Culture

​No Uber or Lyft at SXSW, what's a techie to do?

Festival-goers complain about getting around Austin without the ride-hailing services, which exited the city last year. But there are plenty of other options.

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Uber and Lyft don't operate in Austin, which is upsetting SXSW festival-goers.

Uber

What would the world be like without Uber and Lyft? For some, it appears to be mayhem.

Austin, Texas, is hosting the SXSW Conference and Festivals this week, gathering together thousands of techies, filmmakers and musicians. Austin is also one of the few cities to require fingerprint background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers, which caused the two companies to halt operations there last May.

A scroll through Twitter shows a litany of complaints and declarations of hardship over not being able to hail an Uber or Lyft during the festival.

"Completely forgot there is no more Uber/Lyft in Austin," tweeted PillPack CEO TJ Parker. "Likely would've stayed home if that crossed my mind."

"Taxi line at the airport is roughly 100 yards long," tweeted Tropo technical marketing manager Adam Kalsey. "How's that no Uber policy working out for you Austin?"

"I don't understand why Austinites insist on either downplaying or blaming @Uber @Lyft," tweeted venture capitalist Aziz Gilani. "This is an absolute cluster and it's self inflicted."

It's not entirely self-inflicted, however. Uber and Lyft opted to shut down their services in Austin last May after losing a vote over required fingerprint background checks for drivers. Voters in the Texas capital rejected Proposition 1, a measure that would have exempted drivers from required fingerprinting as part of their background checks.

The vote came amid growing concern for the safety of passengers on ride-hailing services. Over the past three years, Uber and Lyft have been dogged by allegations of drivers assaulting, raping and kidnapping passengers.

While the two companies do conduct background checks on their drivers, they don't fingerprint in most cities because it slows the on-boarding process for drivers. Lawmakers from Texas to California to New York, however, believe fingerprinting is the best way to catch criminals.

Despite Austin not having Uber and Lyft, there are other ways to get around town. Traditional taxis are available, as are buses, shuttles and alternative ride-hailing services like Fasten, Fare and RideAustin. And with all of the traffic congestion near the conference center downtown, it can be easier to either walk or catch a ride with a bicycle pedicab than trying to hail an automobile.

A couple of the alternative ride-hailing services in Austin have experienced some hiccups. During a rainstorm Saturday evening, Fasten and RideAustin's apps temporarily went down after they were overloaded with high passenger demand. Surge pricing also apparently made costs skyrocket.

Fasten CEO Kirill Evdakov said demand for the ride-hailing service was 12 times the normal amount on Saturday evening, which crippled its servers.

"Service interruptions are completely unacceptable, no matter how intermittent they may be," Evdakov said in an email. "This is the first time in SXSW history when a single ridesharing app had to handle the demand during the busiest time of the week for locals, tens of thousands of SXSW visitors, pouring rain and non-functional competitive apps, all of which came together at the same time to form a perfect storm."

The problem has been fixed, Evdakov said, and he expects everything to run smoothly for the rest of the festival.

Despite complaints by out-of-towners about getting around, it appears that Austinites may get the last word on Twitter.

"On behalf of Austin I'd like to apologize for the lack of Uber at #SXSW," tweeted local Anna Blast. "Please go back to LA and never return to our backwards little town."

Neither RideAustin nor SXSW responded to requests for comment.

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First published March 13, 1:45 p.m. PT.
Update, 6:13 p.m.: Adds comment from Fasten CEO Kirill Evdakov.
Correction, March 14 at 10:08 a.m. PT:
The rainstorm was on Saturday.

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