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Car Wars: Why Uber's Main Competitor Takes a Back Seat

06/24/2014 04:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2014

When Uber first burst onto the scene in the New York/New Jersey area, I decided to sign up and drive in order to find out what all the excitement was about surrounding this company that was pulling in over $20 million/week and had its New York offices swarming with more hopefuls than a candy store at the onset of a Wonkabar Golden Ticket contest.

Thus, when the folks at Lyft, Uber's main competitor, rolled into town offering to let drivers keep 100% of their fares - as opposed to Uber's 80%-, it was only natural I do a little digging on them, as well, to see what similarities/differences they employ in their respective business models.

From the driver's side, I was surprised at how much more of a chaotic experience being a Lyft driver was as compared to Uber. For starters, since Lyft is cheaper to use than Uber, the 100% take home works out to the same 80% with regards to driver's pay. Not to mention, for all its flaws, Uber's business model turns out to be head and shoulders above Lyft.

Here's how it breaks down:

First of all, while my experience as an Uber driver lasted several months, my time with Lyft lasted all of about a week - until I was fired. But, we'll get to that in a minute.

Mentoring

For starters, before you can drive for Lyft and are bestowed the honor of adorning the front of your car with that corny, pink mustache, you must first be mentored. Granted, while this is Lyft's valiant attempt at a "training session," -- as opposed to Uber pretty much letting anyone with a pulse drive -- it still falls way short of accomplishing its intended goal.

The funny part about this is, the guy they sent to mentor me, aside from being a total 'stoner,' had just begun driving for Lyft, himself, and couldn't have been older than 23. He said he volunteered to mentor because (in Spicoli voice) "You get paid an extra $30 bucks for each person you mentor, dude!" That's all well and good, but to allow a brand new driver to be a mentor kind of defeats the purpose, don'tcha think?

Not to mention, the "session," which was supposed to take about 45 minutes and involve a vehicle inspection as well as practice run, took all of about 5 minutes. Instead of the practice run, he simply told me to hit "start" then "end" a minute later. "Cool, dude!" The "vehicle inspection" part consisted of making sure my car had 4 doors and 4 wheels. Check. From there, I was good to go.

Bells and Whistles

The nice folks at Lyft want everyone to have a "peachy keen" experience when using the service, and I can appreciate that. And, short of a marching band playing in front of your house upon arrival, they do their best to pull out all the stops to make sure you have the time of your life when going five blocks. Yet, for some unknown reason, they think us New Yorkers will fall for all that "brotherly-love" stuff that riders in San Francisco can't get enough of. They obviously haven't focus-tested this here.

Newsflash: When riding in a stranger's car, New Yorkers prefer to sit in the back, as opposed to trying to create a forced "buddy" atmosphere, like you're cruising down the beach with one of your bff's. That kind of hokey stuff just doesn't play in these parts like it does in the pacific northwest. It makes you feel like you're in an episode of Portlandia. Not to mention, in New York, the back seat is a much safer place to be, as it's quite possible you could hop in the front of someone's car and notice he/she has no pants.

The first time a stranger had the nerve to jump in my front seat, I was startled - thus, my first instinct was to open the door and kick him to the curb - like opening a cabinet and seeing a spider jump out at you (perhaps that's why I was fired?).

Nonetheless, regardless of where a rider sits, the all-important "fist-bump" they insist you do when greeting a pick-up could easily rank up there with Dungeons and Dragons and the high school Chess Club as a Top 10 Nerdism of All Time.

Add to that, Lyft suggests you keep a supply of bottled water for your riders - at your own expense, of course,- and any other snacks/accoutrement you deem worthy. Right before I was fired, I was planning on offering a full raw bar in my backseat, complete with $.25 clams and $1.00 oyster shooters. #nyah!

Calling Cards

When you look at Lyft's "fuzzy, pink mustache" gimmick and pit it against Uber's sleak, neon-blue "U," it's like comparing Rip Taylor to Darth Vader. Not sure how many New Yorkers would opt to pull up to a cocktail party or restaurant opening in a Chevy sporting a forty-two inch feather boa, but I'm sure it's minimal.

Wait Charges
If you thought Uber's wait charge, at .30/minute, was bad, don't even bother with Lyft. Lyft charges even less -around .20/minute. Basically, that means your time's only worth about $12/hr.

GPS
One of the more mind-boggling questions I had was, when notifying a driver of a pick-up request, wouldn't it help if the Lyft app included the freaking town??!

It may not seem like a big deal, but, when you have three or four towns right on top of each other, as in the N.Y. area, and the app only gives you a few seconds to accept the trip, it would help to know if "125 Washington" is in Hoboken, or Jersey City, or Union City, or Weehawken!

