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What happens when you try to become an NYC Lyft driver

A Lyft car drives next to a taxi on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California. 

Among the more befuddling facial hair choices to show up in Brooklyn lately (and, believe me, there are quite a few out there) is a new one -- the pink mustache. But these peculiarities won't be worn by tattooed graphic designers riding their fixed gear bicycles to the artisanal mayonnaise store. Starting Friday, they'll start adorning the fronts of cars throughout the borough and neighboring Queens as Lyft begins offering limited service in New York.

Lyft is one of a number of startups disrupting -- and upsetting -- the taxi industry. 

This week in New York, that disruption was on full display as the city’s Taxi and License Commission declared the ride-sharing service “unauthorized” and Lyft reportedly said it would start up in Brooklyn and Queens anyway.

Unlike Uber, which mostly focuses on connecting you with a professional driver, Lyft bills itself as more of a peer-to-peer ride-sharing program that connects regular people who are just trying to make some extra money. Lyft is often compared to Airbnb, the peer-to-peer home rental service. But there's one crucial difference. Unlike Airbnb, Lyft vets its drivers by running extensive background checks to avoid, say, scenarios where Lyft passengers get driven to all-night orgies.

So what’s it take to sign up? It’s remarkably easy. So easy, in fact, it seemed like just the sort of stunt that could turn into a Marketplace web story. And why shouldn’t I sign up? As a 28-year-old freelance public radio producer living in Brooklyn, I should fit right in with Lyft’s Just Folks Looking For Extra Cash fleet of drivers.

After entering my name, email address, and telephone number, Lyft texted me a confirmation code that brought me to the next step online. Here, I was asked for information about my car. Right, about my car… 

Like most people my age in Brooklyn who have never made enough money in a year to owe taxes, I don’t own a car and never have. But why should that stop me? This is the internet, the place for lies and misrepresentation. I entered in that I was the owner of a 2010 4-door Honda Accord. (Lyft vehicles must be fours doors and model year 2000 or newer.) That seemed to me to be a “realistic” choice for someone like me. I could really see it, too. The side mirror would be held on with duct tape, and the inside would be strewn with garbage. It would probably be navy blue, not because I like that color, but because that seems to be the color of most 2010 Accords. Why not choose a less modest option, like say a new Audi? Don’t ask me, but I’m sure my therapist would have a lot to say about it.

Unfortunately, this is where my ride share fantasy crashed into the concrete wall of reality, resulting in fatality. Lyft drivers are are required to at least 21 years old, have a valid license, personal insurance that meets or exceeds state minimums, and a clean driving record. As someone who doesn’t own a car, only three of those four things are true of me. So I called up Lyft to get some more information.

It can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks for Lyft drivers to get that pink mustache. During that time, their cars are put through a 19-point inspection test while Lyft runs a background check. Prior convictions for things like felonies, theft, violent crimes, sexual offenses, drug-related offenses, DUIs, or extreme driving infractions get you automatically taken out of consideration. (For the record, I totally would have passed this background check. I swear.)

Beyond that, Lyft has other ways of ensuring that its drivers aren't crazy.

"Any passenger should feel very safe getting into a Lyft knowing that not only has Lyft conducted extensive background and safety checks on the driver and his or her vehicle, but that the driver has maintained high ratings from other passenger community members after every ride," says Katie Dally from Lyft's communications department. "Because all rides are matched through the app -- street hails are not allowed on the Lyft platform -- trips are GPS-tracked."

Drivers are paid "donations" in some markets. Lyft says drivers keep 80 percent of those donations, plus 100 percent of any tips on top of that. Making the service donation-based also conveniently helps Lyft avoid local taxes, laws, and regulations in some instances.

Ranking the drivers helps Lyft root out any issues with drivers or their cars. Dally told me that the company always contacts drivers in instances of low ratings or donations. I suppose it's good to know the company is willing to hear your side of the story, especially when you're a driver who is encouraged to greet passengers with a fist bump and invite them to sit in the front seat to have a conversation. (What possibly could go wrong in that situation?)

But back to that pink mustache, officially known as the "Carstache" at Lyft. I couldn't help but wonder, whose responsibility is it to keep it groomed? Leave it to a tech company to have a high-tech solution to something that looks like a skinned Muppet strapped to the grill of your car. Dally said the current iteration of the Carstache, the Carstache 2.0, is made of something Lyft has dubbed "superfur" that is "resistant to sun fading, snow, rain, and other materials that might cross its path." Including, if the below video is to be believed, ranch dressing.

About the author

Max Bernstein is a freelance producer at Marketplace.

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