Words: Barbara Szabo
Chad Heimann is standing on the right side of the checkout counter at Guitar Center in the Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, placing a stack of coupons and flyers into a plastic bin, and gently sealing it shut with the accompanying blue lid. He looks up just in time to see a store employee wheeling a large black case containing a DJ controller toward him. He reaches for his iPhone, immediately realizing that given the heavy rush-hour traffic, the chances of arriving on-time to set up the equipment for his event are slim to none, but after one minute and four gentle thumb-taps of the screen, he knows that a reliable ride to Emeryville is no longer on the list of this afternoon’s concerns. Six minutes later, he dashes out the front door as a black Prius, adorned with a large, fuzzy bright-pink mustache above the front license plate, rounds the corner and pulls up directly in front of him.
The driver stops the car, jumps out, and runs over to Chad. They bump fists, exchange a few greeting words, and grab both ends of the case to carefully place in in the back seat. Chad and the driver are roughly the same age: early 20s. En route, they chat about the similarities and differences between the first and second Beach House albums and Chad talks about the event he is hosting that night; the driver mentions that hopefully he can stop by later when his shift is done.
The driver and Chad are not friends, and in fact they have never met; the driver works for Lyft, a donation-based ridesharing phone app that San Francisco residents can use to summon a ride anywhere in the city, and Chad is his passenger.
“It’s like you’re getting a ride from your friend. That’s the philosophy,” explains Alex Pulisci, who has been driving for Lyft for just over three months and is a cinema major at San Francisco State University.
Introduced by rideshare outfit Zimride in May 2012, Lyft has been slowly but steadily gaining momentum and recognition, partly by word of mouth, and partly due to the mystery of the pink mustaches. Alex sees the mustaches as an inside joke: there is the member of the inner circle, who casually walks out of a bar and is swooped up by a seemingly random car, led into the night by a mustache; there is the want-to-be member, who has seen the mustaches parked or cruising around the city, and decides to look into what it is, and at that point decides whether or not to join the club; and then there is the member of the outer circle, who shoots a confused look in the direction of someone who says, ‘I’m going to catch a Lyft,’ wondering if that’s a new phrase from England he didn’t get the memo about.
So although the pink ornament holds no symbolic, distinctive meaning, it gets the job of calling attention to the service done.
“We wanted to design happiness into the experience… the mustache just presents a good first impression,” said co-founder John Zimmer.
Zimmer and Logan Green founded Zimride in 2007. Since then, it has become the largest rideshare program in the United States, creating a carpool web among 125 university campuses.
“When I learned that 80 percent of seats are empty on highways, I thought this would be a good way to solve that while saving people money and bringing people together,” said Zimmer.
Aside from the high seat vacancy on highways, Lyft aims to address the issue of transportation being the second highest household expense in the United States. So far, Zimride claims it has saved its users $100 million in vehicle expenses. But above everything, the company is excited about the relationships that have formed among people in the community.
“It’s good for networking, because being a cinema major, I’m definitely interested in talking to people who are in that industry,” explains Alex. “I’ve had at least three or four people get in the car who need film work done or are in that industry. A couple of them have let me take down their number to pick their brain later on.”
Lyft is available for iPhones and Droid smart phones, and downloads in a few minutes. The sign-up process includes connecting a credit or debit card to the account, which becomes the form of payment each time the service is used. When someone summons a Lyft, it alerts a driver nearby, who then has to confirm the request. The user’s Facebook profile picture pops up as a tool of recognition for the driver, and as for the passenger, well, the pink mustache is pretty easy to spot. The user then is able to see a map of where the driver is, as well as an estimated time of arrival. The driver is able to take a passenger anywhere within sixty miles of San Francisco. After the ride is over, the suggested amount of payment pops up on the passenger’s phone screen. They have the option of accepting the total, changing it, and adding a tip; the driver never sees the total.
As of now, there are just over 200 Lyft drivers in the city, while the demand for the service is steadily growing. Usually getting a Lyft is easy but occasionally users are out of luck. Thomas Shaddox found this out the hard way, when he decided to use Lyft for the first time on the busiest weekend of the year — the weekend of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Castro Street Fair, Fleet Week, and Burning Man Decompression.
He requested a driver to pick him up, who quickly accepted. A map displayed the location of the driver on his phone, predicting the time of arrival twenty minutes later. Once the driver got close, the app started to freeze and crash, showing the driver’s location on a different part of the map with each minute that passed. Finally, the symbols on the map seemed to all make sense, alerting Thomas that the driver had indeed arrived. But he was nowhere to be seen. This went on for five minutes, when suddenly the request was cancelled, stating the driver could not find Thomas. But he was there, standing in the same place, alternating between staring at his iPhone and fervently scanning the street. Alas, he saw a pink mustache approaching, and, overcome with relief, inched toward the curb, just as the Lyft zoomed by and continued on its way, without him.
