Getting a Lyft

With only a few hours left until departure, I was running out of options fast. I needed to secure a means of transportation that would take me to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for my evening flight to Europe or risk not seeing my parents for Christmas at all this year. Friends who could have potentially been coerced into giving me a ride had already left the Bay Area to go home for the holidays. Caltrain deemed, with two bags and a carry-on, too much of a hassle. SuperShuttle, my shared ride option of choice in the past, informed me on their website that they would be able to pick me up at 9:10pm, incidentally the exact departure time of my flight, at the earliest. A regular cab would have been the last obvious resort, with a possible damage to my holiday budget of about $120.

Request Lyft

Curious about recent developments in the ridesharing business, I decided to give Lyft a try, the peer-to-peer ridesharing company founded in 2012. Yes, the one with the fuzzy pink mustaches.

Trying to do anything beyond sifting through Lyft’s legal or customer support information on their website is a futile task. Creating an account and “requesting a lyft” can only be done exclusively through either their Android or iPhone app. After downloading, it uses Facebook Login to create an account but before you haven’t entered your credit card information, you can’t do anything with the app. Once you have relinquished those vital bits of information, you are granted view of the main screen, showing all available drivers in relation to your current location on a map.

Meet your driver

Standing outside my apartment complex by the leasing office parking spots, my pieces of luggage parked next to me, I pressed the “Request Lyft” button and was informed within seconds that Erwin and his black BMW would arrive in four minutes. Only moments later, I received a call from the driver, confirming the location and where to find me. I recognized a foreign accent, however couldn’t pinpoint it through the speaker of the phone.

Erwin arrived seven minutes after I had pressed the “request” button in his black and spotless clean 2000 BMW 3 series. With a bit of disappointment, I noticed that he did not have the pink mustache affixed to the front, the fluffy company trademark was collecting dust on the rear shelf instead. We stowed away my luggage in the trunk and back seat and were on our way to SFO.

Erwin, 62, about 5-5, bald, wearing thin rimmed glasses and sporting a predominantly grey-bearded mustache, radiated a jolly demeanor. Originally from the Philippines, he came to the US when he was 30 years old and had worked as an operator for several of the bigger microchip companies. He got married, raised two kids but unfortunately had lost his job recently, forcing him to explore new employment options.

“I have been doing this for four weeks now, ” he told me. “In my first and second week, I got 40 hours of work. This week I only worked for three days. Tomorrow (Sunday, ed.) I only have two hours.”

Hours and Pay

He explained to me that Lyft drivers get a certain amount of on-duty hours assigned each week, each hour paying $15. This is a base salary and independent of whether a driver gets any customers to shuttle around or not. The rate goes up to $20 if one gets assigned a shift during “Power Hours”, which are from 7am to 9am on weekdays and 11pm to 2am at night on weekends. Additionally, Erwin tells me, the driver gets a 10% commission of the amount the customer pays for the ride[1], which, at the time, was referred to as a “donation”[2]. Drivers need to provide their own car and everything that comes with it, like insurance and gas.

Rate and get rated

Shortly after I had gotten in the passenger seat, I asked Erwin whether I had to accept anything or do anything in the app before we head out. This was my first Lyft experience and I only had a vague understanding of how this thing worked. “Once I drop you off, you have to give me a star rating,” he explained, hinting at one very important part of the Lyft system. Similar to Airbnb, upon conclusion of the service, the customer is encouraged to rate the driver. Lyft uses a driver’s average rating to measure a driver’s performance and, Erwin suspects, is also used to determine how many on-duty hours a driver gets[3].

One time I did not accept [the request] and that makes me really mad. I went to the bathroom and my cell phone fell down. So I couldn’t accept.

Besides the immaculately clean car, Erwin has additional tricks up his sleeve to cajole his customers into giving him a good rating. “I have some water, ” pointing at the three bottles of Fiji Water stacked in the passenger door storage space, “as well as some chocolate”, waving a box of an assortment of Ghiradelli goodness in front of me, which I politely decline.

In addition to the customer rating the driver, grading also happens the other way around. The customer rating is mainly used to sort out “problem clients”. A bad rating for a customer could mean that he or she will be banned from requesting a ride in the future altogether. “If we give you guys three stars, you can’t ride with us any more,” Erwin reveals.

The average rating however only seems to be one part of how drivers get evaluated. How quickly they can react and accept ride requests while on duty appears to be of at least equal importance. Erwin hinted that the company tracks how many seconds it takes a driver to answer, i.e. accept, incoming ride requests. The faster the better, obviously. That however means that you need to have your phone close by at all times and every activity needs to be managed carefully. “One time I did not accept it and that makes me really mad. Because I was doing something, I went to the bathroom and my cell phone fell down, ” Erwin, whose average rating is 4.9 (out of 5), confesses. “But they said that in the long run you will get used to [having the phone in close proximity all the time].”

Additional income

Erwin is looking forward to retiring next year, his pension being “okay” as he puts it. His wife, four years younger than him, will continue to work as a research engineer in the Valley to contribute to the household income. With the money he gets from being a Lyft driver, he is simply trying to add to their income as much as he can. Anything else that comes from a steady job however, his wife must provide since Lyft does not offer health benefits of any kind. Since money is tight, he has to think twice about every dollar he spends.

Two hours is not enough. But I take it. It is for my food for the day.

“I was actually at Starbucks when you called me, trying to recharge my iPhone. But I did not have my coffee yet. That is another five bucks, I said maybe I wait. If i really fall asleep, maybe I buy one.”, Erwin hints at how money-conscious he needs to be. “Tomorrow I only have two hours, but I take it. It is just for my food for the day. I could go to Subway or get a hamburger. I don’t eat that much.”

“Thanks for riding with Erwin!”

After 28.1 miles and 43 minutes (the Lyft app kept track), with plenty of time until my flight, Erwin dropped me off at the International Terminal. SFPD at the airport was actually the reason why he had not put up the pink mustache. “In the airport, sometimes they give us a ticket. They said it is because of the competition with the taxi cabs, who are complaining.” Several reports seem to confirm that. Erwin had to pay for said ticket himself, with no refund provided by Lyft.

Being really satisfied with my first Lyft experience, I brought out my wallet to give Erwin some additional tip outside of the Lyft system. “Oh no no, we don’t take cash,” Erwin was adamant to not accept anything from me. “You can do that through the app.” Instead of me giving him something, he reached back into the trunk of his car and handed me a water bottle. “It is good water, take it, ” which I accepted with appreciation.

As I wheeled my bags into the terminal, I received a notification from Lyft, reminding me to pay my suggested donation of $69 and rate my driver, which I did once I had made it to my gate. Meanwhile, Erwin made its way back onto the highway. He had another two hours left on his shift, lasting until 8pm. Maybe he will grant himself that well deserved coffee now.

Notes

[1] It might have been a matter of miscommunication, but it turns out that Lyft actually gets 20% whereas the driver receives 80% of the donations/fares paid

[2] As of 12/25, donations were replaced by regular payments for rides within California

[3] According to Lyft’s website, a driver can choose when to drive