Thanks to a city ordinance passed last fall, this will be the first year on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft will be competing for passengers in Austin during SXSW. As both companies prepare to meet demand that comes from the city’s biggest event of the year, Uber and Lyft will be urging passengers in Austin to share rides with strangers.
On Friday, Uber announced it would be bringing its uberPOOL ride-sharing service to Austin after launching the service in San Francisco last September. Today Lyft follows suit with its launch of competing service Lyft Line during SXSW.
The competition between the companies in Austin is notable in part because this is the first time both services will be operating legally during one of the city’s busiest weeks of the year.
Every year, tens of thousands of SXSW attendees descend upon the city and find few good options for getting around. With few traditional cabs available in Austin, most visitors are served by an ad hoc pedicab system during the conference. Services like Uber and Lyft were unable to legally operate there due to restrictions around non-commercially licensed drivers giving rides in the city.
That hasn’t stopped Uber and Lyft from having a presence in Austin during SXSW in years past, but that presence was mainly promotional. Uber first made its presence felt in Austin by enabling SXSW attendees to hail pedicabs with its app in 2011, and the next expanded its service to include on-demand BBQ.
In 2013 and 2014 Uber offered up rides for free, partly as promotion and partly to skirt the city’s rules around paid rides. Drivers were paid as “brand ambassadors” by the company but couldn’t accept cash from passengers. Lyft, meanwhile, skirted the issue altogether with cutesy promotions like “piggybacks on demand” in 2013 and nostalgic daytime events last year.
This year, however, both services will be offering rides legally at SXSW thanks to a city ordinance passed last October that established a temporary framework for transportation network companies to operate while more permanent regulations were hammered out.
After offering services in Austin since last summer, Uber and Lyft hope to have plenty of drivers at the ready to meet the influx of demand from SXSW attendees. But because that demand will be so much higher than most other weeks of the year, the companies hope to take advantage of the “shared rides” feature they both built and launched in San Francisco last fall.
With both uberPOOL and Lyft Line, customers requesting a ride for one or two passengers will be paired up with others who are heading in the same direction. By doing so, all passengers benefit from lower fares, which can help combat against expected surge pricing that tends to happen in times of high demand.
More importantly, though, by offering shared rides Uber and Lyft can offer service more efficiently and ensure that drivers have less downtime in-between rides. The goal is to have multiple passengers riding together during those times to help reduce demand peaks.
In addition to shared rides, Lyft will have designated pickup and dropoff points at various key spots around Austin as the official rideshare partner for the event. (CEO Logan Green will also be speaking in a keynote.) It will offer promotional rides in a special “Magic Mode” throughout the conference that will feature cars like a Ferrari 458 Italia, 1963 Bentley, Tesla Model S, and others. Finally, it’s rolling out a payment integration with PayPal that will allow passengers to pay with its OneTouch mobile checkout product.
Let’s be honest — even with both Uber and Lyft operating in Austin, and even with both maximizing supply by trying to fill more seats in each car, it’ll still be nearly impossible to get around during SXSW. It’ll just be a little less impossible.