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Austin apparently needs Uber, according to a marketing pitch started by the San Francisco-based on-demand cab company ahead of the South by Southwest Interactive festival held in the Texas Capital. The company, which has a beef with city rules dictating fares for sedans and limits on paid ride-sharing, has made a Twitter campaign out of the issue asking people to tweet #AustinNeedsUber.
And especially since Saturday dawned rainy and cold, people are obliging. But as an Austin resident, an Uber customer and someone who is able to look beyond the idea of disruption and to think about what that disruption actually will entail, I wish Uber wouldn’t use the epic influx of guests to advocate for changing the laws of the city I have to live in year round. That’s a job for the people who live here.
And there are people who live here who are pushing for changes in the city’s Transportation code that will allow ride sharing and improvements to the current system of licensed cab and hired sedan drivers. There is certainly demand for more transportation services in town.
In some ways, SXSW is the ultimate opportunity for testing elastic demand in the real world. And that’s great for startups pushing for the sharing economy. The estimated 30,000 people (plus unregistered folk and attendees’ families) coming to the city to participate in SXSW interactive as well as the tens of thousands coming for the Film and Music portion of the festival all have to stay somewhere and make their way around the city for a 10-day period.
While hotels in the city are charging fees that are as high as $899 a night, I could find private rooms on AirBnB for $200 fairly close to the downtown area. If you want to go far north I saw rooms in the Northwest Hills area near my home for $92. As for cars, SXSW sponsor Chevy has brought a fleet of cars to Austin and is giving people rides for free (Austin rules don’t allow people to pay for ride sharing). Uber also has UberX cars offering rides for free roaming the downtown area (much to the chagrin of the Austin Rodeo attendee who wanted a ride) as well as Uber Black services and pedicabs.
But given the investigations about the lack of oversight and training by Uber in San Francisco, plus the ongoing questions about safety and insurance, I’d rather Austin take the issue of ridesharing under consideration outside of a Twitter campaign geared toward SXSW attendees. The city has already issued a report last year and approved a version of ridesharing that has resulted in a carpooling app called Carma getting approved.
Fundamentally, the issue here is also one that disproportionately affects visitors. Most Austin residents own their own cars or if carless, could use Car2Go or Zipcar, both of which have service in the city.
So while I’m all for expanding my options and giving the cab companies a much-needed bit of competition, I don’t need a San Francisco-based service that comes to Austin once a year to come in and demand that we play by its rules.