24 hours with Lyft: an Uber refugee's tale

The pink mustache version of a Lyft car: not what I got.
It was the end of a long holiday party — one of those off-the-record media affairs of the kind that got Uber into hot water last week — and all I wanted was to get home. My fingers itched to fire up the Uber app, and it was made worse when I passed a middle-aged group of women in overcoats on a street corner pointing at a screen, anxiously awaiting their Uber.
What cared they for Emil Michael and Travis Kalanick, I wondered.
But when you write a widely shared op-ed saying you're going to boycott Uber until there's a change in upper management, there's an obligation to walk the walk (or ride the ride or ... well, you know what I mean). I ran through the reasons again: An Uber executive talked of spending $1 million to investigate critical journalists' private lives. His boss called it "lacking humanity," but refused to even mention disciplinary action.
It all fit a pattern of shady, oddly invasive (see the now-deleted "rides of glory" blog post, which explained how Uber tracked users' one-night stands) and thin-skinned behavior on the part of the company's management. Unseemly traits that lurked in the shadows for years had finally pushed themselves into the spotlight.
So as eager as I was to backtrack on that promise and return to the familiar, I downloaded Lyft, expecting to hate it. Here's what happened over the next 24 hours, a strange time when I expected fist bumps (a Lyft tradition, apparently) and pink mustaches, and got front seats and decals.
According to Lyft, this was the company's best week ever — aided by a massive influx of Uber refugees like me. So if you're on the fence about Uber, but hesitate to use its main alternative this holiday season, here's what I learned: In short, switching to Lyft is like visiting a foreign country. A surprising amount of stuff is exactly the same, but the cultural differences that exist — good and bad — are magnified.
Lyft guide

Part of the "Insider's Guide to Lyft," which the company sent to users Tuesday.
The first difference between the apps became apparent on the map screen. Lyft, those car icons are too big! Uber's map shows you its available rides from above, which instantly gives you a very precise idea of where the drivers are and what direction they're heading. On Lyft, the car icons are cartoonish, and appear to be heading straight for you. I have no idea why, or why they're so large, they obscure entire blocks.
Uber also lets you know on the map screen when surge pricing is in effect: Small lightning bolt icons appear above the various car options. Lyft claims to show a "prime time" icon on its map when its demand exceeds supply — but for me, at least, this icon doesn't ever seem to appear. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn, after I ordered my first ride, that a 100% price increase was in effect.
Still, at least Lyft caps its price increase at 200%, while Uber's surge price has no ceiling whatsoever. I've seen it rise as high as 850% (though Uber smartly renders this as "8.5x," which somehow seems far more benign without the percentage sign.)

Lyft vs. Uber: Round one

My first Lyft driver — let's call him Stu — arrived on time, and picked me up at my local transit station with no problems. He had a Lyft decal in his window, and no pink mustaches in sight, which was definitely a bonus in my book.
Stu was friendly enough; not really the talkative type, but I did learn that I wasn't his first Uber refugee of the day. In fact, he seemed pretty tired of talking about Uber's problems — this was the day after the news had exploded — which may also explain why Stu seemed, well, ever so slightly baked (hey, it's the Bay Area). But it was a short ride, and he got me home safe and sound.
The weirdest part of that journey? Discovering afterward — via an email, no less — that Stu had rated me five stars. Uber makes such a big deal about keeping its passenger ratings secret that a high-tech workaround to find your Uber rating (no longer working, alas) made headlines. I accidentally saw mine one time when an Uber driver's app crashed and I had to help him reboot it: 4.9 stars, since you asked. But I felt guilty having even seen it, like I'd been sneaking cookies from a jar.
By contrast, 
Lyft is like a proud parent, unable to contain itself when you get a good grade. As with parents and grades, I'm still not sure if that's a healthy trait.

Probably the most unwelcome difference between the services came next, however: discovering that Lyft gives you the option to add a tip for your driver. Now I don't want to get too deep into the ageless debate over tipping, but suffice to say I find it an anxiety-inducing decision-making process — and I don't think I'm alone. One of the things Uber users rave about is that the tip is built in: You don't have to even think about it. Your driver is rewarded, and your secret rating of each other is what really matters.
In theory, Lyft builds a tip into its price ($2, according to this Lyft driver). But it also presents you with a screen after the payment screen, filled with your driver's friendly face, which floats little pink balloons up for each dollar you tip them. Who doesn't want to reward their driver with pink balloons? And just like that, the decision-reducing, anxiety-free promise of the platform is removed.
Round one to Uber.

