Taxi vs. Lyft: My Commute

The difference that 34 minutes make.
This post is 1 in the series: Crimp Your Ride

Monday morning I got to work in a plain old Yellow Cab. Tuesday morning I tried Lyft, one of the new smartphone-based, on-demand “ridesharing” services that allows a regular person to turn his or her car into what operates much like a taxi with a pink mustache.

My experience with Lyft was radically better (more on that below), but not in the ways that its marketing strategy emphasizes. I wasn’t looking for my driver to be my best friend, or to feel like I was a part of a community, or to have scintillating conversations about politics before 9 a.m. I’m a mom with a poky kid, trying to get to work as quickly as possible, and I did that 34 minutes faster with Lyft.

That simple fact says a lot about the upstart—and, for now in Seattle, wholly unregulated—services that allow a customer to summon and pay for a ride from a fleet of drivers roaming the streets in their personal cars using a smartphone app. You can see on the map how far away your driver is, and that he or she is really coming. It’s much less stressful than calling a grumpy dispatcher and waiting on the side of the road, wondering if your cab will ever show up.

Lyft, along with Sidecar, uberX, and similar services, have great potential to advance urban sustainability, ease congestion, and unlock tons of wasted space in people’s personal cars. They add to the number of vehicles and options—including taxis, transit, ZipCar, Car2Go, RelayRides, and Getaround—that make it easier for people to travel around the city without having to own or drive their own personal car, and, theoretically, widen the market for all of those services.

But the new entries also fall into the class of “disruptive” businesses that take a moribund industry and reinvent it, to the point that old business models and regulatory regimes no longer make sense. Across the country, cities and states are struggling to figure out a) how to ensure that these new services are safe and reliable for consumers and b) how to avoid creating an uneven playing field for existing taxi and for-hire drivers, many of them immigrants and people of color, whose opportunities have long been constrained by local laws.

In Seattle, for instance, the taxi industry is governed by balkanized factions and complicated regulations that restrict the number of taxi and for-hire licenses, and consequently the number of available vehicles on the street. By putting a cap on the number of legal taxi licenses and a longstanding reluctance to add more licenses to the pool, Northwest cities and counties have protected existing license owners from competition, created a secondary market where licenses sell for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and prevented many drivers from ever hoping to own or operate their own cabs.

Taxi drivers, for-hire drivers (who in some cities can pick people up by prearrangement but aren’t supposed to accept fares if they’re hailing a ride on the spot), limo drivers, and license owners each have to follow a set of city, county, state, or port requirements, which may include medical physicals, driver tests, ride-alongs, in-car cameras, commercial insurance coverage, and government vehicle inspections.

That’s why they’re so angry, in Seattle at least, that three new “ridesharing” companies have recently been putting an unlimited number of drivers on the streets who can charge less and follow no city rules whatsoever. (Imagine if a city capped the number of restaurants that were allowed to operate, and refused to increase the number for 23 years. And then it turned a blind eye when people started opening food trucks in their back yards, but without health inspections or business licenses, by arguing they were just cooking dinner anyway.)

The ridesharing companies have argued that they’re not taxis, that they’re more like organized carpooling services that operate on a system of suggested donations. But the fact of the matter is that in most transactions, money changes hands between the driver and rider, and few in the regulatory world seem to be buying the companies’ argument.

So what’s a city to do? Some, such as Los Angeles, Austin, TX, and Washington DC, have tried to stuff the genie back in the bottle and ban the new services. In Chicago and San Francisco, taxi and limo owners have tried suing Uber, which uses smartphone technology to dispatch independent but licensed towncar drivers. In California, where most of the startups are based, regulators initially issued cease and desist orders on the grounds that the new businesses were unlicensed charter operators. But just last week, the state proposed a new set of regulations that would allow them to legally operate by following a set of basic health and safety requirements similar to the ones that the companies already have in place.

Here in the Northwest, we have the chance to get things right the first time, to move towards a more open and level playing field that provides even more alternatives to car ownership and single-occupancy driving. In Portland, Uber has asked the city to change regulations that require a limo trip to be prearranged an hour in advance (which would make it illegal for customers coming home from a game or bar to whip out their phones and summon a driver on the spot).