“It was not a good experience. However, I believed this was caused by technical issues with their iPhone application or their servers, ” says one-time Lyft user Thomas Shaddox.
Since it’s a new service, Zimmer and Green are working toward improving the app one day at a time as issues arise. They are thoroughly, almost obsessively, active on Twitter, responding to nearly every complaint (of which there have been quite a few over the past few months, mostly having to do with technical difficulties and an inadequate number of drivers rather than customer service) and showing gratitude and excitement in the digital face of praise. Customers share funny anecdotes via social media, noting the friendliness of drivers. But then again, a positive, affable attitude is one of the few prerequisites for becoming a Lyft driver.
The application process is relatively simple, especially compared to that of a cab driver. There is an application to fill out online, followed by a phone interview. Lyft then runs a background check and looks over the applicant’s driving record for the last three years, and sometimes even as far back as ten years. The applicant has to have a clean, four-door car in good, safely drivable condition.
There are, however, several other conditions to be a Lyft driver: the strength to fist bump; the courage to drive passengers (who are, at times, somewhat intoxicated) to the Tenderloin or Hunter’s Point; and the wisdom to navigate through the streets of San Francisco, or use Waze to guide the way.
Waze, a GPS navigation system app, allows users to reporting traffic problems as they encounter them on the street. The app re-routes the driver as conditions change. Alex uses Waze most of the time, even when he knows the route, to make sure he is as efficient as possible.
The process of becoming a taxi driver, on the other hand, is a bit more complex and lengthy.
An applicant has to complete taxi training at an approved Taxi School, and earn a Taxi Training Certificate as well as a Sensitivity Training Certificate. They must then pass a background check, show a ten year driving record from the Department of Motor Vehicles, obtain a letter of intent to hire from a San Francisco Taxi Company, fill out an application that takes up to an hour and costs $149.50, and attend a four-hour bike safety class. After eight weeks, the applicant has to check in with the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency to find out if the background check has cleared. If so, and if every other step is completed, they are given a permanent driver permit, or A-Card, and a badge.
Cab drivers are less than enthusiastic about Lyft, for these differences in the application process, and also for competition they claim it creates. Green and Zimmer don’t see it that way: their goal is to supplement the 1500 licensed cabs in San Francisco for a population of 812,826.
“In some ways, it is direct competition with cabs, there is an argument there, but that’s not that’s not the way the people at Lyft, the drivers and specifically the people that run it, try to view the company,” Alex says, noting that there is never a shortage of passengers. “We’re not really concerned with competing with the cab companies, we’re not attacking them or anything, and we’re just filling a void that is left in the city.”
Beyond filling a void, Lyft considers hiring exceptionally friendly employees a priority, which is not the case with taxi companies. It is not unusual to hear stories about humorous, outrageous, bizarre, scary, and sometimes even scarier taxi stories.
Photographer Diana Bradbury has lived in San Francisco for just a little over a year, and she has already learned that taking a taxi entails a lot more than simply catching a ride. Sometimes it can even end in a screaming match with the driver.
One night, Bradbury and two of her friends hailed a cab, immediately asking the driver to make three stops, the last two of them only six blocks from one another. A few minutes into the ride, the driver announced that since the last two stops were so close, he wouldn’t make the third stop. At this point, Bradbury asked him to pull over so that she could get out of the car and call another cab, but the driver refused. A fifteen-minute a battle of words ensued, amplified through the slightly cracked left rear window, into the night. After she threatened to call the police, he pulled over and loudly called her rude as she stepped onto the curb and slammed the door with the maximum might of her petite, 100-pound frame.
“I know it was only a few blocks, but I’m not going to walk that late at night by myself, and he had already agreed to drive me anyway,” explains Bradbury, still livid.
The California Public Utilities Commission isn’t too thrilled about the service either. In August, they issued Lyft a cease-and-desist letter, claiming that the service lacks the proper permits and was never authorized by the commission.
Green and Zimmer responded to these claims in a public letter October 8.
“We took the letter as an opportunity to open a conversation with the CPUC and explain what we’re all about,” the letter states. “Since receiving the letter, we’ve had productive conversations with CPUC staff about how these services greatly benefit the local community and complement existing alternatives.”
Since being presented with the letter, Lyft has only continued to grow. Zimmer feels that this is a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the transportation system in the city and welcome new alternatives. They also hope that the inner-circle of people who are familiar with Lyft will grow as the mystery of the pink mustache fades. But the bright pink color and fuzzy texture never will.