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Local tech creators unveil nonprofit ride-hailing app

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Standing atop the same stage where men and women perform bawdy pranks as part of adult entertainment-themed bingo every Tuesday at the Alamo Drafthouse’s Highball, local tech leader Joe Liemandt added another ride-hailing company to the list of those scrambling to fill the roads in the absence of Uber and Lyft.

This one is called RideAustin, and it’s a bit different than the others.

“RideAustin is a community-driven, nonprofit ride-sharing solution,” said Liemandt. He’s the founder of local tech company Trilogy and was also the largest contributor — of $20,000 — to a failed political action committee’s campaign to recall City Council Member Ann Kitchen after she led the fight to require fingerprint-based background checks for drivers.
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But at a press conference announcing the creation of RideAustin on Monday, Liemandt stressed that cooperation from both sides of the Prop 1 debate was necessary for meeting Austin’s ride-hailing demand.

“I believe that what we’re showing here is that both sides are putting the past behind them and moving forward with what’s best for Austin,” said Liemandt. At least two local companies — Upland Software, Inc. and Vista Equity Partners — have pledged to purchase rides for their employees.

Plus, as a nonprofit, Liemandt explained, RideAustin has the potential to offer more for both drivers and riders.

“We can pay drivers more, yet still have the low prices that the riders have come to expect,” said Liemandt. In an email, the company’s communications director, Joe Deshotel, who recently resigned from the Travis County Democratic Party, wrote that RideAustin would charge $1.50 per mile, plus 25 cents per minute. That’s a little more than Uber and Lyft, but less than local cab companies.

Drivers would receive 80 percent of the fare — the same cut as Uber and Lyft. Liemandt also said that RideAustin would explore “optional surge pricing,” which would offer riders the option of paying a higher rate in order to be guaranteed a ride at peak times.

Capital Factory CEO and Prop 1 proponent Josh Baer penned a blog post Monday in support of RideAustin but stressed the difficulty that local entrepreneurs will face in filling the void left by Uber and Lyft. In that post, Baer laid out some other advantages of the nonprofit model.

“It’s easier to fund, because contributions are tax-deductible and investors aren’t focused on a financial return, so the risks are different,” Baer wrote. “As a nonprofit and community-focused solution, it has extra press and goodwill needed to achieve critical mass quickly. With a single-metro focus, it doesn’t have to always worry about, ‘how will this scale to hundreds of cities?'”

Then, there’s data sharing. Liemandt said that under a nonprofit model, data loses its value in shielding a company from competitors.

“We don’t have to protect the data like it’s our huge asset,” said Liemandt. “It is a huge asset, but it’s the community’s.”

Historically, Uber and Lyft have been reluctant to share data with the city and the public — including the number of drivers they employ. RideAustin would embrace an open data model, even making the data available to researchers. Current city law requires plenty of data reporting. Ride-hailing companies must report monthly on a number of things, including pickups and drop-offs in each ZIP code plus the length of time that surge pricing is in effect.

Lastly, founders said RideAustin would have a charitable bent.

“Let’s have a little feature in the app where you can just click it over to the side and keep it that way, and where you round up all your fares and that money goes to whatever charity you decide,” said Andy Tryba, CEO of local tech talent scout Crossover.

The idea is that a ride costing $7.50 could be rounded up to $8, with that additional 50 cents being deposited into the coffers of a local charity of the rider’s choice.

But before any of this happens, RideAustin needs to onboard drivers, plus have a TNC operating license approved by the city. (As of noon Monday, a completed application had yet to be submitted to the Austin Transportation Department.) Liemandt said he expects rides to begin mid-June, starting only with downtown and airport pickups. Once it scales up, the company will start offering rides originating anywhere in the city.

This story is a result of a partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT. Top photo by JORGE SANHUEZA-LYON / KUT NEWS

Update: Audio from McGlinchy’s KUT piece is embedded below.

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