Lyft customers know it It’s the pink app that lets them tap when they need a car ride or want to rent a bike or scooter. Today the company announced that it wants to be the place to take care of your own car. Lyft’s app provides a way to find and reserve parking in 16 cities, request roadside assistance, and schedule vehicle maintenance.
The addition of these new services is a small step for an app, but part of a much larger shift in ride-hailing. As Lyft and its larger competitor Uber scramble for a way to finally turn a profit, some visions they once held for the future have been adjusted if not left on the side of the road. Lyft once pushed for an end to private car ownership. Now bets are continued and even a new source of income is created. Around 75 percent of users own a car. “We meet our drivers and customers where they are,” says Jody Kelman, the company’s fleet manager.
This is how far Lyft has come: In 2016, co-founder John Zimmer posted a kind of thriller on Medium about the mission of the then four-year-old startup called “The Third Transportation Revolution”. Zimmer admitted that yes, he loves cars and has since he was a child. But during an urban planning class in college, he realized that US cities were being dominated by cars, and not in a good way. The next time you step outside, he wrote, “Look at how much land is devoted to cars — and nothing else.” Empty and underutilized vehicles fill parking lots and lanes, leaving behind bikes and scooters and pedestrians struggling on crowd the sidewalks. “America runs a failing transportation business,” he concluded — and Lyft wanted to turn it around.
Lyft’s primary tool to bring about this revolution should be autonomous vehicles. Zimmer predicted at the time that robo-taxis would account for the majority of Lyft rides by the middle of the next decade (that’s two years from now). He reckoned private car ownership between conventional Lyft rides and autonomous rides in major U.S. cities would “almost end” by 2025. Even as Lyft and Uber operated in the gray areas of state transportation regulations, they both promised to transform the everyday lives of city dwellers. Relationship to transport and the built environment. A city without private cars, Zimmer wrote, could be rebuilt with wider sidewalks and parks instead of parking lots.
But growing up can be painful. In recent years, Lyft and Uber have had to grapple with the transportation business. It turns out that making money on rides is very hard; no one has posted a real win yet. Lyft’s stock price has fallen more than 80 percent since its IPO in 2019. That month, the company laid off 13 percent of its workforce, citing economic headwinds.
Uber’s quest for diversification included investments in grocery and grocery delivery. Lyft is trying to find its own ways to keep drivers on its app. The launch of auto services in partnership with parking SpotHero, roadside assistance provider Agero and Goodyear service centers is part of an overhaul of the Lyft Pink subscription program. For $9.99 per month, users get discounts on rides, priority pickups, a handful of free bike and scooter rides, and now four free roadside assistance services per year and a 15 percent break on auto maintenance services. Lyft declined to share how many people subscribe to Lyft Pink.
The broader transport tech landscape looks different, too. Automakers are skeptical about the short-term viability of robotaxi technology. Uber sold its self-driving vehicle technology unit in 2020, and a few months later Lyft did the same. A partnership with autonomous vehicle tech company Motional means some self-driving vehicle prototypes will appear on the Lyft app in Las Vegas. Lyft announced today that the same robotaxi will be available in Los Angeles for years to come. But overall, autonomous vehicle development appears to have stalled, and Zimmer is no longer standing by his prediction that robotic taxis would provide a “majority of Lyft rides” in the near future. In October, he told a tech conference that he didn’t think Lyft would replace human drivers with robots “sometime in the next decade or more.”
Now Lyft has gone from destroying private cars to helping owners maintain them. And there’s some logic to switching teams: The number of private cars in the densely populated cities where Lyft is most popular has actually increased over the past decade. In places where public transport is a viable mode of getting around, the pandemic has made this worse, as fears of the virus pushed people who could afford it off trains and buses into car dealerships. In the summer of 2020, 18 percent more passenger cars were newly registered in New York City than in the same period of the previous year.
“I realized that the opportunity is there to reduce private car ownership,” rather than abolishing it, says Kelman, Lyft’s fleet chief. Perhaps a one-car household can work instead of two. The way she tells it, Lyft has literally grown up. “Our founders entered the family phase of life while we run this company,” she says. “When we’ve thought about how we can evolve to help our riders improve their lives on the world’s best mode of transportation, we kind of have to say, ‘We’d love to be there for you if you have two kids and you have to park downtown for a doctor’s appointment.’”
Kelman says Lyft still wants to change the world, but his vision now looks a little more like the status quo. The company once dreamed of helping demolish parking lots; Now you can reserve a seat through the app.