With Austin rules gone, Lyft drivers set to get back behind the wheel

Out of an airy Lyft office in East Austin marked by a bright pink tent, a steady stream of new and returning drivers filed in Thursday to sign up, following new Texas legislation passed Wednesday that knocks out Austin’s ride-hailing regulations.

Among those sitting in purple and pink folding chairs in the office was David Highland.

ALSO READ: What does overturn of ride-hailing rules mean for Austin?

Highland, who lives in unincorporated Travis County, has been driving for Lyft — as well as for Ride Austin, Fare and Fasten — for the past two years. He also worked for Uber a bit.

Highland, a retiree who drives part-time, said he had to sign up for new apps after Lyft and Uber rides became limited to the suburbs and business died down.

“I’m always running multiple apps because you never know where the business will be,” Highland said.

On Thursday, he received a text message from Lyft inviting him to sign up to reactivate as an Austin driver.

Highland said he wasn’t pleased with either the city or the ride-hailing industry leaders, Uber and Lyft, when the scuffle over regulation went down last year, adding he felt all parties could have done more negotiating. He said he also didn’t appreciate the state stepping on the city’s toes and would have preferred local control.

“I was disappointed in the unnecessary departure of Uber and Lyft,” Highland said. “They basically left Lyft drivers hanging without any advanced notice other than the election.”

But Highland was back on Thursday because “as long as the tool works, I’ll use it,” he said.

HOW WE GOT HERE: An interactive timeline of Austin’s ride-hailing election

While several apps rushed to fill in the void in the market that Uber and Lyft left, Highland said he thinks the alternative apps will find themselves in tough competition for tourist rides because they lack the brand power. Tourists don’t necessarily know to sign up for new apps when they arrive in Austin, whereas many people already have Uber and Lyft on their phones and will go to use that first, he said.

“I think the new apps will be unable to capture much of the airport market,” he said.

He added that Uber is an aggressive competitor that will likely do whatever it can to drive prices down.

“I think a lot of people will look at which one’s cheapest and sign up for which one’s cheapest, and that’s going to make it really hard on the local apps,” Highland said.

Round Rock resident Juan Rodriguez, 45, has worked for Lyft for about two years and was eager to return to driving in the city of Austin. Rodriguez stepped out of the Lyft office Thursday into the blazing sun with somewhat of a badge of honor: a Lyft “Amp,” the new version of the mustache identifier.

Drivers put the long, oval-shaped box that lights up certain colors on their dashboards to help riders identify them. Drivers who have given 250 rides or more will receive the new technology, according to the company’s website.

Rodriguez said he tried other apps but stuck with Lyft because the app technology was better and less buggy.

“I think it’s going to help the economy recover faster,” he said about Lyft’s return.

RELATED: What we learned by testing six of Austin’s ride-hailing apps

David Bethke, another longtime Lyft driver who has worked for the company since 2014, drives for Lyft in the suburbs as well as Fasten, Fare and RideAustin. Business has been inconsistent since Lyft and Uber left, and juggling multiple apps is time-consuming — not to mention battery-draining, the full-time driver said.

“It was hard for the last year,” Bethke said. “I’d like to see things get back to normal.”

With Uber and Lyft’s return, Bethke said he suspects the smaller apps will be driven out because they lack the financial backing and name power.

“I would expect them to come up with a promotional bombardment of free things to push the other apps out,” Bethke said. “That’s what I would do … I could see them all falling out.”

And he’ll follow the business, he said.

“It’s business. It’s hard to put things personal. I need to get paid,” Bethke said.

All he knows is: “I really don’t want to work for Uber,” he said, citing a series of negative headlines for the company over the past year that ranged from a customer boycott over its choice to operate during a taxi strike protesting the immigration ban earlier this year, to sexual harassment allegations.

“Please don’t make me work for Uber,” Bethke said.

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