The Austin Ride-Hail Chronicles: A RideAustin Followup

Screen capture of a rather “familiar” article on Texas Monthly’s website

It’s now been exactly a month since I published an article about RideAustin, one of the local ride-hail startups that launched in Austin last year after Uber and Lyft left town. (NB: If you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend reading it first before delving into this piece, if only to understand some of the references herein.) From my own perspective at least, I intended to emphasize two primary points: first, RideAustin’s ridership plummeted after Uber’s and Lyft’s return to Austin not because of “price-sensitive customers,” as its leadership had claimed, but rather because ride-hail customers prize reliability and consistency above all else — and neither RideAustin, nor any of the other TNC startups that arose amidst the ride-hail vacuum following Uber/Lyft’s exit, had succeeded in developing an app Austinites felt they could rely upon. Second, I questioned whether RideAustin had a raison d’être in the first place, given that the emergency situation it was explicitly intended to rectify had been rectified by the time it launched, even in beta mode. As part of my analysis, I mentioned my skepticism — based directly on discussions with three founders and/or senior leaders of established Austin-based nonprofits — about whether RideAustin, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that directly competes against for-profit business entities, had successfully fulfilled the requisites necessary under federal law for maintaining tax-exempt status. At no point did I intend to impugn either RideAustin itself or anyone involved with the company, or even remotely infer that anyone had willingly and knowingly misclassified RideAustin in any way. If they did not, in fact, meet the IRS standards for nonprofit classification, I assumed it would have been a genuine, unintentional mistake — which as a serial entrepreneur I realize are routine in the earliest stages of any startup. Every founder screws up at some point; almost none of them do so on purpose.

While I realized when writing my article that my arguments would likely ruffle some feathers — though I mistakenly assumed my most controversial point would be questioning RideAustin’s very existence — I had no idea how much of a ruckus it’d stir up. Suffice it to say it’s been a learning experience, wake-up call and object lesson all rolled into one. In rough chronological order, here’s what’s gone down since the piece went online.

1. RideAustin’s CEO accused me of writing the article out of spite because he “wouldn’t give me a job.”

After publishing my earlier piece on Austin Startups, I posted a link to it in the Austin Tech Alliance group on Facebook, where TNC-related subjects have generated considerable discussion over the past year. At this stage in my life I’d say I have a fairly thick skin with respect to criticism, but I have to admit I was taken aback when RideAustin CEO Andy Tryba responded to my post with some flat-out character assassination:

Jeff — I realize that you’re still upset at me for my decision to not hire you into RideAustin — and I’m fine with that…

This wasn’t quite a knife in the back; it was more like a series of a dozen vitriol-filled darts aimed to hit me simultaneously. To state the obvious, Andy’s inference was that I wrote the article out of vengeance — and, in turn, its content was either heavily biased against RideAustin or total bullshit. In reality, the only total-bullshit element here is the accusation — and it’s incredibly insulting bullshit at that, considering that nearly ALL of my work relative to TNCs over the past three years has stemmed from both my deep-seated interest in progressive public-policy initiatives as well as my equally strong interest in consumer advocacy. (Note that the latter is how I ended up on the working group established by the Austin City Council in summer 2014 and tasked with developing a regulatory infrastructure for Uber and Lyft, which had recently launched service in Austin. As I noted in my first Medium article 18 months ago: “One of my areas of expertise is consumer-protection law, and as such I joined the group as a proxy of sorts, representing the interests of Austin citizens as a whole.”)

The less-obvious part is Andy’s apparent confusion between the concepts of me readily seeking employment and offering to help what I then believed was a promising nonprofit with great potential; you can read my response for yourself. And note that Andy wasn’t content with insulting me on only one platform; he did so on Medium and Twitter as well. (Oh, and for the record, the only thing that even mildly irked me about this whole affair was Andy ignoring my suggestion that he needed detailed legal advice — preferably via a knowledgeable tax attorney — with respect to organizing RideAustin as a nonprofit. Keep reading to see how that one’s turned out.)

To be fair, my original article had a couple of parts with unintentionally ambiguous phrasing that could at least be construed as a suggestion of malfeasance on RideAustin’s part, and I appreciate Capital Factory’s Josh Baer pointing them out (I subsequently rephrased one part of it and deleted another). In any event, all of this happened within the first couple of days after the article went live, and I assumed that was the end of it.

I was wrong.

2. Texas Monthly not only published an article on the same subject; its reporter appropriated most of my own material without attribution.

