My friend Jen is waiting outside of Dear Mom with me for a woman driving a car outfitted with a pink mustache. Jen lives in LA and is crashing with me while she’s in town. She and I have such similar demeanors that I’m both excited and slightly worried about how tonight will play out. Fucking mayhem is guaranteed. She’s wearing something called a Spirit Hood, which is a furry hood with dangling arm thingies to put your hands in and reminds me of Where the Wild Things Are. I’m wearing a clown nose and fluorescent orange sunglasses. The mantra we’ve been repeating all night is “Let’s get weird.” It certainly feels like we’re going to, starting with our ride.
Eventually the vehicle we’ve been waiting for arrives. Our driver Celeste is probably in her 50s and emanates a warmth that makes you immediately want to give her a hug. As we get in the car, she instead gives us each a fist bump and says, “Sorry it was hard to recognize me. People try to steal the mustache when I leave the car, so I take it off when I park. I forgot to put it back on.”
The furry pink mustache in question is Lyft’s signature. Every car in its 200+ “fleet” wears one on the grill. It’s a clever and kitschy branding ploy as well as a way for those using the service to recognize their ride. Despite the silliness of the mustache and the ridiculousness of the mandatory fist bump that each driver is supposed to give you when you enter their car, what Lyft does is rather genius. In a city where getting a cab can be frustratingly difficult, Lyft not only answers this need but does so at the touch of your fingertip.
I had first heard about Lyft a week or so before being invited to a press conference at its SOMA headquarters. Like most of these kinds of things, I went for free booze – but I discovered a service that has the potential to transform how we get around San Francisco. Lyft empowers the citizenry of the Bay Area to use their own vehicles and effectively act as taxi drivers. How exactly does this happen? According to cofounder John Zimmer, “After completing an application and an initial phone interview, Lyft drivers must pass DMV and criminal background checks, as well as in-person interviews, vehicle inspections, and on-site training.” Plus, the vehicle must be a 2000 or newer model.
From the consumer’s side, all you have to do is download the app on your phone, fine-tune the GPS cursor to your location, and then press “Request pickup here.” Assuming all the drivers aren’t occupied (the past bunch of times I’ve tried, all the drivers were occupied), Lyft matches you up with the nearest car. A picture of the person and their vehicle appears on your screen, as well an estimated amount of time until arrival. You can practice your fist bump with passersby as you wait.
Celeste plugged our destination into a GPS and away we went to a tech party with free food and booze. This wasn’t my first Lyft and I’d been asking a handful of questions to all my drivers. I was curious as to what brought them to Lyft, how long they’d been driving for the service, if it was their full-time gig, and a bunch of other shit. Celeste told us that she’d been with Lyft for a month and that she absolutely loved it. Her regular line of work was as a preschool teacher and she was driving to make some extra money to take her husband to Italy. Goddamn she was sweet. She also dug Lyft because she felt she was helping people out, it was fostering community, and it was fun. When she dropped us off, Celeste got out to grab the pink mustache from her trunk and we both opted to give her a hug instead of a fist bump. It felt like the thing to do.
As Celeste pulled away, the Lyft app popped up on my phone and suggested I donate $6 for the ride (the tip is included), which was a bit cheaper than a cab would’ve been. Fees are based on distance and time spent in transit (the driver keeps 80 percent of your donation while Lyft keeps 20 percent). Since you have to connect the app to your debit or credit card, you pay by tapping a button on your smartphone. You’re then asked to rate your driver on a scale of one to five stars and the drivers do the same to you. If you don’t have a good star rating, you’re less likely to get picked up. It’s this idea of a donation that’s important though, since it’s what’s allowing Lyft drivers to skirt around having to deal with actually being licensed taxis. They aren’t technically cabbies or limo drivers since they aren’t technically charging anything. While talking to the founders, Zimmer and Logan Green, the word “disruptive” was repeatedly used, and while it certainly felt like a hot business term from an MBA program, they had a great point: Lyft is gonna shake things up.
