SXSW to see influx of ridesharing, bike rentals

What a difference a couple of years make.

In 2013, with Austin officials embroiled in a legal fight with Sidecar, the first “ridesharing” company to dip its toe into the city, Lyft officials at South by Southwest jokingly offered festival-goers piggyback rides between events, Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally says. Now, two years later (and after a bitter political fight that ended in October with the Austin City Council provisionally legalizing such services), Lyft is the official ridesharing company of the festival.

While she wouldn’t give specifics on the size of Lyft’s fleet, Dally said the company will have hundreds of drivers on the streets during SXSW, giving rides arranged and paid for using an app. So will Uber, Lyft’s better funded and even more aggressive competitor. Uber officials were likewise shy about saying how many of their affiliated drivers will be available.

“That’s not something we can disclose. There will be a lot of people on the road,” said Chris Nakutis, Uber’s Texas general manager. The company has had a presence at SXSW since 2011, he said, and last year offered free app-based rides during the festival.

Both companies will offer “surge pricing,” higher charges that kick in when demand increases, as it almost surely will for much of the 10-day festival. Lyft has a ceiling on its surge rate, three times the normal rate, Dally said. Uber has no limit, Nakutis said.

The tens of thousands of SXSW fans roaming Central Austin, if they decide not to hazard getting around downtown’s maze of festival street closures in a car, will also have additional two-wheeled options this year aside from the ubiquitous pedicabs. And Capital Metro, which in past years has offered extended MetroRail service, will extend the hours of not only the train service, but of a number of bus routes as well.

Spinlister, a 3-year-old California company, hopes to become the Uber of bicycles, connecting bike owners with people who would like to rent a set of wheels and pedal themselves around. According to Andrew Batey, Spinlister’s chief marketing officer, South by Southwest could see a startling wave of peer-to-peer bike rentals.

“We already have a thousand bikes listed,” Batey said, including almost 150 from nonprofit BikeTexas. “I think it’s possible to jump another 200 before South by starts.”

Batey said the company, which insures the bikes against theft or damage, takes 17.5 percent of the rental payment from the bike owner, and the renter pays an additional 12.5 percent surcharge. Although there are hourly and weekly rates, most bicycles rent by the day, he said, with the price set by the bike owner. Most of them run between $30 and $40 a day.

The company, still in its early days last year, had 75 Austin bikes available on its app during the 2014 festival.

“We rented almost all of them during South by Southwest, without any promotion or anything,” Batey said.

Austin B-Cycle — the nonprofit that specializes in short-term bike rentals of what are unusually sturdy bikes — was also operating during the 2014 festival and had almost 300 bikes and 40 “docking” stations where a person can check out or check in a bike, paying with a credit card. A year later, B-Cycle has 45 stations sprinkled around Central Austin (as far north as West 24th and Guadalupe streets and south to Elizabeth Street) and 380 bikes, General Manager Elliott McFadden said.

“During South by Southwest we expect to have almost all of them out there,” McFadden said.

B-Cycle offers one-day passes for $8 and a weekly pass for $25. The fee allows 30 minutes of bike use before an additional $4 per half-hour charge kicks in. But a rider, by checking in one bike and checking out another within 30 minutes, can ride without paying more throughout the day.

Last year, B-Cycle saw almost 18,000 bike checkouts during the 10 days of SXSW, racking up 12 percent of its rentals for the year in that short period.

Capital Metro’s MetroRail service, for the first time, will operate during the Sunday near the start of SXSW, March 15, with trains running from 10 a.m. to midnight. And its service on both of the event’s Saturdays, March 14 and 21, will extend to 2:30 a.m. the next morning, about an extra hour. During the week, when MetroRail normally finished is before 8 p.m., service will extend during South by Southwest week to 10:30 p.m. March 16-17; while service for March 18-19 will run until 12:30 a.m.

In addition, for revelers out on March 20 and 21, the MetroRapid bus routes No. 801 and 803 will run through 2:30 a.m., instead of shutting down at the normal 12:30 a.m. time. And the agency’s E-bus and Night Owl late-night routes, normally finished just after 3 a.m., will run until 4 a.m.

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