Could an Austin nonprofit be the future of ridesharing?

Ronny Kerr · May 23, 2016 · Short URL:

RideAustin hopes to fill the void left behind by Uber and Lyft, who quit Austin earlier this month

Words and phrases are funny. Take the “sharing economy.” Who would’ve thought such a thing would be less about sharing and more about buying and selling? Same thing with “ridesharing.” What sounds like someone taking me for a free ride in their car is actually the basis for a burgeoning, multibillion dollar industry.

But maybe there is still a future for ridesharing that’s more about sharing.

In the wake of new ridesharing regulations approved by Austin voters—and the ensuing exit of Uber and Lyft—at least one group of technologists has seized the opportunity to launch a new kind of ridesharing company.

Describing itself as a non-profit TNC (transportation network company), RideAustin aims to fill the void left behind by Uber and Lyft. The company just emerged this month but it's already hiring drivers with plans to start accepting passengers in June. Building marketplaces is difficult work, but at least RideAustin is making sure it has the supply before it tries satisfying demand. The company told me over email that the app had been downloaded over 5,500 times in the first 36 hours, including about 500 driver sign-ups.

As a non-profit, however, RideAustin is not just an Uber or Lyft copycat.

Because it won’t be beholden to investors, the new venture says it can reduce fares for riders while also paying out more earnings to drivers. Passengers will also have the option to round up their fare to the nearest dollar, with the extra change going to the charity of their choosing.

Continuing the altruistic theme, RideAustin also aims to have a heavily local, community-based presence. For one, the company boasts it's designed by local engineers. (The company was started by Joe Liemandt, head of an Austin software company called Trilogy.). Additionally, the company has plans to help underserved communities by letting riders take specific actions (e.g. "donate 50 rides" to the disabled).

And it’s also going to play nice with its city government.

“Uber and Lyft notoriously horde data and don’t share that with municipalities,” said Joe Deshotel, the director of communications for RideAustin, in an interview with Digital Trends. “We will have the opposite approach and we will make our data public to everyone; we will make our data public to the city so they can improve transit planning; we’ll make our data public to riders so they can choose the best times to ride; we’ll make it public to drivers so they can choose the best time to drive.”

Obviously, that also means RideAustin plans to abide by the newly implemented ordinance requiring ridesharing companies to have all of their drivers fingerprinted. Uber and Lyft rejected the new rule as draconian, insisting that it would be unnecessary and would do little to improve safety. Instead of complying, they left the city, leaving about 10,000 drivers without their supplementary income.

On one hand, you have the hardcore free market advocates criticizing Austin of being a bunch of Luddities, with some suggesting the taxi companies had a heavy hand in this. On the other hand, maybe this is a powerful experiment we’re seeing unfold, where a different kind of company with a different vision for ridesharing can see how far they get in their community.

The duopoly may be good for some passengers today, but there’s nothing wrong with even more choices.

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Uber is a ridesharing service headquartered in San Francisco, United States, which operates in multiple international cities. The company uses a smartphone application to arrange rides between riders and drivers. 



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Lyft is a peer-to-peer transportation platform that connects passengers who need rides with drivers willing to provide rides using their own personal vehicles.