The Seattle City Council is currently re-evaluating all of the taxi and for-hire regulations currently on the books, which have created a formidable thicket of competing interests. The city has, so far, allowed the new ridesharing companies to continue operating while that more holistic discussion is underway. In a future post, I’ll offer some principles that could form the foundation for a better system. As part of the research that informed my thinking, here’s more detail about my unscientific experiment in Lyft vs. taxi commuting.

Monday (Yellow Cab)

Commute time from Wallingford to downtown Seattle: 1 hour.

Fare (before tip): $16

Pros: The cab was spotless, and the ride was pleasant. My driver Mohammed—who grew up in New York and Sudan, moved to Seattle to raise a family, and has been leasing and driving other licensees’ cabs here for five years—was a pleasure to chat with and knowledgeable about navigating the city. (And, to be clear, was in no way responsible for what I’m about to describe.)

Cons: The dispatch experience was unprofessional and unpleasant, at best. I was originally told a cab would be at my home in five to ten minutes. At first, I couldn’t hear over a bad phone connection, but put it together after the dispatcher yelled at me and hung up. Twenty five minutes later, as I found myself staring out my front window far more than my computer screen, I called again and a very polite dispatcher told me there was no record of my initial call but that he could have someone there in five minutes. Twelve minutes later, at which point I had given up any pretense of being able to work and was sitting on my front steps hoping to magically will my cab to appear, another dispatcher snapped at me when I tried to give him my correct address. All in all, it took 42 minutes for my cab to arrive.

Tuesday (Lyft)

Commute time: 26 minutes

Suggested donation: $13

Pros: The dispatch experience was amazing by comparison: efficient, pleasant, and stress-free. The Lyft smartphone app, which I had downloaded on my iPhone the day before, told me the nearest driver was 12 minutes away. It showed me a picture of Nick, his car, and his five-star rating from previous passengers. (Before getting into a total stranger’s car, I had looked into the safety requirements that Lyft requires of new drivers, including passing a criminal background check, driving record check, and a company inspection of the vehicle).

I pushed a button to request a ride and—this is huge for someone like me with control freak tendencies—I could see his car on a map heading toward my house and knew my ride was actually going to show up. His Jeep with a pink mustache attached to the front arrived in 11 minutes. I hopped in his front seat and gave him the Lyft-mandated fist bump greeting. Nick, a former medical research manager who recently moved to Seattle and was now driving for Lyft as his main income source, was friendly and interesting to talk to.

At the end of the ride, instead of having to wait for a driver to manually make an impression of my credit card, I got a prompt on my phone asking me to rate Nick (which functions as a crowdsourced security measure that weeds out creepy or unprofessional drivers) and pay a “suggested donation.” Because I had already entered my credit card through the app, I hit a button to pay and got a receipt via email.

Cons: It bothered me that I couldn’t figure out how to establish an account on Lyft’s app without allowing access to my Facebook profile and friend list. And I could live without the fist bump. But those are small prices to pay for getting 30 minutes of my life back.

It’s possible that I just picked a bad morning at the Yellow Cab dispatch office. But based on my experience, I’d definitely choose Lyft again (though I would personally feel more comfortable using it if there were some basic and enforceable safety regulations in place somewhere). In our next post, we’ll look at some of the complications—and opportunities—to create a more robust system that offers more choice and protects the public’s interest.

View Part Two of this article.


For more on taxi regulations, see Sightline’s previous posts on the topic:

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  1. Lee says:

    Sidecar doesn’t require that you give up access to your Facebook information (or that you have a Facebook account at all). Also, fistbumps are optional.

  2. Jennifer Langston says:

    Excellent points, Lee.

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    I use cabs fairly frequently, and signed up with Car2Go the first day possible, but haven’t tried Lyft yet purely because of the Facebook thing. Imagine if a cab required a download of your address book on your phone before allowing you in the car. No thanks.

    Maybe I’ll create a fake account just to access companies that join this annoying trend.

    • Cassandra says:

      Good luck with that. Lyft has a Facebook team that checks incoming Facebook sign ups for certain requirements before allowing them in the community. A fake account won’t work.

  4. Rob says:

    I’m a new Sidecar driver and got a slow start to driving because I was skeptical as to how well the whole concept would work here in Seattle and hadn’t yet used the service as a passenger. I had used Uber once before UberX started and thought it was a bit pricey though the towncar was nice.

