I Got “Lyft”-ed! An objective review of Chicago’s newest rideshare service

July 29, 2013

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If you are like me, Lyft has been showing up in your Facebook news feed as a sponsored story about every five minutes for the last month. I had heard of Lyft, a peer-to-peer “rides on demand” service that competes with taxis and with Uber, but had never used it before my trip to the West Coast last week.

So how does Lyft work? First, you download the app to your smartphone and create an account, adding your credit card and linking to a public profile like Facebook or LinkedIn.

When you need a ride, open the Lyft app on your phone and it shows a map with your location marked by a little balloon. (Pro-tip that is not at all obvious at first: if the balloon isn’t in quite the right spot, hit the target/bullseye icon in the bottom right corner of the map and it will move to where you currently are.)

If there is an available Lyft driver, it will show you how far away they are. 5 minutes is pretty typical. Need a ride? Tap the button: “Request a Lyft.” It will ask you to confirm, and then sends your request to any available drivers in the area. One will respond and agree to be your Lyft driver.

Now it gets pretty cool. The app shows you a picture of your driver, and of the car that you’ll be looking for. It also shows a little car icon on the map, which moves as the driver gets closer. Within a few minutes, your driver pulls up with a big pink mustache on his car, so he is super easy to spot (all my Lyft drivers were male). If you don’t happen to see each other right away, they can send a text to your phone saying “Your Lyft is here to pick you up!”

When you get in the car, the real fun begins. You sit in the front seat next to your driver, who will often greet you with a fist bump, and the two of you start chatting. Your Lyft driver is likely to be an interesting person to get to know, because interesting people are drawn to become Lyft drivers. I met a musician, a digital media specialist, a health and wellness coach who used to be in the Peace Corps and a former journalist.

And that’s the cool part of Lyft. It’s the sense that you’re in this self-selected community together. You’re both part of a fun thing. One of my drivers and I started talking about how our generation is just beginning to figure out how to use technology in ways that actually make our lives better, rather than just busier—filled with meaning, instead of just filled. Another driver told me he was driving, in part, to network--he had just started his own company and a lot of tech industry types used Lyft. Most are using Lyft to supplement their income, although one driver was on a sabbatical, having burned out at his last job. We talked about the legal battles facing Lyft and Airbandb in cities across the country, and pondered the ethics of potentially displacing licensed, unionized, often minority and immigrant cab drivers with college-educated white kids with too much time on their hands. I had interesting and sometimes deep conversations with all 5, sprung from an instant camaraderie that forms the moment you open the door to the car with the pink mustache.

Before too long, the ride ends, and so does your conversation. Your driver indicates as much on his phone, and a “suggested donation” pops up on your phone. You can adjust it up or down based on service and rate your driver (I adjusted upward and gave all 5-star ratings).  I found Lyft “suggested donations” to be 25% less than comparable cab fares. Lyft emails you a receipt for the amount, which is charged to your credit card on file.

And then you walk into your destination, with a big smile on your face, feeling like you just made a new friend.

Full disclosure: I’ve never used Uber (which feels to me like it’s more for the Kanye West/Kim Kardashian set, where Lyft is for regular people like me), so I’d be interested in your thoughts about how the two services are alike or different.

As Lyft works to build its driver corps here in Chicago (which is critical to having a good passenger experience), I suspect that being a Lyft driver is a great way for entrepreneurs to extend their runway while building their startup: drivers earn about $20 an hour, and get the opportunity to network with others in the tech community. So what are you waiting for? I bet you'd look good in pink.

Disclosure: I don’t know anyone at Lyft and haven’t spoken to anyone there. This is a totally independent review of my experiences with Lyft in Seattle and San Francisco, which are well-developed markets for Lyft. Chicago is not well-developed.

Edited 2.28.14: Want to try Lyft? Use my referral link and get $25 off your first ride: www.lyft.com/invited/sharon276