Lyft vs. Uber: Round two

Things got better for Lyft the next day, when Khaleed, a Yemen-born driver (not his real name) showed up to whisk me back to the transit station. Lyft sends you a text, rather than an iOS or Android notification, when the driver shows up. I quite like that; your mileage may vary. Khaleed had a dent on the rear of the car, on the side facing my house, and he quickly ushered me round to the passenger seat next to him.
At the time, I wasn't sure if he was embarrassed about the dent, or if this was some weird kind of insurance thing Lyft does — best not make it look like a taxi ride. Only later would I learn that this is a prime thing in Lyft culture. The fist bumps the company keeps on talking about? Not really a thing, at least not in my experience or in the experience of every other Lyft user I've asked.
The front seat? Totally a thing. Stu, as it turned out, was in the minority.
Lyft guide 2

Sit in the back if you want, Lyft says — but the cultural pressure to sit up front is strong.
At first, I was a little conflicted about this cultural shift. On the one hand, as much as I'm professionally nosey about other people's lives, I'm also an introvert. I cherish my quiet time in the back of a cab, which is often on the way to something for which I have to compose myself, compose a text or otherwise think about something other than the space I'm currently in.
On the other hand, here you are in a car with another human being, a human being you may very well never see again. What is life like, inside their heads? What wisdom can they share? Uber and Lyft are colloquially known as ride-sharing services, though most of those rides are taken with only one passenger. I think the reason "ride-sharing" still resonates as a word is that there's much less of a cold, professional taxi-like distance between the driver and you. The driver is literally sharing his or her ride.
I learned that Khaleed left Yemen with his family many decades ago, though he never explained why. "Very quiet here," he said, gesturing at some of the Bay Area's rowdier streets. "Very quiet," he repeated, and it was the only time in the whole trip that his smile faltered.
The rest of the time was filled with what can only be described as a sermon. Khaleed's beaming face and need to reach deep into his second language rendered this charming, however, and he had evidently learned not to get specifically religious on his passengers. He confined himself to staccato statements of a gnomic nature: "Everything, finite. Your time, finite. Your stomach, you know, finite. Only prayer, infinite."
Then he smiled even wider, a twinkle of self-recognition in his crinkle-lined eyes. "I talk too much. Friends say that all the time."
Perhaps sitting in the front seat made me more of a target for Khaleed's sermonizing. But who cares? 
If I'd been in the back, staring at my smartphone, I would have met his chatter with platitudes, and I wouldn't have been able to remember anything about the moment. As it was, I met a fascinating human being, eye to crinkly, twinkling eye.

Round two to Lyft.

Lyft vs. Uber: Round three

That evening, with the rain washing San Francisco for the first time in an age, I decided to try Lyft Line — a ride-sharing service in the more traditional sense. It directs a participating driver to pick up two or more Lyft passengers heading in a vaguely similar direction, and lets the app's algorithm calculate a route.
This is certainly not an option you take if you're in a hurry, as my driver — let's call her Sarah — admitted. Part of that wasn't her fault. Sarah called me from two blocks away: She'd been stuck in traffic for so long that my fellow rider, also being picked up downtown, had simply walked over to meet her.
The other rider remained uncommunicative throughout the trip, staring sullenly at her smartphone in the back, as rain soaked the windshield. Sarah seemed a little stressed by the precise directions Lyft Line requires. But she was amiable enough, happy to talk about the Uber vs. Lyft debate, but quick to point out — as she did more than once — that this was only a few-nights-a-week thing for her.
I get this sense from a lot of drivers: The larger battle between ride-sharing firms doesn't concern them much because they only have a tangential interest in the outcome. They'll switch between services depending on who offers a better deal for drivers, and sometimes even depending on which passengers are around. 
Many drivers mount both Lyft and Uber-run iPhones on their dashboards.

Round three — well, like the idea of getting anywhere fast in any ride-sharing service in downtown San Francisco that night — let's call it a wash.

Lyft vs. Uber: Round four

On my final Lyft home of this above-average-usage day, my driver — we'll call her Alison — was a bubbly and spirited soul. She was the first of my four drivers to proudly display her Lyft mustache on the front of her car.
My Lyft drivers were 50-50 male-female, and Alison offered a suggestion as to why: Uber was starting to gain a reputation among female drivers as "creepy," she said. She didn't elaborate.
But just as importantly, she'd been told Uber was adding more restrictions — specifically, requiring drivers to work a minimum number of hours. Alison had no time for that. She was studying to become an aesthetician, and wanted to drive only when she felt like it.
By this time, sitting up front and chatting on the level with a Lyft driver had come to seem normal. Indeed, it felt weird when I started this journey by giving a friend a ride, and felt obliged to sit in the back with him. Once we dropped him off, Alison suggested I move to the passenger seat, and we spent the rest of the ride having a genuine good old-fashioned smartphone-free conversation — about writing this article, as it happens.
Round four to Lyft, and that round was a KO. 
I could practically feel the Lyft experience embedding itself in the emotional centers of my brain.

Marketers dream of this moment, and spend millions trying to pinpoint exactly when and why a customer becomes a loyal customer. Turns out it's pretty simple. The more humanity your company shows — not just the buzzword humanity, tossed around as a strategic response to a very scary overreach, but actual day-to-day humanity on display in, say, the front seat of a car — the more you win.
Lyft is a foreign country for an Uber refugee, but it doesn't take long to feel at home there. On a holiday that celebrates leaving one country and finding friendly faces in another, let's give thanks for that. 

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