AUSTIN, Texas >> When I arrived in Austin this month for the annual South by Southwest festival, I was prepared to time travel to a harsh past: an era when people had to wave their hands on street corners, begging for curmudgeonly cabdrivers to pull over and offer a ride.
This was the picture many expected during the music, film and technology festival because Uber and Lyft, the two most popular car-summoning apps, pulled out of Austin last year after the city voted to tighten regulations on ride-sharing services. With hundreds of thousands of people attending SXSW, this sounded like a recipe for disaster.
Yet the reality — for me and many attendees I spoke with — was that getting around Austin during the festival was easy. Several smaller ride-sharing services were operating in town, such as Fasten and RideAustin. Despite some hiccups with those apps, they worked well overall. And, of course, there were taxicabs hovering if you were lucky enough to get one.
“Setting up a new account with Fasten or RideAustin took all of a minute,” said Sam Grobart, an executive editor for CNN and a former technology reporter for The New York Times, who attended the conference. “I’m as brand loyal to a ride service as I am to a gas station chain — which is to say not at all.”
Many attendees echoed that sentiment, and my experience was the same. During the festival, I heavily relied on car services because my Airbnb house was several miles from the conference. After taking 20 rides divided among Fasten, RideAustin and taxis, only once did I have an issue summoning a car, with Fasten on a rainy Saturday night. That left me to — heaven forbid — open an umbrella and walk a mile to my next meeting.
Issues like mine, BuzzFeed proclaimed, meant that apps like Fasten and RideAustin “flunked an important test” during a busy conference in which they could have triumphed over the big apps by maintaining smooth operations.
But I saw it differently. If these smaller apps, which have less funding and fewer resources, managed to move hundreds of thousands of people around and choke only occasionally, that meant Austinites probably weren’t suffering without Uber and Lyft in general, especially when the city is not overrun by an enormous conference.
Kirill Evdakov, chief executive of Fasten, which operates in Boston and Austin, said the company had completed 170,000 rides during SXSW, with a failure rate of less than half a percent. The app crashed on a Saturday when demand surged exponentially because it was pouring outside and a competing app’s servers crashed, he said.
Still, Evdakov said last week: “Unfortunately, we let many people down. We are working even harder the rest of this week to regain their satisfaction and we hope that they will forgive us.” The festival ended Sunday.
RideAustin did not respond to requests for comment.
There is no disputing that Lyft and Uber are superior products. Their apps are more polished and include the option to add multiple drop-off points, for example, and server crashes are rare. Yet they, too, are imperfect: Over my years using both apps, they have occasionally failed to summon a car, drivers have gotten lost and rides have been canceled inexplicably.
Uber and Lyft aren’t giving up on Austin. The companies last week attended a hearing with the House Transportation Committee at the Texas State Capitol, where lawmakers discussed legislation that would regulate ride-sharing services at the statewide level.
Lyft said it was focused on getting consistent rules passed for all cities in Texas to make rides more affordable and easier to get. Uber said it felt “encouraged” that the Texas Legislature was considering a statewide solution.
But until the services return to the city, people probably won’t notice much of a difference riding with the underdogs. At the end of the day, the apps connect riders with drivers, who are imperfect people, leading to imperfect experiences.
Caz Rosson, a web designer who spent nine days at SXSW, said the alternative ride-sharing apps were just like Uber and Lyft.
“It’s basically just all the same Uber and Lyft drivers working under a different brand name,” she said, adding that the only major difference is that Fasten’s app is green — not pink or black.