I, personally, started out in the wrong direction at least three times due to getting the town wrong. What kind of transportation company doesn't automatically show its drivers the city the pick-up's in? Just an example of a simple-yet major-oversight.

Tolls
This is, without a doubt, the single-biggest issue that separates Uber from Lyft. When an Uber driver goes through a toll, it automatically registers on the app's GPS tracker and is subsequently credited back to you on the next pay statement. Simple. Efficient.

When a Lyft driver goes through a toll, these rocket scientists expect you to --

1. Pull Over (or remember later)
2. Make a note of the time/date/amount of the toll
3. Wait several days until it appears on your EZ Pass statement
4. Print out your EZ Pass statement
5. Go to CVS and buy a Hi-Liter marker
6. Highlight all applicable tolls
7. Scan highlighted document into computer
8. Email scanned, highlighted document to "pay@lyft.com"
9. Boil a raccoon
10. Wait

Obviously, number 9 is a joke, but the rest are dead serious. In a time when it is clearly possible to have the driver app automatically register all tolls electronically, to insist on this archaic, Amish method of submitting receipts is not only a complete waste of someone's time and energy, but an insult to your own competitive business model, as well.

It gets better. What happens, as it did in my case, if a toll you recorded wasn't picked up by the camera and you can't prove you went through it? While it's true, you won't be charged for it, if you should, someday weeks later, receive a "violation" in the mail, or it simply registers late, you only have 30 days to get reimbursed. After that, you're screwed, and it becomes a futile back and forth with Lyft's online support community. Good luck with that.

Termination

Needless to say, my short time with Lyft was filled with emails back and forth to their support side trying to suggest ways they could improve on things from a driver's perspective. And, who knows, maybe my whining prompted a quicker-than-normal termination of services? Either way, there were several factors that played into my being dumped quicker than a winner on The Bachelor...

First of all, as soon as Lyft "opened its doors" in the N.Y. area, Uber poachers came out of the woodwork trying to steal drivers with offers of $500 for their first trip if they come over to the Dark Side. In addition to the simple way Uber's legit marketing campaign tried to steal drivers, their guerrilla tactics were just as disruptive. Within minutes of coming on board, my phone was inundated with requests from riders who would call for a pick-up, wait until you were on the road, then cancel the trip.

After about a half-dozen of these -- including phone calls from a mysterious cat named "Jason" offering to let me start and end the "trip to nowhere," then give me the max. $25 dollar tip, with the intent of costing Lyft as much money as possible -- I began to notice the bogus calls had unfinished profile pics/stats, so I decided to not accept rides from passengers with incomplete profiles.

This, of course, goes against your "acceptance rating." Not only that, sometimes the poachers would let you arrive at the address, only to not show up at all. Thus, after a few of these types, if a rider wasn't outside within a minute or two, I was gone.

Obviously, this didn't sit too well with some riders who took their sweet time coming out and complained, but what can ya do? The beauty of these apps is that you see where your driver is and are notified of their arrival, so if you're not out in time, it's on you.

Also, while I may not have been "mustaching" and "fist-bumping" my way to paradise, I was completely cordial to each rider -- complete with a "Hello/Goodbye" and some light conversation. So, I have a hard time accepting someone's "negative review" when all they do is get in the car, listen to the radio, and get out.

After only a week or so driving, I got an email telling me I was toast as a Lyft driver. The email I received informed me that my driver rating was "below average" and that Lyft tries to maintain a higher profile than allowing a loser like myself to represent them - or something like that. As such, they were terminating my account.

Upon discovering that my account was deactivated, I immediately emailed asking for an appeal. After all, I was trained by a pot head, had poachers and no-shows all up in my shit, and turned down a myriad of requests due to not being able to discern which town it was fast enough. Three weeks later, after several blanket replies --complete with answers to questions I never even asked--, and a half-dozen emails to support, I finally got a response telling me I was out of luck.

While having a high standard of quality is admirable in any business, not allowing drivers, especially new ones, a chance to correct mistakes through a "probation" period, -- nor a timely opportunity to appeal such a quick decision -- in my opinion, is incredibly short-sighted.

Driving for either of these companies will not make you rich anytime soon -- inadequate wait charges, out of pocket gas costs, wear and tear to your vehicle, taxes, over-saturated areas teeming with drivers, lack of rate increases in bad weather, etc. -- but, in my opinion, as a driver in the N.Y. area, you're a lot better off going with Uber.

That is, until their competition wakes up and agrees to a sorely-needed "facelyft."

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