Before Lyft was Lyft, it was a struggling California startup called Zimride. Cofounder and CEO Logan Green launched it in 2007 (the name was an ode to Zimbabwe’s carpooling culture), aiming to connect college kids who needed rides with those who had cars. John Zimmer, now Lyft’s president, signed on with the idea that putting more people into existing cars could help cities fight emissions and traffic, all at once.
In 2012, Zimride spawned Lyft, after Green and Co. decided to put the whole thing on an app, Uber style. At first, drivers were just fellow carpoolers, picking up incidental passengers as they went. (This was the era of the “first bump,” when drivers were less harried gig economy workers than potential friends.) Today, 30 percent of the ride-hailing company’s trips are shared by multiple passengers, at least in markets that offer the option. That’s a lot, but less than satisfying for a company with sharing in its DNA.
This week, Lyft comes full circle. It just unveiled an app redesign that tries, very hard, to convince users to grow up and share. To go with the revamp, which will be rolled out in all markets throughout the month, Lyft has a new goal: By 2020, it wants 50 percent of its trips to be shared.
Lyft plans to promote sharing in a few ways. It’s renaming its Lyft Line service as “shared rides,” a moniker that’s both easier to understand and vaguer, so perhaps easier to experiment with. Lyft will also sometimes start asking shared ride customers to walk a block or so to the closest main drag, to cut down on inefficient detours. (Uber rolled out a similar option in February, called Express Pool.) Plus, the app will prompt any user with a very similar itinerary to another to take a shared ride at the beginning of her trip, in exchange for a price cut.
Lyft is also introducing a new transit integration, which lets users plan trips using public transportation, Google Maps style. The point here is to nab more passengers heading to or from major transit hubs, and become the go-to travel app for world that loves apps.
The company says it’s working to promote sharing because it likes being green and good for cities. More butts in empty seats might mean fewer cars on the road overall. (Lyft recently pledged to invest millions in making its service carbon neutral.) But—surprise!—sharing should be good for business. Lyft may be worth $11 billion, but it still loses money. If it can squeeze more fares out of one trip, that’s more profit—and a step toward profitability.
Sharing should also ease the concerns of city officials who increasingly worry that ride-hailing companies are behind (or at least contribute to) worsening traffic. The more cars circle for passengers and loop-de-loop around the block dropping off fares, the more crowded the roads and smoggy the air. If Lyft can take cars from the street by making trips more efficient, that’s better service for everyone. And perhaps less scrutiny from government types who could make its business hard to operate.
And sharing matters a lot in the coming age of autonomy. When the first robotaxis hit the streets, they need to be shared, to recoup the staggering costs of research and development. Lyft is invested in this future, too: It launched its own autonomous vehicle development center in Palo Alto last summer, and is collaborating on the tech with Ford, Waymo, and General Motors, among others.
‘Sharing,’ They’re Blaring
Lyft’s pulled some canny design tricks to convince users to take slightly longer rides with strangers. The new app puts the prices and estimated trip lengths for its various services on one screen. No more navigating through “Line,” “Lyft,” “Plus,” “Lux,” and “Car Seat” choices before seeing how much the dang ride will cost. The app will even “remember” what sort of trip you took last—an SUV devotee, are ye?—and prompt a trip on that service right from the get-go.
Once you enter your destination and your choice of service, there’s about a 10 percent chance Lyft will shift you to a new screen. If another user is heading in exactly your direction, Lyft will prompt you to take a detour-free shared ride for a multidollar fare cut. In beta tests, says design VP Katie Dill, this feature change alone has generated a 5 percent jump in shared rides.
This new strategy follows a few that did not pan out. Lyft Carpool, killed after five months of Bay Area testing in 2016, let regular Bay Area commuters earn up to $10 by picking up others heading in the same direction. Lyft Shuttle picked up rush hour riders at set locations for a fixed fare (and received widespread flak for being a lot like a bus). When this new app rolls out, Shuttle will be no more. “The good news is that we have 11 years of trials, from the early days of dressing up in costume, and going to people’s dorm rooms and asking them to carpool and many, many things in between,” says Zimmer. They were frog and beaver suits, FYI.
Lyft has never been short on whimsy (RIP, pink mustaches) or feel good vibes, especially when compared to Uber, which for years embraced a bad boy reputation. But Lyft is still a company seeking profit, just like all the others, and its future hinges on convincing everybody to get along—even in the backseat.