $5.25 tip; $14.90 plus $5 tip.
Drivers: Names didn’t appear in the app, but they each had ID in cab. Evans P. Ortega, a loyal cab driver for the past 16 years, was friendly and chatty, though he took me on a longer than needed ride to the restaurant. Ortega said his cab company, Yellow Cab Austin, should update the computer that calculates the fare and should lower its cost to the drivers. He added that business has suffered lately. "It is not as busy as it was,” he said. Sarmad Hasan, a former Lyft driver and a refugee from Iraq, said that the device that calculates fares didn’t always work properly, and when it broke over a recent holiday weekend, he was sidelined for three days. Further, the $360 a week the company charges to drive for Yellow Cab seems high, and the cost to outfit his minivan proved to be very costly, he said.
App ease of use: No problems.
Overall experience: The rides were easy, though the first one seemed to include too many miles, hence a larger fare. The second one was very pleasant and enjoyable because of the driver’s warm disposition.
Two more tries: The next two rides were easy, too, but the first cab was sent to my next-door neighbor’s house. On the second ride, I was lucky enough to get Sarmad Hasan again, and he was just as friendly as the first time.
一 Tim Eaton
Length of time it took for rides to arrive: 5 minutes; 14 minutes.
Length of time of rides: 14 minutes; 16 minutes.
Cost of rides: $7.25 (after a first-time-user $5 promo code) plus $2.23 optional tip; $11.98 plus $2.30 optional tip.
Drivers: Lavon, who drove a BMW 750i, has logged more than 3,000 rides for Uber and also currently drives for Fare. He had a lot of knowledge about Austin’s current state of ride-hailing and we had a great conversation, the first of several (see below). The ride back was with Tiffany, who drives a Nissan Altima. She was friendly and professional; the ride just took longer to get to me due to a lack of drivers in the Hyde Park area.
App ease of use: Overall, easy, although I had to input the Statesman’s address manually when it thought I was on the nearby hike and bike trail, which is something I used to have to do at times even with Uber. Luckily, InstaRyde's location search uses Google, which makes typing in a location name instead of a proper address an option. The app's slider is a little tough to get exact, post-ride. If you want to tip 20 percent, you're likely to hit 21 or 19. It would be great to have the option to input it manually or have a default percentage it always remembers as your preference. The feature that allows you to scan your credit card to set up payments instead of you requiring you to input all the numbers is a nice touch, one that's not available in all ride-hailing apps.
Overall experience: Getting a ride to Hyde Park was no problem, with the app bringing in a driver in five minutes once it had the corrected address. And, bonus, it was an immaculately clean BMW 750i that made my fellow ride-hailers jealous. The ride, which took us up IH-35, was smooth and quick. Getting a ride back took quite a while longer, with few cars on the road near Hyde Park. You have the option of a regular “Ryde” for up to four passengers, Ryde XL for up to six and luxury options Platinum and Platinum XL. It appears that when there aren’t enough drivers on the road, Platinum drivers such as Lavon are included in regular Ryde categories,
Two more tries: InstaRyde is the newest of the apps we tried 一 it launched on June 30 here 一 and that may be a problem in terms of number of drivers. Of the six rides I took, three of them were with the same driver. Luckily, that driver was Lavon, who has a gorgeous car, but to my knowledge cannot be cloned so that everybody using InstaRyde has the same great experience. On a late Friday afternoon seeking a ride to and from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, InstaRyde showed no drivers available in my area until Lavon popped into the app, on a return trip from, you guessed it, ABIA. Those trips cost about $21 each way, and I tipped $4 more. On an early evening round trip to W. Sixth Street, I had consistent pricing and ride times and no problem hailing a ride each way from the Statesman visitor lot. Each of those trips cost about $9, including a 20 percent tip.
一 Omar L. Gallaga
Length of time it took for rides to arrive: 7 minutes; 7 minutes.
Length of time of rides: 18 minutes; 15 minutes.
Cost of rides: $16.86 (no tip option on app); $15.50. I suspect that the three-minute shorter ride saved me money on the second ride.
Drivers: First ride: Mike. Failed to rate him because of haste and confusion, but I would have given him a 4. He was a nice guy, but needed guidance from me to find us at the Statesman, and drove really slow. His car was smallish, a Corolla, but neat and new. Second ride: Martha Ortiz. I gave her a 5 rating and she deserved it. Very nice, professional, good roomy car, spotless. Even having to wait for a train at 45th and Airport, we beat the other time by three minutes. She had driven for Uber and Lyft for a year before they left. She even sent me a texted thank you note about an hour after the ride.