I didn’t get wind of it until nearly a week later — hey, I’ve had a busy month! — but on June 29 Texas Monthly posted a feature titled “The Saga of RideAustin” on its website. While it at least linked to my original article (see third paragraph), its reporter “borrowed” all of the following from it — none of which had been previously published by anyone else (or even discussed in any public forum, to my knowledge). Starting with my broad arguments he appropriated:

  1. Prop 1’s small turnout not representing sentiments of actual TNC users, as clearly evidenced by Uber’s and Lyft’s rapid recapture of a majority of RideAustin’s market share.
  2. RideAustin’s curious status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that directly competes with for-profit businesses and uses paid professional staff. (NB: If Andy Tryba was mad at me for misinterpreting some of my comments as a personal attack, I’m assuming he must’ve gone postal after reading what Texas Monthly published about it.)
  3. One of my two core points: why RideAustin exists in the first place, particularly considering it wasn’t needed per se even before Uber and Lyft returned to the market. (To be fair, the Texas Monthly article describes at length the machinations of RideAustin’s cofounders prior to the Prop 1 vote, and thus framed this question in a different fashion.)

As for the “curiously specific” references in both articles:

  1. My citation of an academic paper published by the economist Steven Levitt, one which rather conclusively showed that ride-hail passengers aren’t generally price-sensitive. (NB: This was admittedly the point in the piece where they linked to my own article, though in a notably offhand fashion.)
  2. Noting that RideAustin’s “Round Up” feature — which lets passengers round up their final fare to the nearest dollar, with the excess amount directed to the charity of their choice — isn’t new or novel, plus a similar easy-donation program has been used by H-E-B for several years now. (Hundreds of other companies offer them as well, but TM’s reporter couldn’t even be bothered to source a different example than mine!)
  3. Austin Mayor Steve Adler successfully brokering a compromise agreement with Uber and Lyft that would’ve stopped the Prop 1 vote from going forward, only to have the city council soundly reject it.
  4. The Prop 1 ballot resulting in over 10,000 Uber and Lyft drivers being put immediately out of work.
  5. RideAustin’s failure to publicly post a copy of the 990 form required from all 501(c)(3) nonprofits by the IRS.

I guess it’s possible all of the above are coincidences, but that seems unlikely. Which brings us to today:

3. Despite Andy Tryba’s ire over my inadvertent insinuations of something sketchy going on at RideAustin, something sketchy IS now going on there.

Yesterday I received the email from RideAustin — via my passenger account with them, not my driver one — seen at left, advertising that this would be a “no surge weekend.” While there is now an academic study based on 50 million Uber rides (see aforementioned Steven Levitt paper) conclusively illustrating that ride-hail passengers, contrary to conventional wisdom (and what the media appears to believe), don’t particularly give a shit about surge prices, RideAustin nonetheless decided to run a promo based on a proven-false assumption. I have no idea why, but hey, it’s not my company.

The problem? They failed to tell their drivers — many of whom drive explicitly for the opportunity to earn surge-level fares during peak hours, almost all of which occur on weekends — a single thing about it. I found this out after visiting RideAustin’s driver group page on Facebook — astute readers may recall that I’ve driven periodically for RideAustin and Fasten to better understand the driver angle of this particular story — and saw no mention of it. This seemed off, to put it fairly mildly — all the more so if one considers the company’s broad emphasis on transparency. As such, I wrote a post about it for their Facebook group. I hit send … and saw nothing but a pop-up box stating that a moderator would have to approve the post before it went live. This was the point where the oddness quotient began rising precipitously.

I waited until the next morning to see if my post had been approved, only to find it hadn’t. Further, I noticed several other posters had commented on various threads that they, too, had been unable to start new threads on the page. Still perplexed by it all, I cut-and-pasted my post from the previous night and added it as a comment to an existing thread.

That transpired around 9:30am. Ninety minutes later, I was “fired.”

My oddness barometer burst in half after I received the email to the left (shown in its entirety). Without notice — and for no stated reason, either via email or within the RideAustin app — my driver account had been deactivated. I logged back on to Facebook, and sure enough, I’d been booted out of the RideAustin Drivers group as well. To be fair, RideAustin has previously deactivated drivers due to inactivity, but the timing of this particular deactivation — couple with a complete lack of explanation for it — rather strongly infers this wasn’t the case in my situation.)

Over the next few hours, I did some asking around on some of the other Facebook groups for Austin TNC drivers, and discovered I wasn’t alone in receiving das boot for the sole “crime” of mentioning a fact that didn’t reflect well on RideAustin’s management. One driver was ousted solely for making a mildly negative observation in a recent BuzzFeed article. Several other folks said they were deactivated after pointing out one too many times that RideAustin’s previous “fully transparent” sharing of ridership data, with both its drivers and the local tech community, has effectively vanished over the past few weeks.

To be clear, RideAustin is still in business — albeit not for long if they keep it up with the types of pricing hijinks seen this weekend. (7/17 edit: The “no surge” gambit appears to have failed, given the nearly nonexistent number of drivers active on RideAustin’s app Saturday evening.) Later in the day, I heard that an extended-length thread about the no-surge weekend had erupted on the driver board following my ouster. A moderator finally closed it off to new comments entirely.