When asked what the difference was between Lyft and their competitor SideCar, Zimmer declined to comment. That said, Lyft company literature touts their community, the in-car experience (from riding up front to the fist bump greeting to getting to choose the music), and their $1 million excess liability policy, as they are the only company in the cab alternatives space that has such a large one. As for their other competition, Uber, the difference is more salient; Uber is a fleet of town cars and its rates are markedly more expensive.
I was curious to see what the taxi industry thought of these hired car developments, so I asked a couple of my cabbie friends, MC Mars and Dirty, to give me their thoughts. Dirty has been driving a cab in SF for over a decade, and Mars has been driving in NYC and SF for over 31 years. They’re both smart and insightful cats and Mars even authored the excellent cabbie memoir Don’t Take Me the Long Way.
When I asked Mars to weigh in, he kept coming back to the vast difference in oversight he sees between cabs and Lyft. He said, “Cabdrivers have to record each ride on a waybill; they have to renew an A-card annually, which can arbitrarily double in price from year to year. They must also conform to a whole book of strict rules and regulations; and, of course, they have to pay gates. This last item puts tremendous pressure on the cabdriver because on a slow night he can spend a good part of the shift paying off his rental on the cab.” Mars went on to compare Lyft (and companies like Uber and SideCar) to pirates, because they are acting without regulations while cutting into the profits of those that are playing by the rules.
Dirty also had some good points to bring up. He noted that since there’s already a shortage of cabs, services like Lyft and Uber wouldn’t really affect his income during peak hours and bad weather days. But it’s when there isn’t a glut of customers that the new guys will hurt his pocket book. He added that the competition could be good for cabdrivers who don’t always get excellent customer service reviews in this city.
“One problem with the taxi business is that the drivers forget that they’re not in the transportation business, they’re in the service business,” he explained. “People who’ve been burned by cabbies before might be quick to turn to Lyft. Maybe this will help cause cabdrivers to reevaluate their customer service.”
He certainly had a point. But Dirty also mentioned that San Franciscans voted in 2008 to dissolve the SF Taxi Commission, putting it under the umbrella of the SFMTA. This means that Muni gets all the licensing and medallion fees while putting more of a financial burden on the cabbies. Making it more cost prohibitive to be a cabdriver, while a competitor service comes in without having to abide by the same regulations, certainly isn’t going to improve customer service.
As the night wore on, I thought about some of the other Lyft drivers that I’d had while experimenting with the service. There was Angel, an ex-Navy man in his 20s who was studying to be a paramedic. He’d gotten his first finger from a cabbie the day I rode with him. He liked Lyft because he got to meet cool people and especially liked the fact that he didn’t have to carry cash. Boris was also in his 20s and uses the service himself to get to and from his Richmond District home. He told me that he’d had a cabbie as a customer and that the guy was considering driving for Lyft. Rich had a bowl of mints for his customers as well as a full-time job. He dug that Lyft allowed him to choose his own hours and schedule. He was the only one I saw keeping notes on all the pickups and drop-offs the way cabs do. He said he did this just in case there were any problems, like items being left behind in his car. And Henri told me he stopped using the mustache because cabdrivers kept getting yelling at him. Everyone I rode with seemed excited by the prospect of changing the way San Franciscans get around their city, even if they were drawing the ire of the taxi industry along the way.
As for that “getting weird” mantra Jen and I were chanting at the start of the night, it absolutely proved true. Among the many things that happened that evening, we picked up a tech spokesmodel who ended up sobbing into her whiskey, we snuck into a VC party that culminated with me unfortunately puking into someone’s drink, and the night ended in a PG-13-rated threesome with another girl we met. I’m not giving Lyft the credit for all of that, but it certainly made getting around and getting weird a lot easier.
Author’s note: At the time this article was written, both Lyft and SideCar have been served with a cease and desist order from the California Public Utilities Commission citing them as “unsafe, illegal, and risky.” That said, when asked if this will sideline operations, Zimmer said, “We're moving forward, and continuing our productive conversations with the CPUC.” More recently, state regulators fined Lyft (as well as Sidecar and Uber) $20,000. Again, Lyft claims to it will continue moving forward.
Download the app and try it out for yourself. You never know what kind of fun people you might meet.