Could Austin's Rideshare Nonprofit Be a National Model? – Government Technology

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(TNS) — When Uber and Lyft quit Austin after getting thumped at the polls last month, at least eight ridesharing companies flooded in. Among the most interesting is RideAustin, a non-profit started by some of the city’s leading tech figures.

After a limited startup last week, it’s attracted attention from cities embroiled in their own struggles with the rideshare giants, a spokesman said. They want to see if RideAustin might be a model to be copied. The effort’s leaders hope that it is.

“We’ve gotten attention from across the country,” the spokesman, Joe Deshotel, said, listing Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego as among the cities that have inquired. “But right now, we’re only focused on Austin.”

They probably need to. The very idea for the service didn’t exist six weeks ago.

Deshotel and his new bosses were on opposite sides of the issue as Uber and Lyft fought a bitter, $9.1 million battle to overturn an Austin ordinance requiring that drivers undergo fingerprint-based FBI background checks.

Deshotel was spokesman for the group trying to thwart Uber’s effort to get the fingerprint requirement overturned. The moneymen behind RideAustin – Trilogy founder Joe Liemandt and Crossover founder Andy Tryba –supported the initiative by their tech colleagues, Deshotel said.

When, in early May, the Uber and Lyft initiative got creamed by 12 percentage points, the rideshare giants carried through on their threat to leave the city.

Liemandt – who is credited with helping make Austin a tech mecca – and Tryba believed that a rideshare service was essential to keeping the city’s economy thriving. So they put up $4 million to $5 million of their own money to start one.

A week later, they reached out to Deshotel to serve as their spokesman. Making their business plan unique is that RideAustin is a non-profit. The idea is that by not having to pay dividends or face shareholder pressure scale up nationally, the app will be able to pay drivers better and offer cheaper rides.

RideAustin currently is taking 20 percent of the gross for development and administration. But as the project matures, its leaders want to squeeze down that percentage to cut fares and improve driver pay, Deshotel said.

While being a non-profit is intended to help drivers and riders, another unique feature is intended to benefit the larger community. RideAustin has a “round-up” feature that allows riders to give a few coins to charity with each ride.

Deshotel said it has already proven popular.

“We’ve really had a great reception,” he said. “We have lots and lots of charities reaching out to us.”

Deshotel said it’s been a whirlwind since he joined the effort.

A local tech team has led development of the app, but others in time zones around the world helped out, allowing development to take place around the clock.

A priority has been to start small and ensure a smoothly functioning app, Deshotel said. RideAustin is trying to avoid a pitfall that has beset some other Austin rideshare startups, such as Get Me, which has functioned inconsistently.

Starting June 16, RideAustin launched in five central-city zip codes and the airport. It plans to cover the entire city by December.

For now, the app is only downloadable on iPhones. Deshotel said it should be available for Androids within a month.

And for now, anyway, RideAustin is paying for its drivers to get fingerprinted. The city government is putting together a plan to handle results so that it can know whether companies are meeting an Aug. 1 deadline to show that at least 50 percent of drivers have passed the background checks, which Uber and Lyft left town over.

El Paso is yet to pass its own ordinance regulating rideshare companies.

While RideAustin is focused only on Austin, it plans to create a platform to share its data with Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute, the University of Texas and any city that’s interested in it, Deshotel said.

After Uber and Lyft lost at the polls in May, some Republican lawmakers immediately began talking about statewide legislation that would overturn Austin’s rideshare ordinance.

If the rideshare giants are waiting for such a law to return to town, they likely will be waiting until next summer at the earliest. That would give RideAustin and all the other rideshare startups a full year to grow and show that Uber and Lyft developed a great model, but now others can improve upon it.

An Uber spokeswoman didn’t answer directly when asked earlier this month if it was a strategic blunder to storm out of one of its most lucrative markets. RideAustin leaders believe it was.

Quoting Liemandt, Deshotel said, “Uber came to town. They built a factory. They built the machines. Then they abandoned them. We just need to turn them on.”

©2016 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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