Finally, the ouster of drivers asking entirely reasonable questions about the venture is only part of the sketchy activity RideAustin’s been engaging in lately. Prior to publishing last month’s piece, I‘d heard that RideAustin COO Marisa Goldenberg had led groups of drivers around the Sixth Street vicinity promoting it as the “local ride-hail choice,” which gels with their broader marketing initiative following Uber’s and Lyft’s return. Only later did I find out, from multiple sources, that these drivers were also openly attacking Uber and Lyft drivers (verbally, that is) in the area as “traitors” and the like.

It’s apparently only gone downhill from there. Aside from the Sixth Street incidents, I’ve heard multiple reports of Uber/Lyft drivers being verbally harassed while behind the wheel by RideAustin drivers. (Perhaps ironically, this is exactly the kind of behavior exhibited by local taxi drivers after the companies first entered the market.) And as of a few days ago, the situation has apparently devolved into the realm illegality. At left is a photo taken a few days ago after an Uber driver — parked in the new staging area for TNC vehicles at the Austin airport — apparently nodded off while waiting to pick up early-morning rides, only to wake up and discover his truck had been vandalized. He had visible Uber/Lyft placards on his dash at the time of the incident. While obviously there’s no way of knowing who keyed such a vulgarity on the driver’s tailgate (unless someone witnessed it, which is unlikely given the hour), the only logical suspect is someone from one of the two local TNCs still standing — and I’ll note here that although Fasten’s leadership has been leading a vigorous marketing campaign in the face of Uber/Lyft competition, it hasn’t included any “shaming” of drivers or passengers who elect to use Uber or Lyft. (NB: I am by no means accusing RideAustin drivers on whole of acting in an unacceptable fashion. My point, rather, is that its leadership — by most accounts — has been actively pushing an us-against-them mindset, and as we’ve seen in recent years in a much broader political context, incendiary speech can readily produce incendiary conduct. See, e.g., “Pizzagate” and the various hate crimes committed against American Muslims.)

In any event, I honestly don’t know what the hell is going on at RideAustin, but it’s undermining its goodwill — for both the company itself as well as its leadership — in remarkably swift fashion, particularly among RideAustin’s genuinely good-hearted drivers who’ve continued working for them out of respect for its honorable overall mission.

Last, but certainly not least…

4. Despite accusing me of writing a spiteful article based solely on a grudge, RideAustin followed my advice in said article.

Portion of my original June 15 article

As part of my commentary last month about what RideAustin could be doing that might better fulfill its nonprofit model than competing against for-profit ride-hail companies, I suggested the idea of offering subsidized or gratis rides to seniors who are no longer able to drive themselves around, and who live on fixed incomes that make use of standard taxis — which don’t offer seniors discounted rides, at least in Austin — for day-to-day tasks, like taking care of their medical needs, cost-prohibitive. A screencap of my original suggestion is at left.

Guess what? RideAustin is now offering free rides to the doctor for those in need.

So: it’s been a strange month — on top of an already strange two years. While I guess I should consider it a compliment of sorts that Texas Monthly ripped off my article (a la “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery”), I’m nonetheless pissed that they did so without adequate attribution. Writing such a negative article about RideAustin — a venture I still believe was launched with honorable intentions, and one which I actively offered to help last year as they were first gaining a foothold, knowing the potential legal pitfalls they could face —doesn’t make me happy in the least. To be blunt, I’m feeling pretty shitty about it right now. And I wasn’t even planning on writing anything else specific to RideAustin; my next feature, still in the works, will focus on Lyft and Uber. Nonetheless, I’ve always been a firm believer in transparency among entities with a public-policy aim, as well as an advocate for pro-consumer policies among private companies. (As it so happens, I was sued by Uber and Lyft last year solely for requesting access to the ridership data they provide to the city of Seattle; an appeal of the verdict is currently pending before the Washington Supreme Court. But that’s another story.) As such, I strongly believe in the people’s right to know the truth about individuals and institutions granted the privilege by government of serving their needs in some way, shape or form — a belief which extends to exposing instances in which they fail to live up to their promises.

(NB: If I’d stated anything here that you believe is false or otherwise misleading, please let me know. I’m not infallible, and I readily admit when I make mistakes. On that note, I’d like to issue a correction for my last piece: I stated that Fasten likely experienced “the biggest decline in traffic” among Austin TNCs since Uber and Lyft returned. While Fasten hasn’t released specific ridership metrics to this effect, I have it on good authority that my assumption was false, and that RideAustin had the biggest drop.)

The Austin Ride-Hail Chronicles: A RideAustin Followup was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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