Lyft is getting back to its roots. Before offering a smartphone app that let you summon other people’s private cars—each decked out with a pink mustache—Lyft was a startup called Zimride that matched up college students who wanted to take the same road trip. Now it’s offering much the same service to everyone going the same way.
Today, the company launched a new feature called Lyft Line that lets ride seekers anywhere in the city get matched up with other would-be passengers traveling a similar route, allowing everyone in the car to pay less. The option will be available as a new tab in the Lyft app, first only for passengers in Lyft’s home city of San Francisco.
Shared rides sound like a nice, cheaper, slightly greener way to get around, and the cooperative aspect fits Lyft’s image as a fist-bumping, sit-in-the-front alternative to regular taxis, limos, and its more luxe competitor, Uber. But Lyft wouldn’t be a San Francisco tech startup in 2014 if it didn’t have bigger ambitions. “Instead of public transit, we’re building what we call personal transit,” Lyft CEO Logan Green said at a private media event to unveil the service. Not to be outdone, Uber scooped Lyft Line’s launch last night by announcing a similar experiment in splitting rides called UberPool. As these two duke it out, we could be seeing the future of “ride-sharing” take shape—and this time, contrary to Uber’s motto of “your own private driver,” this future looks like actual shared rides.
While still in college, Green served as a director on the board of the metro transit district in Santa Barbara, California, and he cited that experience when contending that public transit in the U.S. is limping along without a good fix in sight. Chronically underfunded agencies offer travel that takes longer than driving, which leads to meager use. Green said that 90 percent of the time, someone taking a Lyft is followed by someone else taking the same trip within five minutes. Instead of competing with just taxis, Lyft is now aspiring to vie with every mode of wheeled transportation, from buses to your own car, as the default way to get around. “Our hope is this is a product people can use twice a day,” Lyft co-founder John Zimmer said.
The Five-Dollar Ride
The way this becomes possible, Zimmer said, is through Lyft’s scale. The service now has about 60,000 drivers in 65 cities, and it’s now providing millions of trips a month, he said. Because of that density, Lyft believes finding multiple passengers for rides won’t be hard. “You have the type of frequency and demand that you can match it together efficiently,” he said.
One of the most interesting aspects of Lyft Line is that the discount compared to a regular Lyft ride varies depending on the algorithmically determined likelihood of finding a match. Unlike regular Lyft, Lyft Line requires putting a destination into the app when summoning the ride. The app will then quote a discount up to 60 percent off a regular fare (Lyft believes 30 to 40 percent off will be the average.) Even if you’re going somewhere that clearly no one else plans to go, Lyft will offer 10 percent off basically for trying.
The company also promises drivers will still get the same cut as they do from regular rides, and it claims shared rides may be even better for drivers because they tend to mean longer trips.
In its idealized version as presented by Lyft, shared rides become an increasingly tempting option for commuters and other frequent travelers the more the service is used. The greater the demand, the thinking goes, the more shared rides, which mean cheaper rides for everyone. Zimmer says the aspiration is a five-dollar ride wherever you need to go, with the added bonus of not needing to worry about parking.
Private Versus Public
Critics are likely to contend that, as with the much-lambasted private tech shuttles—i.e. the Google buses—a private version of public transit is just another form of tech solutionism, an abdication of the responsibility to seek the public good through public means. Lyft counters that it’s seeking to make its rides maximally affordable.
“Lyft’s mission is to continue to reduce the cost of transportation to make it as accessible as possible,” Green told WIRED.
Whether you agree with Lyft’s answer to public transit’s problems or not, it’s hard to disagree with at least one premise behind the creation of Lyft that Zimmer cites on a regular basis. When people drive in their own cars, most of what we’re all driving around is empty space. Driving alone in a car to work is a wasteful, traffic-creating mess. Better and more buses, trains, and streetcars are one remedy. Lyft’s shared rides another. Either way, commuting as it is now truly sucks—and in San Francisco in 2014, when suckiness calls, an app will surely follow.