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Uber and Lyft are destroying Austin’s driver-friendly rideshare economy

Uber and Lyft have a remarkable (and frightening) ability to steamroll over a community. They’re currently proving that with their return to Austin.

RideAustin, the homegrown, nonprofit rideshare app currently in Austin, is begging for help now that big fish Uber and Lyft have returned to town. Its ride volume has decreased by 36-percent since the tech giants rolled back onto Austin streets, meaning it might get crushed for good without steady local attention.

We were intrigued by RideAustin when we visited the city for SXSW. Its payment model — in which it keeps a $2 commission and the driver gets the rest — seemed infinitely more beneficial to drivers, while offering the community government the chance to set the rules. We thought the experiment was the future of ridesharing … but that future is being trampled on as Uber and Lyft stampede back into town.

Local benefits
One of the feathers RideAustin is eagerly showing off in its cap is its charitable contributions. The app has a feature that lets you round up your fare to the nearest dollar, with the surplus going to the local charity of your choice. Thanks to that, they have raised more than $250,000 for various charities, including Austin Pets Alive, the Central Texas Foodbank, and Dell Children’s Hospital.

RideAustin also subtly points out that, by choosing not to use fingerprint-based background checks, Uber and Lyft are actually going against the wishes of Austinites. Last year the majority voted in favor of Prop 1, which made the background checks mandatory. As David Butts, a proponent of the new regulation, told the New York Times:

We happen to believe that government has a role to play. And the idea that we’re just going to give them a blank check and say, ‘Self-regulate and we’ll take your word for it’ was not acceptable to the majority of voters in this city.

Easier for riders?
If citizens are using Uber and Lyft over RideAustin, that must mean that they find something more convenient about those apps, right?

Maybe that’s true, but just because it’s convenient doesn’t mean it’s commendable. And it’s not always the best for the drivers working for the apps, either. Uber and Lyft both have a history of exploiting workers, either through undercutting their pay or not offering basic protections or benefits.

RideAustin chooses to point out its benefits for local drivers: “You have a choice in how you ride, and whether your money stays right here in Austin – or goes to Silicon Valley billionaires” — which is a touch misleading. Most of money would probably go to Austin drivers regardless of which app the riders were using, but there is a difference in percentages. According to RideAustin, it has paid out over $5 million to riders than it would have with Uber and Lyft’s payment structure — due to taking zero commission on standard rides.

It’s very easy to dismiss what Uber and Lyft do, because Uber and Lyft are more convenient, or more widespread. But just because the solution they offer is easy doesn’t mean it comes without strings attached. If left unchecked, they can exploit local drivers while offering little to the community in return.