State of the Art: Lyft Hopes to Coax Commuters to Leave Their Cars


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Lyft, whose cars display a pink mustache on the grille, lets you call a ride using a smartphone app, and a driver who is also using the app rushes over to pick you up. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Today, like every weekday, about three-quarters of the nation’s adult workers — more than 100 million Americans — drove to work alone. It was ever thus: Americans, it seems, just don’t like to travel together.

John Zimmer and Logan Green, the founders of the ride service Lyft, say they want to change that.

Lyft, like its better-known rival Uber, lets you call a car using a smartphone app, and a driver who is also using the app rushes over to pick you up. This week, beginning in San Francisco, Lyft will introduce a new feature, Lyft Line, that instantly matches riders who are traveling between similar places at similar times, and offers each of them a deep discount to share a ride rather than go solo.

The plan is a clever way for a car-sharing app to go beyond reducing our dependence on private car ownership — with car-pooling, it could end up reducing the number of cars on the road.

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The discounts offered by Lyft Line range from 10 to 60 percent off a standard ride; on average, the company expects people to save about 30 to 40 percent for sharing. These discounts would mean traveling from San Francisco’s popular Mission neighborhood to the Financial District for about $ 5 a ride; using standard Lyft, Uber or a taxi, the same ride might cost $ 9 or more.


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Credit Stuart Goldenberg

Even better, unlike Uber and Lyft’s regular service, Lyft Line will show you a guaranteed price before you book the car, rather than after your ride.

At these prices, Lyft Line could become one of the cheapest ways to travel between many parts of the city — so cheap that people might use it to go to and from work daily, instead of driving alone. Though the service will be available in San Francisco at first, Lyft has run simulations of Line using its data from other regions, and it believes the service will work well in many suburbs and cities across the nation. It plans to begin rolling out Lyft Line elsewhere within a few months.

The company’s high hopes for Lyft Line have yet to meet the real world, where any number of fiascos could intervene. For one, there is likely to be competition. Lyft’s archrival, Uber, announced on Tuesday that it was testing a similar service, UberPool, at first available to a limited number of users on an invitation-only basis. Uber gave few details about what its service would look like, saying only that its car-pooling could save riders 40 percent.

Last month, Lyft’s New York introduction was delayed by regulators.

The company is introducing Line cautiously to avoid any surprises. At first, it will be available only through Lyft’s app on Apple devices; Android will come later. Also, for now, rides are capped at three people — a driver and two passengers. The company plans to lift that cap eventually.


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Logan Green, left, and John Zimmer started Lyft, a ride-sharing service. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

But that gets to the biggest unknown — whether people will be willing to share rides with strangers. So far, Lyft has tested the service only with employees, not with people who have no connection to one another. It’s worth remembering that sharing has never been particularly popular in America; according to the Census Bureau, car-pooling hit a recent peak in the 1970s, when about 20 percent of Americans commuted to work by car pool. By 2008, just over 10 percent did.

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Lyft is betting that it can use economic incentives to change those attitudes. The company expects people to still use its standard, single-rider service when they’re in a hurry, but Lyft’s founders say Lyft Line is the future of the company’s ambitions.

“We don’t want to be the option that people use only when they’re heading out for a nice evening,” said Mr. Green, Lyft’s chief executive. “We want to be something that people use twice a day, every day.”

One persistent criticism of ride-sharing apps is that they don’t do much to reduce the number of cars on the road. When you call up a Lyft or Uber ride, you are simply replacing your own car with one driven by a paid driver. Mr. Zimmer and Mr. Green say they have been vexed by this criticism, because encouraging car-pooling has always been one of their goals.

In some ways Lyft Line is a reprise of Zimride, a company the pair started in 2007. A car-pooling service in which people arrange shared long-distance trips through a website, Zimride was inspired by Mr. Green’s visit to Zimbabwe, where private high-occupancy minivans are one of the most popular ways of getting around.


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The company’s new Lyft Line app matches travelers on similar paths.

But like other tech-enabled car-pooling services, Zimride, which was purchased last year by the car rental company Enterprise Holdings, hasn’t pushed many people to share. One problem is that to be flexible and reliable enough to replace people’s cars, a car-pooling service needs to have a lot of riders and drivers, but to get a lot of people, it needs to offer a flexible and reliable service.

“You need a substantial database so that when people request a ride, the service can fulfill it without long wait times,” said Susan Shaheen, the co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of a history of car-pooling in North America.

That’s where Lyft may have an advantage. In its years as a single-ride service, it has built a huge ridership; the company says it is now completing millions of rides a month, and the number of drivers and riders using the app have tripled since January.

What’s more, Lyft has cultivated a casual brand identity that may be better suited to car-sharing than that of its more upscale rival Uber. Lyft cars display a pink mustache on the grille, and when you get in, you are supposed to sit in the front seat, not the back. The driver greets you with a fist bump, an implicit invitation to chat, and sometimes goodies. A few weeks ago, one Lyft driver served me homemade lemon bread. The experience feels less mercenary than taking an Uber ride, as if you’re engaging a friend rather than a chauffeur, which is exactly the atmosphere you’d want in a daily car pool.

In a live demo that the company showed me last week, Lyft Line worked elegantly. To start a shared ride, you load up the Lyft app, select the Line service and type in your destination. The system then analyzes Lyft’s ridership data to calculate the odds that another rider will be heading the same way; the higher the odds, the greater the discount.

If you accept Lyft’s price, a car is dispatched to pick you up. While the car heads out, the app searches for another person who is heading your way. It will match only people whose routes won’t take you more than five minutes out of your way. If Lyft finds someone to ride with you, the driver will pick you up, then pick the other person up, and will then drop each of you off. Sometimes the app won’t find someone to ride with you, in which case you luck out — you get to ride solo, but you get the discounted price anyway.

Lyft says that it may lose money when matches fail, but it has designed the system to be profitable over all. It also expects Line to spur ridership. Lyft’s drivers might do well under the plan, too, because each shared ride will be longer than a standard ride, making for less downtime.

If it takes off, then, Lyft Line would be a win for commuters, the environment and for drivers. Unless, that is, we all balk at sharing. That wouldn’t be a surprise. But it would be a shame.

Correction: August 7, 2014

An earlier version of a picture caption associated with this column misstated the role that Logan Green has played at Lyft. He is a founder, but not the chief operating officer.


Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @fmanjoo

A version of this article appears in print on August 7, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Coaxing Commuters to Leave Their Cars. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe


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