    Finally I got a chance to use the service as a rider a couple weeks ago and I’m pretty certain I won’t go back to riding a cab, for all the reasons Jennifer pointed out. Fact is, the rude dispatchers and unknown wait times have been common experiences for me, more often than not.

    For what it’s worth, I recently had a few of my friends try out Sidecar for the first time and they all had really positive experiences!!

  5. Tab says:

    Well, if Lyft disappears, call Orange Cab next time. They are friendlier via phone, more reliable, and most of their cars we’ve been picked up in were electric Priuses; less guilt about choking up the environment with CO2 just to get somewhere faster.

    • Gordon says:

      I believe that you meant to say CO (carbon monoxide). CO2 is the bubbly stuff in my beer and is a food source of plants who return the favor with oxygen. And for the record, I drive a prius but not to save the earth, she does that on her own. I drive to keep my wallet green.

  6. Peter says:

    There is another wrinkle that has to be figured out. The SF Bay Guardian is reporting that while the service itself provides liability insurance, the driver’s own insurance won’t cover them if they are in an accident. Liability is important insurance to have but not the only type you need to get your car working again.

    • Cassandra says:

      Yes it will. Unless of course once in an accident the driver is all “But, I was driving as a job for Lyft/Uber/Sidecar”! If the driver handles it like they are suppose to which is driving a friend around, then it’s no issue. But nice try.

      • ClaimsAdjuster says:

        What you mean by “handling it like you are supposed to” is hiding from thre insurance company that you are operating a gypsy cab service. However the insurance company often does find out despite your best efforts because there are other people involved in an accident – your passengers, the other party to the accident, the police, witnesses – at which point your auto insurance gets cancelled and your claim denied.

  7. Steve Erickson says:

    “allow a customer to summon and pay for a ride from a fleet of drivers roaming the streets in their personal cars using a smartphone app. You can see on the map how far away your driver is, and that he or she is really coming. It’s much less stressful than calling a grumpy dispatcher and waiting on the side of the road, wondering if your cab will ever show up.”

    There is no reason the existing cab companies couldn’t implement and use this technology. For that matter, there is no reason driver-owners couldn’t organize as worker owned businesses (cooperatives or collectives) that use these disruptive technologies. Imagine the person seeking the ride registers providing their payment information. This could either be a one-shot or a longterm registration, depending on their squeamishness about having that information floating around in the digital world. When they call the “ride request” number the ride seeker gets connected to a dispatcher who takes the address and the time the ride is needed if the ride is not needed immediately. The central dispatch automatically notifies the closest driver. They “confirm” by transmitting back to central via their smart phone, and the ride seeker can then monitor their progress, who the driver is, etc., as done currently. If the closest driver does not confirm within a set length of time (1 minute, 2 minutes?), the ride request goes to the next closest driver.

    The disruptive elements of this are not just the technology, but the organization of the driver-owners into businesses that they own. As for governmental oversight, the standard requirements for insurance, background checks and safety inspections would have a crowd source rating system added with required elements including honesty (i.e. charged what they said). And no limits on how many drivers / companies. This really is a situation where the marketplace probably is the best system for determining how “much” service is needed.

  8. Patrick Barber says:

    Your comment about a “poky kid” reminded me of a question I have about these services. In a taxicab, the legal requirement for a child to ride in a special seat is magically made to disappear (I think it’s the same magic that is used on city buses and trains). How does this apply to ride-sharing services such as Lyft?

    • Cassandra says:

      Lyft requires laws be followed in the cars. If you have a kid that requires a seat better bring the seat. Some of the drivers happen to carry seats just in case. If you don’t have a seat and have a kid that needs one, you aren’t getting a ride.

  9. Ethan Seltzer says:

    Here in Portland, I’ve used Radio Cab for years to order up rides to the airport at inhuman hours of the day/night. They’re terrific. I haven’t used other services, but Radio is wonderful. So one thought about the new services: you need a credit card (functioning), a smartphone, and a data service to play. To call a cab you need to just call. If these new services cream out the folks that can pay to play, will cabs exist for those that can’t? Is this just another example of a premium service for those able to escape the base, and the base spread over a smaller and less wealthy remaining group? Is this just the economic equivalent of “white flight” that will one day leave us wondering what happened? Sure, technology is wonderful, I love it and use as much as I can nab, but it might be nice to consider whether public goods need a different kind of thinking, and whether our technobrains have caught up with our digits. What kind of mobility services make for better communities? Or, what do great communities need to have in place so that mobility and accessibility aren’t just elements of individual consumption?

