Could Uber leave Houston, considering situation in Austin?

Fasten, Ride Austin take over after traditional ride-sharing companies leave

By Ryan Korsgard - Reporter

AUSTIN, Texas - On a Friday night in Austin, the world-famous Sixth Street is full of people in this Live Music Capital of the World.

Until last spring, ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft offered partiers a safe trip home after a late night in the city’s entertainment center.
 
But now, “There is no Uber here, as far as I know,” said Jacy Gerald, of Houston. “They told me there is a different service. I don't know why there is no Uber, but there's not.”

After a threat from Uber and Lyft and a public vote over the city’s background checks, the ride-sharing giants left. That left a big void — and people like Gerald looking for rides.

"Have you found any of those other services?” he asked. “My wife got the name of it, but I don't know what it is. We tried to use it and it didn't work, either."
 
Ride Austin is a new nonprofit organization promising lower fares for riders and higher pay for drivers, since it has no shareholders.

"People don't want to spend much time figuring out how they're going to get somewhere,” said Joe Deshotel, of Ride Austin. “It just has to be reliable — right. Immediately, when (Uber and Lyft) left, just as any vacuum, people came in, became creative (and) they started these companies up and they provided a service that people wanted."
 
So, KPRC 2 tried Ride Austin, which is one of the larger services. The app looked just like the Uber app. Our driver arrived within five minutes, just as the app promised. 
 
The city of Austin said it streamlined its application process for drivers, adding that it now takes between two and five days.

”I think the one thing that we could (say) that is unique to Austin, is that after Uber and Lyft left, we didn't have a downfall in services,” said Lee Davila, the infrastructure operations division manager for the city. “The ride-share firms that were still left, operating within the city limits, stepped up."
 
Getting the word out about the new options has not been easy. The city of Austin and ride-sharing companies have relied on ads, apps and the media. Some Austin residents said even six months after Uber and Lyft left, they still could not name a single ride-sharing option in Austin.
 
Given the experience, could Uber ever leave Houston?   
 
"I would say that it's (been) discussed, but it's more of, ‘How do we work together so that we solve those problems?’” said Lara Cottingham, the deputy assistant director of the city of Houston’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

Even though Uber threatened to leave Houston about the same time it threatened to leave Austin, that has not happened, Cottingham said.

The City of Houston said the average application now takes almost seven days. That is down from eleven days. The city said the background check is typically two to three business days. The application turnaround time was a major concern for Uber.

"One of the things Uber's done a really great job (on), is making the city look inward and say, ‘Wow, how do we do these things, and is there a way we can do them more efficiently or faster, or a way we can get more drivers on board and out there serving passengers as quickly as possible?’” Cottingham said.
 
Supporters have claimed that ride-sharing companies kept intoxicated drivers off the roads. Data from the Houston Police Department shows the number of drunken-driving arrests has fallen since ride-sharing firms came to Houston.
 
To end a Friday night on Austin’s Sixth Street, we downloaded and tried the “Fasten” app.  Our ride arrived right on time. So for now, ride-sharing apps drive on in Austin. But you might not recognize the names.

2016 Click2Houston/KPRC2