App ease of use: App is very clear and easy to use. Of the apps we tested, it was the only one not available yet for Android devices. That version is due out soon.
Overall experience: I only began to use ride-hailing after the election, so I can’t compare the RideAustin app and experience directly to Uber or Lyft. But the drivers themselves said that RideAustin still has some kinks to work out 一 one described the app as “adolescent” 一 and the rides were notably more expensive than some of my competitors in our test run.
Two more tries: On a Saturday night trip from Mueller to the Four Seasons downtown, the trip took 13 minutes at a cost of $7.95. The driver, Dan, a young guy, was polite and smart, although I had to direct him to the upper deck of I-35 or the trip would have taken much longer. The next trip, from the Four Seasons to Perla’s on South Congress, the ride came in five minutes and the trip took nine. The driver, Paul, was good but the 2001 car was a bit unpleasant.
一 Ben Wear
Length of time it took for rides to arrive: 24 minutes (note that this ride was scheduled in advance, so this is the length of time it took to get to me after the scheduled time).
Length of time of ride: 14 minutes. No return trip on Wingz.
Cost of ride: $15, with an option to tip $2, $5 or $10.
Drivers: Tykika, in a Volkswagen Jetta.
App ease of use: It’s an easy download. But you have to know ahead of time that Wingz should be booked at least an hour in advance; if you try to schedule a ride for any earlier than that, a pop-up screen appears letting you know about the rule. A perk is that you don’t have to type in the exact address of a place; typing in the name should pull it up.
Overall experience: Wingz is a ride-hailing service that you have to schedule at least an hour in advance, which can be either a perk or a downside depending upon how you look at it. I thought it would be a benefit for me during the friendly competition between me and my co-workers, as it would arrive at the time that all of them were hailing their rides. But I was way wrong. My driver, Tykika, didn’t show up until a full 24 minutes after the scheduled time 一 and well after all of my coworkers had gotten picked up. She kept me in the loop through text messages throughout that time, letting me know that the GPS had taken her to the middle of the Congress Avenue Bridge rather than the Statesman, but because the bridge is only seconds from the building, I’m still not clear how it took her all that time to find me. (She did say she is new to Austin and doesn’t know places all that well yet.) She was perfectly friendly and made sure I was comfortable during the drive, although she did want unfeasibly to take the I-35 service road the whole way, rather than hopping on the interstate, to avoid traffic (which at the time was not nearly as bad as Austin’s infamous traffic can be). She also got honked at a couple of times, making me feel slightly unsafe. I didn’t take a ride back to the Statesman through Wingz because of the scheduling-in-advance policy.
Two more tries: I wanted to take a trip from my house, in far South Austin, mainly to see if any drivers would venture this far. Interestingly, my address is apparently so new that Wingz only has my street available as a destination (which isn’t a fault of the company: Google Maps also doesn’t recognize my address yet). The next driver, Richard, was my favorite because he was punctual and friendly, chatting about his post-retirement life as a real estate agent and ride-hailing driver. The distance (to an H-E-B I like, but is a little far from my house) meant the ride cost more, at $20 plus tip.
一 Arianna Auber
A few things became pretty clear even after our first test to Hyde Park. First, their French fries are delicious. Second, so far the apps that have sought to replace Uber and Lyft are not quite there yet for a few reasons: they typically are not cheaper than what Austin had before, they're not any easier to use (and in fact are sometimes clunkier), and they don't have the saturation of drivers that made getting a ride so quick and easy. In the case of Hail A Cab and Wingz, prices or arrival times were adversely affected by taking a different route or bad navigation. The requirement in Wingz that rides are booked ahead of time makes it ideal for an airport run, but not necessarily for round trips.
That said, it's only been two months and the progress apps such as Fare and Fasten in particular have made so far is encouraging. If you know your options and are flexible, it's perfectly possible to get around Austin using these apps without breaking the bank. Our advice to passengers is to install several of these apps and alternate between them if there aren't enough drivers available at peak times.
Also encouraging was that nearly all the drivers we tested were courteous, professional and knowledgeable about ride-hailing. Many are veterans of Uber and Lyft (some are even still driving for them outside Austin city limits), with plenty of experience.
Got feedback on this test and your own experience with ride hailing in Austin? Please leave us a comment and let us know what you think.
Updated 3:47 p.m., 7/22: to reflect that the Fare app does not mask phone numbers of passengers and drivers. A previous version of the story stated that InstaRyde doesn't mask phone numbers, but the company said that it always has.
Cover photo by Jay Janner / AMERICAN-STATESMAN