If you've felt like rideshare trips have gotten increasingly expensive this year, you're not alone—and you're not wrong.
The average Uber and Lyft fare rose consistently through the spring and early summer across the country, with consumers paying nearly 50% more per ride in July than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Much of the pressure on the rideshare market is due to the same set of conditions that drove up the cost of airline tickets and rental vehicles for travelers this summer: a sharp decrease in demand last year followed by a sharp rise in demand this spring.
When the pandemic first shut down the country last year, demand for ridesharing collapsed. In a similar vein, as work opportunities dried up, rideshare drivers who did not want to risk contracting the virus turned to other opportunities or claimed unemployment benefits.
But the economic conditions changed rapidly this spring and summer as Austinites received COVID-19 vaccinations and the country's economy reopened. As more people in Austin and around the country began to look for rides, there were fewer drivers to provide them.
One Austin rideshare driver says there are other factors at play.
Mo, a 52-year-old immigrant from India who came to the U.S. more than two decades ago, drove 80 hours per week for Uber and Lyft for years—refusing to take even holidays off. But lately, he has cut back.
"Driving for Uber and Lyft is a nightmare," Mo said. "It comes with a lot of risks, and really the pay is just enough to keep up with even the operational expenses, let alone breaking even or even taking something home."
Mo, who asked his name not be used for privacy reasons, said drivers' earning power with Uber and Lyft has not increased at all, let alone commensurately.
That, along with quality control and safety concerns, convinced Mo to help organize a strike of Austin rideshare drivers in late June. Austin was one of a number of cities around the country to see strikes that day, with the largest action taking place in California, where Proposition 22, classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, passed last year.
"They will have to increase the mileage rates," Mo said. "It is impossible to survive… You cannot give such bad mileage rates to drivers. That's the minimum thing they will have to do."
But a Lyft spokesperson wrote in a message to Austonia that certain drivers are earning more money driving than they were prior to the onset of the pandemic and that drivers are steadily returning to work.
"As vaccines rolled out and people started moving again, we began to see the demand for rides outpace the number of available drivers," Lyft spokesperson Eric Smith said. "We've added thousands of drivers in the past few weeks and it's already leading to a better rider experience with wait times down more than 15% nationwide, and down 35% in some major markets."
Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
Mo said that the demand in Austin for rides fluctuates greatly throughout the week, spiking on weekend evenings and slowing during weekdays. Demand is routinely highest during marquee events like Austin City Limits and South By Southwest.
"It continues to be a great time to drive," Smith wrote.
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Community opposition to the Texas Department of Transportation's plan to drastically expand Interstate-35 continued this week, with local elected and appointed officials speaking out against the project in droves.
The Capital Express Central project, which would widen I-35 in an eight-mile stretch of central Austin from the Manor Expressway to Ben White Boulevard, is designed to improve the highly-trafficked highway as the population of Central Texas continues to grow.
The current proposed plan, which is undergoing an environmental review, would add two lanes in each direction on I-35, significantly widening the highway, as well as adding additional flyovers and improving access for cyclists and pedestrians. TxDOT says that the changes will "creat[e] a more dependable and consistent route for the traveling public."
Some Austinites—particularly those who live close to the highway—are not pleased. Individuals can give their feedback on the project online through Sept. 24.
A bevy of community leaders, including city council members, rallied last week against the proposal. The city's Urban Transportation Commission gave it an official seal of disapproval Tuesday night, voting in favor of a resolution asking TxDOT to abandon the expansion project or asking the city to do its best to stop its implementation.
That frustration with the plan, which opponents argue will increase noise and air pollution while doing nothing to decrease traffic on the already heavily congested stretch of highway, has been echoed at community meetings.
Brandy Savarese of the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association helped host a meeting about the I-35 project at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
At Cherrywood Coffeehouse in East Austin on Wednesday night at an event sponsored by the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association steering committee, State Senator Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) said that the highway project needs cooperation between city, state and federal officials on how to renovate in a climate-friendly way that combats economic displacement.
State Rep. Sheryl Cole (D-Austin) agreed—arguing that Austin is not getting the input it should have in the process.
"What can we say? The state has done it to us again," she said. "TxDOT has told us what they won't do, but we can't listen to that and stop from making our voices heard. And I really feel like our voices have not been heard and TxDOT has not taken enough of an opportunity to come out."
TxDOT representatives were present at Cherrywood Coffeehouse, answering questions about possible plans. Some of those present supported TxDOT alternatives to the proposed build, while others voiced support for different measures like obtaining new funding for cap-and-stitch measures and other proposals like one from transportation organization Reconnect Austin.
TxDOT provided alternatives to its I-35 plan to those at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
The interstate makes up the Cherrywood neighborhood's western edge, and many of the older homes in the neighborhood predate its initial construction.
"If you look anywhere around the United States and the world, you can see a lot of alternatives (to highway expansion)," Cherrywood resident Lamar Vieau said. "It's not like we need to do this again to see that it doesn't work."
The city of Austin does not have any direct ability to stop the project, and may, depending on how TxDOT precedes, be forced to follow an example set earlier this year when Harris County sued in district court to halt the Department of Transportation beginning planned expansion of I-45 and redoing the project's environmental review. The project has since been paused by the Federal Highway Administration, citing civil rights concerns associated with the project.
