Lyft's director of transportation policy: We're complementing public transport, Uber is substituting it

By Dan Raile , written on October 6, 2015

From The Sharing Economy Desk

Lyft and Uber are drastically different companies, with incredibly similar products.

The things that make Lyft different from Uber also make it stand out from the rest of Randian battlefield sometimes called “the sharing economy.”

The company’s distinctive style was displayed at last week’s Code for America Summit in Oakland. Whereas fellow “sharing economy” investment magnet Airbnb sent its Chief Executive to partake in a little uncontested PR prattle, Lyft dispatched Emily Castor, its second hire and current Director of Transportation Policy, to take part in (horror of horrors) an on-stage conversation with several other people!

The panel was titled “Building a 21st Century Transportation Network with Public-Private Partnerships,” and featured Castor, City of Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge, and Venture Capitalist Gabe Klein, moderated by Berkeley transportation researcher Susan Shaheen. While it didn’t rise to the level of “debate,” there were authentic moments of discord and difference, an all-too-rare spectacle on tech conference stages.

Most notably, Franklin-Hodge took exception to Castor’s litany of Lyft’s public-private initiatives.

“There is a fundamental difference between public transportation and the services these companies offer,” he said.

Castor left the stage unscathed and apparently unruffled. I was able to catch up with her afterward in a Marriott lobby bar besieged by badgeholders.

The first thing one notices about Emily Castor in a sea of municipal apparatchiks and civic-minded technocrats is that she fits right in, and speaks the language. This is no accident: before arriving at Lyft in 2012, Castor was a municipal financial consultant, and before that a Congressional staffer.

“I’ve been on a listening tour, because we approach this with humility,” Castor told me. I circled the last word in my notebook, intending to look it up later.

She said her newest role (she was formerly the Director of Community Engagement, then Director of Community Relations -- starkly different roles, it turns out) arose from the emerging phenomenon of municipal government agencies soliciting Lyft to help address their own interests.

Those interests, Castor said, are threefold.

1) City, County and State governments are looking for ways to meet climate objectives -- reducing overall vehicle-miles-travelled and vehicle occupancy -- and are eager to work private shared transportation services into their accounting.

2) Governments are exploring how Lyft and its robustly-funded ilk can integrate with under-funded public transit and fill gaps in public transportation coverage. Castor said she had some unannounced news in that regard, which she couldn’t share (be still, my tech-journalist’s heart), but that these plans involve smartphone-based ticketing systems which could be used for both private and public rides (plugging the “leaky conversion funnel in the shift from driving to public options”), schemes to reduce parking congestion in station-side lots, and a mission to extend affordable transportation options to underserved areas.

3) The third leg involves Lyft’s data. This trove is sought after by researchers -- both academics and municipal pilot-planners.

“Lyft has a tremendous respect for science, which is why I don’t make claims for the specific qualitative impacts of our service, unless that is coming from independent academic research,” she said. Which is to say she doesn’t dance the jig I call ‘the Chesky.”

Castor said her company’s (aggregated and de-personalized) data on demand patterns and density is sought after by transportation, planning and land-use departments, as well as academic researchers.

“There’s just a lot of interest. These are powerful planning assets, and to better understand what is valuable to them we’ve asked them to bring us wish lists,” she said.

Now, you can take these statements with as much salt as you like, but there is no denying that Lyft is pressing a competitive advantage by presenting itself to governments as partner and resource-deposit, in terms only government types understand (that’s not a bus ticket, it’s “fare media” or “physical collateral,” for example). By highlighting the contrast with Uber’s intransigence and heavy-handed lobbying, Lyft has set out to make itself the clear favorite of municipal governments.

“Lyft is complementing public transit, as opposed to Uber -- that’s a substitution,” Castor said.

Lyft has earned itself some distinction, in government circles at least, by positioning itself as the responsible and approachable counterpart to its unloved rival. Since the companies offer nearly identical services, and since local governments have the potential to cause headaches for them both, that is no mean feat. It’s a nice feat. Fist bump.