The growing gap between what Lyft is becoming and what I want it to be

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 15, 2015

From The News Desk

Sharp eyes will notice that Lyft has updated its FAQ on Lyft Line this week. There was a surprise at the end—at least to me. In San Francisco, you can now give “feedback” and send notes to fellow passengers. From the FAQ:

On your Lyft Line ride receipt, you'll have the option to provide positive feedback to the other passenger if you had a great experience, or notify our Support team if the other passenger's conduct wasn't up to Lyft standards. If both you and the other passenger leave positive feedback, you'll even be able to see each other's notes (if any). Only your note, photo, and first name will be shared.

If you receive a note from a fellow passenger, you'll be notified by email. And so Lyft takes yet another step away from the service I want, towards the lofty vision of community-in-a-car/Tinder-Lyft that the original Zimrides wanted to be.

I have to learn about such changes from FAQs because I’m one of those people who can’t imagine ever taking a Lyft Line, even though I use Lyft a dozen times a week. I’m consistently late, for one thing, so the uncertainty of adding another 10-15-20 minutes onto my journey to save a few dollars isn’t a good trade. And I just don’t want to meet or talk to people. I want to zone out. It’s not that I’m a snob. But I have to engage with people all day long. I want permission to zone out.

And, like a lot of women, I absolutely hate getting hit on by strangers. I am an exhausted, time-pressed, 40-year-old CEO and mom who couldn’t be less in the market for a missed connection. I am not looking for love. I am looking for a way to get from point A to point B.

Frankly, regular old Lyft itself is chattier than I’d prefer. I don’t want to be rude, so I always chat. But if I could set a preference of “I’ll be polite, on time, tip you $5 per ride, but I want to sit in the back and do email please,” Lyft would be a far better service for me. And – really — there are some drivers who feel the same aren’t there?

There is one reason—and one reason only—that I use Lyft. Because it’s not Uber. But my issue with Uber was never the service. It was the company behind it. My issue with Lyft is the opposite. Love the company; wish the service was less “HELLO! MY NAME IS!”

Many people I speak to feel the same way. “If only Lyft offered a black car service…” I hear from a lot of people who’d like to cut the Uber cord. We asked John Zimmer about that at his PandoMonthly last December and he said it wasn’t in the cards. They want to be a transportation company for the masses, not the elite.

For months I’ve been smugly thinking that Zimmer & Co. are making a mistake. That they are so blinded by this utopian vision of everyone getting in everyone’s cars that they’re missing a gigantic opportunity to capitalize on a year of Uber’s missteps and many people’s desire for an alternative. That he needed to listen to the market.

Well, apparently, that’s just me. According to Lyft drivers I’ve had in the last week, the market doesn't share many of my riding preferences. And they love Lyft Line. On stage at SXSW, Lyft CEO Logan Green said Lyft Line accounted for the majority of rides in San Francisco, but for weeks my drivers have told me it’s the vast majority. One driver told me it was 85% of his rides, while others pegged it at 75%.

That’s almost unbelievable given the scale of Lyft’s business. Sure it’s not Uber. But a recent “leaked” memo showed that the company expects to offer 90 million rides in 2015, and that number is projected to grow in 2016 to 205 million rides.

I’m dying to know what the demographics are. Because my assumption is that it’s young, single people who have more time than money. But if it’s really that many riders, maybe it’s more than that.

I’ve been asking people about this for the last week or so, and one incredibly wealthy, married investor who is also old and time-pressed like me confessed to me that he uses the service daily. He wouldn’t let me use his name, but it was precisely the opposite demographic of what I would have expected.

He said his office was near one of Lyft’s “hot spots”—certain areas where there are always pickups and always Lyfts. Lyfts are always there, it costs him $5 and usually the car fills up right there on the spot. It almost never takes him longer to get to where he’s headed. And he likes the community feel of it. “I could easily afford to take Uber everyday,” he says. This isn’t about money for him, which I’d assumed was the only reason Lyft Line resonates.

This person was not a Lyft investor—which is one reason he didn’t want his name used—but he said he thought it’d been a game changer. This person said he’d tried UberPool before but – in a weird twist of fate—it didn’t have enough critical mass or the mapping technology to work well. (One of those could change with the Here acquisition.)

The more I’ve talked to person after person—both drivers and riders—about who is taking Lyft Line and why, I started to have a mini-aha moment. People in San Francisco aren’t viewing this as carpooling or ride sharing. They are viewing it as a bus replacement.

That actually makes sense. If there’s any part of transportation that’s worse than cabs in San Francisco it’s public transportation. So if you think of Lyft Line like less of a downgraded Uber and more of an upgraded Muni, it sounds a hell of a lot more appealing. It's not lost on Lyft, who matched Muni's $2.25 fee in January to drive home the point.

Suddenly, Lyft isn't only competing with cabs. It's on its own mission of urban transportation disruption.

The March 5 introduction of "hot spots" and the "Drive Happy District" were game changers for Lyft Line. Many of them match Bart and Muni stops, but with more than 100 "hot spots," there are way more access points than traditional public transportation. And the "Drive Happy District" gives discounts to people staying in the area of the city that gets the most rides. That should lead to less unpredictability of how much time you are adding on, and allows something as weird and unpredictable like sharing cars with people to become a regular routine. Depending on the route it could be just $3 a ride. Without hot spots, this person would never take Lyft Line so regularly.

There are some mega risks. San Francisco is a city built for something like Lyft Line. It’s full of early adopters who are mostly young and eager to meet new people. There’s a hippie/hipster community vibe that doesn’t exist in all other cities. And there’s a critical mass of drivers and riders. San Francisco is also geographically tiny. Traffic can be an issue, sure, but there’s only so far you’re gonna need to go en route to your stop. The small size also makes it an easier logistical puzzle to solve.

One of the drivers I spoke to noted that he expects some people will get burned out on Lyft Line. Some of his passengers have had negative experiences where they’re taken too far out of their way or chafe at restrictions like not being able to change your destination once you’ve ordered the service. In the early days, a lot of people took it because no one else was and they essentially got a regular Lyft for cheaper. As it’s surged in popularity, that’s changed.

And new “Tinder-like” features like the one just added above may narrow the demographic beyond “people wanting to save money” to “people wanting to meet people.” It may also scare off female passengers—which has always been a strength of Lyft.

It’s still not a service I’ll take. But hopefully for the future of Lyft, I’m an outlier. It’s vitally important that the future of urban transportation not be a monopoly—no matter how virtuous that company may be. And it’s especially vital if it’s a company like Uber.