  10. Alan Durning says:

    Good points, Ethan.

    At present, app-based ridesharing services are likely banned from having phone-in options, because of taxi regs. They’re skating on thin taxi-reg-ice anyway. But it seems to me like a new market for rides that deregulates the number of vehicles would surely help almost all ride-seekers, if not immediately then soon. Some taxi companies, including Radio Cab, have been pro-tech. For five years or more, you’ve been able to track Radio Cabs on a Google map (can’t find the link right now). I imagine all cab companies know exactly where their vehicles are, but for lack of vigorous competition, they’ve had no reason to adapt consumer-friendly technology.

    My hypothesis is that big barrier to providing good, abundant, more-affordable taxi-like service for all is current taxi regs, not the digital-divide (or the mobile-digital divide or the credit-card divide).

    Consider: Smart phone penetration is limited among the poor, but cell phone penetration is pretty advanced. So a text-based system could also work. All the app-based companies also let you order a ride through a computer, and internet-connected computer penetration is pretty high. But, more important, a phone dispatch system is not that hard to set up or run, especially one that runs on top of the slick tech that Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar run.

    Consider: most cash public benefits are now paid through EBT onto debit cards, so beneficiaries of public benefits DO have such cards. And if they don’t, it would be pretty easy for public agencies and charities to put some taxi scrip into online accounts. OR for rideshare drivers to accept cash. Or old-fashioned paper taxi scrip.

    A lot about how the app-based systems work is designed to make them look unlike taxis, and that’s a political tactic. It’s to avoid taxi regs. It’s not an economic strategy.

    Taxi licensing reform, therefore, is likely to help extend service to more.

    Finally, taxi service is, on average, scarce and expensive in the Northwest, as we documented in previous research. A flood of new ride-share services is likely to lower the cost of each taxi ride and also make it much easier for households to shed a car or all their cars. Opening up those choices are huge equity benefits, because owning a car is a hugely expensive–a real debt generator.

  11. asdf says:

    Currently, Lyft and Sidecar don’t support making ride requests through their websites – the only way to do it is through their mobile apps. Not only does this mean that if you have a computer, but not a smartphone, too bad, but it also locks out users of non-Android or iPhone smartphones as well.

    I have really wanted to try these services out. I even have a smartphone and a data plan. But, because my phone is a Windows phone, I am currently excluded from both services.

    (I chose the Windows platfrom shortly before Lyft and Sidecar started operating in Seattle. The way cell phone contracts work, switching to Android now would require paying the full retail price for a new phone, which would cost far more than it’s worth).

  12. Jennifer Langston says:

    Ethan – those are good points, ones that I’m getting into in a little more detail in a followup post!

    Patrick Barber – I didn’t have my 4-year-old with me when I tried both commutes, so I didn’t have to deal with the vexing car seat question. Even if you technically don’t have to use one in taxis, we always did. We tried towncars for early morning airport rides a couple of times specifically because you can request one with a car seat already in, but they were so poorly installed and totally unanchored that they seemed worthless. Now, fortunately, my daughter is old enough for a small booster seat that we can bring along ourselves.

    Peter, Steven, asdf – Thanks for the additional insights!

  13. Eric says:


    I know this is an old article but could you elaborate on what you meant in the cons section by: “though I would personally feel more comfortable using it if there were some basic and enforceable safety regulations in place somewhere” What would make you feel safer?


  14. Polly says:

    I know this is an old article, but I wanted to comment on one of your cons. You said you’d rather not have to allow facebook access in order to use the service. That requirement is one that provides a great deal of peace of mind to the drivers, many of whom are women. If the passengers had total anonymity, I would not be comfortable Lyfting.

    • Veronica Harian says:

      I would love to try the service as a rider but the app is not compatible with my phone. I downloaded it but can’t log into Facebook. Guess its not for me!

    • Joe Bochenek says:

      There are other (better) ways to verify identity. The reason they require facebook is probably to exploit all of the information available via the facebook API to optimize email marketing, testing, demographics, and other useful but creepy stuff. I won’t sign up for lyft for this reason, but I suppose they made a calculated decision that personal data is more valuable to them than a larger user base.

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