The SXSW Transportation Wars Are On, As Uber And SideCar Launch Free Ride Sharing In Austin

It looks like transportation around Austin during SXSW might not be as painful as it has been in years past. Increased competition in the ride-share market means that getting around will be a whole lot easier, as conference goers won’t have to sit around and wait for a taxi. Not just that, but transportation could be free, as both Uber and SideCar have committed to offering free rides over the next week or so.

Last week, SideCar announced that it would have ride sharing available during SXSW, as the company seeks to make Austin one of its first expansion markets. For its launch, the company had planned to introduce a fun (but complicated) promotion where some handpicked VIPs would be able to pick certain “spotlight” areas throughout town where riders could be picked up or dropped off for free.

The Austin City Council had other plans, however. Seeking to keep ride sharing out of town, the city passed an ordinance that stated that unlicensed drivers who accepted payments for rides could have their cars impounded. The goal seems to have been to keep unlicensed drivers from taking rides during one of Austin’s biggest events of the year.

But if the goal was to protect the revenue of cab drivers, the ordinance might have backfired. That’s because rather than have to deal with sting operations during the conference, SideCar decided to make all rides during the conference free, paying its drivers as brand ambassadors during the event. Theoretically, at least, since no money is changing hands between passenger and driver, the local police would have no grounds to impound any vehicles during the SXSW ride-share experiment.

SideCar won’t be alone in Austin, as Uber announced on its blog today that it would make UBERx available for the first time in Austin for SXSW Interactive. That’s a big step up from previous years, when Uber made pedicab rides available during the conference. But it also falls in line with the startup’s plan to introduce low-cost ride offerings in all of the markets that it operates in.

Late last month, Uber began recruiting new people for its UBERx service in San Francisco, accepting unlicensed drivers driving their own cars for the first time. Previously, it had partnered with third-party limo services for its black car and UBERx rides, but with the California Public Utilities Commission softening its stance on ride-sharing services while it investigated the possibility of accepting a whole new class of mobile app driven transportation services.

That opened the door for Uber to offer ride-sharing in San Francisco (and potentially Los Angeles), it does nothing for Uber’s promotional offering in Austin during SXSW. So it, like SideCar, will be making UBERx rides from unlicensed drivers free, to avoid running afoul of the new city ordinance. And, of course, driving app adoption from tech-savvy users at the conference should be a positive side effect.

Uber will have free pedicab and UBERx rides throughout town, but those who want to ride in style will also be able to do so. That’s because Uber has partnered with a local limo company to offer UberLUX rides in Austin as well. Those who choose UberLUX will pay a lot more — $75 a ride — but they’ll get ushered around in some baller vehicles, like a Rolls Royce Ghost or Porsche Panamera.

While Uber and SideCar will have free ride shares throughout Austin over the next week, the city is apparently reconsidering its stance on ride sharing. Thanks in part to a petition on Change.org urging Austin to embrace ride sharing, as well as some talks with SideCar over the last week, the city will soon vote on a new ordinance that will study ride sharing, with recommendations for new law in June.

In the meantime, though, folks on the ground at SXSW get free rides. Not a bad deal for the rest of us.