A note on the expansion plan stated the project would hurt minority owned businesses. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
Historical, climate concerns
The current plan appears to be at odds with Austin's stated transportation and livability goals, along with having cultural issues, on a number of levels.
I-35, which was called East Avenue before it was incorporated into the interstate system, seperated the city between the white westside and Black and Hispanic eastside in the first half of the 20th century and has long been seen as a race and class dividing line. Two years ago, State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) told KVUE that the highway is a "scar on the city."
That aspect was not lost on Vieau. "I think it would be great if we could bury it and stitch it over, or at least look at some other ways of moving some of that traffic," he said.
The proposed expansion would also necessitate that the state claim some 150 properties as eminent domain alongside the current I-35, including a number of houses as well as longstanding businesses like the venerable Stars Cafe and the office of The Austin Chronicle.
With the city's stated goal to reduce single-occupancy vehicle mode share from its current level of 74% to 50% within the next two decades, a major highway expansion designed for cars is not expected to help accomplish that.
"We can't just… do what has always been done," Annette Stachowitz, a 61-year resident of Austin originally from Germany, said. "Lots of traffic, add some more lanes. There will be lots of traffic, add some more lanes. And there will be lots of traffic again, and, you know—somebody has to say, hey, let's find a different way."
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A teen driver in a Tesla Model X crashed into a traffic light and gas pump at a West Austin gas station early Thursday morning, knocking over the traffic light and setting the parking lot in flames.
The driver, a male under 18 years of age, who was determined by onsite police to be driving the $80,000 electric vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, was able to escape the car before it erupted in flames.
2600 Exposition, Tesla involved in collision with fire extending to awning of gas station. Fire under control. Crews working cool burning batteries. pic.twitter.com/2etyUkN3vb
— Austin Fire Info (@AustinFireInfo) August 12, 2021
Austin police said they responded to the crash at 1:22 a.m. at a Shell gas station in Tarrytown, 2701 Exposition Blvd. The Austin Fire Department was able to get the fire under control by around 2 a.m. after cooling the electric car's extremely flammable lithium battery, according to Fire Chief Thaier Smith.
"From a previous experience from other departments around the country and the state, we are aware of the issues when a Tesla burns," Smith said. "There are some other procedures. Normally you can put out a car fire with 500 to 1,000 gallons of water, but Tesla's may take up to 30,000-40,000 gallons of water, maybe even more, to extinguish the battery pack once it starts burning."
The driver was arrested for a DWI.
While the gas station building itself did not sustain damage, there was fire damage to the gas pump and a knocked over traffic light signal. Crews were seen cleaning up into 8 a.m. this morning.
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Electric vehicles are increasingly common in Austin. But which models are most popular?
Although it may seem like Tesla is a shoo-in for the top spot, with its hood ornaments ubiquitous along Lamar Boulevard and Gigafactory sprouting up in Southeast Travis County, the most popular electric vehicle in Austin is the 100% electric Nissan LEAF, which starts at $32,620, according to an iSeeCars analysis of used car sales between July 2020 and last month. (Tesla doesn't report new sales by location, so used car sales are used as a proxy for overall popularity.)
Tesla's Model 3, Model S and Model X come in second, fourth and fifth place, respectively, and collectively account for around one-third of electric vehicles in Austin, despite their higher price points and relative newness on the market. (The Model 3 starts at $38,690, whereas the luxury Models S and X cost more than twice as much.)
Karl Brauer, iSeeCars executive analyst, said the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Bolt are relatively affordable electric vehicles, which is a big part of their appeal. "Price, of course, for any consumer buying a car is always the single most important factor," he said.
Teslas, on the other hand, are more expensive. Although the Model 3 debuted seven years after the Nissan LEAF, it has quickly gained market share among more luxury consumers, which Brauer said is "pretty telling."
The forthcoming Tesla Gigafactory in southeast Travis County may also spur more consumer interest in Tesla models, as Austinites choose to support businesses with a local presence.
Despite its liberal reputation and eco-friendly policy aims, Austin has fewer electric vehicles than other large Texas metros, according to iSeeCars. The share of electric vehicles—0.3%—also falls slightly below the overall Texas average of 0.4%.
But electric vehicles are increasingly popular. More than 3,400 drivers subscribed to Austin' Energy's Plug-In EVerywhere service, a network of more than 1,000 charging ports, as of last month, according to the utility's latest quarterly report.
This represents a nearly 11% increase from 2020 and a substantial change over the last decade.
Wider adoption seems likely. More car manufacturers, including Mercedes Benz, are announcing plans to shift toward entirely electric fleets, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the company will debut an affordable, $25,000 model within the next few years.
There are also financial incentives prompting buyers to make the switch, including federal tax credits, a home charging station rebate and more affordable "fuel" costs, according to Austin Energy. A Plug-In EVerywhere subscription costs $4.17 a month, compared to $2.83 state average for a gallon of gas.
In addition to increasing access and affordability, buyers may be motivated by concerns about climate change. During the catastrophic winter storm in February, Texans used their electric vehicles to warm up safely and charge their phones and other devices, and Ford saw an uptick in demand for their F-150 hybrid because of its onboard generator.
Electric vehicles are gaining momentum as their share of total car sales increase. "It's definitely growing," Brauer said.
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