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Make Me Smart With Kai and Molly

Lyft horror stories: our listeners respond

Molly Wood Aug 4, 2017
Mike Coppola/ Getty Images

As listeners of this week’s Make Me Smart podcast (and Twitter followers) may have heard, I had a couple of scary experiences with Lyft rides while I was visiting Los Angeles for work last week.

In one case, the driver showed up in a different vehicle than the app displayed — the ability to see what car a driver is in, and check the license plate against the app’s display, is a crucial safety check.

The second ride, that same evening, created a much more serious scenario, in which the driver used information from our conversation in the car to find my personal email address to try to win a date with my friend. That’s not hard, but ensures I’ll never chit-chat with drivers before they start to get creepy. Worse is that he somehow tracked her down online, presumably via her social connections to me, and sent her a series of messages asking her out. Not only is that scary cyberstalking, this guy knows where my friend lives. I advised her to report the contact to the police, just in case anything worse ever happens. 

I’ve spoken to Lyft customer service, but they’ve only told me that they took appropriate action against the drivers. I updated my complaint with screenshots of the messages the driver sent my friend, but they didn’t respond. 

These experiences are, at least for me as a customer, just the worst two examples of a worsening trend, related to the topic of this week’s podcast: growth. We talked in depth about growth as a metric, whether it’s sustainable in perpetuity, and how it can sometimes be a grossly distorting force for markets and business overall.

I’d say that’s true in the ride-share industry. As Uber and Lyft find themselves locked in a war for customers, and therefore drivers, their quality of service has taken a nosedive — at least in my experience. And when your quality of service involves vehicles traveling at high speeds and drivers in charge of the destiny of their passengers, that’s a problem.

I’ve been in cars that smelled so strongly of weed that the smoke was still lingering in the air. I’ve been in vehicles with ripped seats and rattling undercarriages. I took one memorable UberPool where I was pretty sure the driver never actually looked at the road at all, he was so busy managing UberPool requests on not one, but two phones. The day I interviewed Lyft co-founder John Zimmer, my field producer told me she was still shaking from an absolutely terrifying Lyft ride in San Francisco (I deeply regret not asking him about that more directly).

And let’s be honest: having GPS isn’t the same thing as actually knowing where you’re going. In New York, in Oakland, and in Los Angeles I’ve had drivers who were nervously staring at their phones, trying to figure out where they were going and inevitably taking wrong turns that cost me money.

I also put on my journalist hat and asked both Uber and Lyft what they’re doing to ensure quality and safety as they grow, and how they handle issues with customers and drivers. Uber declined to comment, but directed me to its driver screening information (a third-party background check company called Checkr has been screening drivers for criminal offenses or other red flags over the past 7 years) and its customer feedback process. 

Lyft responded with the following statement: 

“Safety is our top priority and it is our goal to make every ride safe, comfortable, and reliable. Since the beginning, we have worked hard to design policies and features that protect our community. These include professionally administered background checks for drivers, in-app photos, real-time ride tracking, a two-way rating system, a 24/7 critical response line, and a dedicated Trust and Safety team based in Nashville that investigates safety related concerns. When it comes to allegations of inappropriate behavior, we take that very seriously. Our Trust and Safety team investigates these incidents and takes appropriate action based on the information available. While Lyft has grown — we now give more than 1 million rides each day — this commitment to safety has not and will not change. “

As a customer, all I can say is, I’ve noticed a change, and neither is a service I feel great about using anymore. After my experiences with Lyft, I declared on Twitter and the podcast that I’m switching back to taxis, or renting cars when I go to Los Angeles, where I’ve had the most issues. I said I’d prefer to be in the hands of people who see themselves as full-time drivers, and not people with a “side hustle.”

As you might expect, my comments generated a fervent debate online among taxi drivers, customers, and fans of Uber and Lyft and their disruption of an entrenched and sometimes corrupt taxi industry. (Yes, I acknowledge that taking a cab isn’t always the world’s greatest experience, either, although I do think it’s improved slightly, if only due to competition.) 

And while I’m not likely to call myself a Lyft or an Uber anytime in the near future, this email really did make me feel bad for my strident ultimatums. Because the side hustle is, in fact, pretty important for lots of people. Here’s Pat, edited slightly for length.

Listening to the podcast today on my drive to work, and Molly crushed my heart with her stories of Lyft.  It was so painful to hear, but I don’t doubt that she is being honest.

I’m an adjunct professor teaching culinary management.  Out of all that I have done in my thirty year career, teaching is by far the most rewarding, in every way except financially.  So to make ends meet, keep my head above water, I drive for Lyft and Uber.  Basically, I drive rideshare to support my teaching habit.

… Even in my pain, I laughed when Molly mentioned the cars all smelling like weed.  I had a rider in my car last night who reeked of weed, and after dropping him off, drove around for over an hour with all of the windows open, trying to get the smell out of my car.  I never realized that smell was that much of a problem, but obviously it is.  Who would want to ride in a smelly car?

… I always make sure to put down my coffee cup and swallow my coffee when a Lyft commercial comes on the radio, because when they get to the part where they say that you can make $35/hour, I do a Danny Thomas all over the dashboard and windshield. It’s a hassle cleaning all that up.  Last spring I was making about $15 an hour.  During the summer, I’ve been struggling to hit $10 an hour.  As I understand it, during the summer, students who are home from college are driving Lyft/Uber rather than trying to find summer work.  As a college professor, all I can think is, “Et tu class?”  More drivers on the road equals less money for me.

… The sad truth is, there is something to what Molly said.  I’ve had enough riders get in my car and express mild surprise that my car is clean, and that I am pleasant, polite, and professional.  I’ve heard horror stories of drivers hitting on passengers, trying to sell them drugs, or driving cars held together with duct tape which shouldn’t even be on the road.  On the flip side, I’ve had passengers ask if I could sell them drugs, and have offered me money to perform sex acts with them, or allow them to perform sex acts on me. That’s happened with both men and women passengers, but in fairness, I am a very attractive man.  Not Kai Ryssdal hot, but still pretty special.  Btw, no, I did not sell drugs or perform sex acts.  If push comes to shove, I can always go steal internet from Starbucks.

One thing that amazes me is how these bad drivers stay on the road.  If a driver’s rating drops to 4.6 out of 5, you risk being shut down, your ability to drive Lyft/Uber revoked.  … In Uber/Lyft world, a 5 is an “A” and a 4 is an “F”.  So how do these awful riders stay on the road? 

Showing up in a different car? 1 star.  You can’t give a zero. (I was floored by the person showing up with a different car.  Fortunately, I was not drinking coffee when I heard it.)  Something else people should know, when you rate a driver 3 or lower, you will never be matched with them again.  In L.A. it might take a while for Molly to work through all the weed soaked cars, but she could rule them out one by one.  In a smaller market, like Hampton Roads, you can eliminate the creeps pretty quick by giving them a 3 or lower.  When I tell my passengers that when they tell me a horror story, they are surprised to hear it...


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