As Lyft turns 5, the company is strategizing new ways to attract and keep drivers, believing that will trickle down to happy customers.
“The best way to frame it [is] our vision is if we treat drivers better, we treat customers better,” Market Manager Tim Houghton said.
Among Lyft's new strategies is a physical space for drivers to manage their work lives, which opened this June in downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District. The drop-in space on Santa Fe Avenue joins similar outposts in San Francisco, Boston, Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas and Washington D.C.
The chosen location here makes the concept a highly visible advertisement for driver support and community sensibility.
“It’s basically a community center,” Houghton said.
At the brick-and-mortar hub—not to be confused with the digital Hub, a section of Lyft’s website that also offers resources—new drivers get a more personal experience with onboarding, can resolve questions, or simply meet up to share experiences.
Lyft could get an image boost in the eyes of the local community, too, as a gathering place for drivers frees up the local parks, parking lots, airport turnarounds, bar districts and many other places where the city absorbs the ride-hailing workforce as it idles and mills about between gigs.
“Cities and communities are definitely starting to to realize the toll that 50,000 drivers are going to take,” said "The Rideshare Guy," Harry Campbell, who runs a blog targeted at Lyft and Uber drivers. “I think over the next year or two, it’s something we’re going to see becoming an issue.”
Lyft's new initiatives to walk—or drive—the talk have come alongside a growth in the company's user base. On July 25, Bloomberg reported that Lyft is growing its bookings faster than Uber, with a 25 percent spike in gross bookings for the quarter, while Uber's growth hovered in the teens. Still, Uber remains a behemoth, with more than $8.25 billion in gross bookings during the second quarter of 2017, as compared to more than $1 billion for Lyft, according to Bloomberg.
Uber may be ubiquitous, with cars visible throughout Los Angeles, but some drivers complain that when issues arise, Uber is nowhere at all. The company only recently provided a tech support phone number for drivers, as Business Insider reports, among other initiatives that are part of a campaign to improve relationships with drivers.
Uber still isn't up to snuff on live assistance, according to Campbell, who calculates that he has 50,000 drivers in the L.A. area in his email database, and said his site receives an average 100,000 unique visits per month. .
“They put me on hold for like five minutes to answer a really simple question,” Campbell said.
Uber has taken criticism in the past for subjecting drivers and customers to fluctuating fares with “surge pricing"—a system Lyft also uses—and cutting drivers’ earnings with a recent update to its fare calculation system. Another criticism is the company's cancellation policy, which does not compensate drivers for cancellations while en route to a pick up, only giving them a cut of a cancellation fee if they’ve been waiting at the pickup location.
Jeremy Ferrick, 40, who drives in both San Francisco and Los Angeles to subsidize his music career, believes Uber's policy should change.
“Even if they’re not extracting it from someone [as a fee] they should give the driver a couple bucks. You don’t get anything for driving there. I think it’s really unfair.”
Uber’s press team did not respond to requests for comment.
In contrast to Uber, Lyft passes on its cancellation fee to drivers, provided at least five minutes has passed since the ride was requested and provided the driver is on track to arrive within five minutes of the original estimated time.
Lyft also has a Driver Advisory Council member in regions throughout the country, a kind of ombudsman who holds town hall-style meetings with feedback that is passed on to the corporate team. Lyft gets free feedback, and drivers know the name and face of a live human who will consistently hear them, even if they can’t get to a Hub.
Lyft, however, has not completely edged Uber when it comes to driver service. Its specialized Driver app—until May a part of the same app customers use—followed Uber’s standalone version. And Uber has its own driver centers, also called hubs. The L.A.-area Greenlight Hub location is Redondo Beach, south of metro Los Angeles. It has slightly longer hours than Lyft’s Hub, and is larger.
But according to Campbell, dropping in to either center is a matter of the same question drivers ask with every ride: Is the distance worth it? The earnings in L.A. are mostly in West Hollywood, Venice and Santa Monica.
Campbell also noted the two companies are neck and neck in promising income on shifts. While Lyft guarantees an hourly minimum average, “Uber’s incentive program is called Boost. Instead of guaranteed income, you get a guaranteed percentage.”
Ferrick has eyed Lyft for a while, but has not yet onboarded. He said the community gathering opportunity won’t make a difference to him or the drivers he knows, either in the Arts District or Uber’s Redondo Beach space. The city, Ferrick said, has its unofficial driver centers that don’t need to be replaced, like Silver Lake’s Bar Angeles, just east of tourist-dense Hollywood, and a few Santa Monica spots.
The Uber app has improved to allow customers to tip drivers, but Ferrick isn’t that optimistic. He expects it will take customers a while to tack a little extra onto each fare.
“They’re just used to the transaction being over,” when they get out of his backseat, Ferrick said. “It’s ‘Oh, we didn’t have to tip before. Why should we tip now?’ kind of a thing. It will be interesting to get back on the road [with tipping] and see what happens.”