Ride Sharing Showdown: Should You Grab an Uber, or Hail a Lyft?

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The ridesharing revolution began harmlessly enough. Uber used the burgeoning app market to launch an on-demand vehicle service that soon grew into a multi-billion-dollar game-changer. Lyft wasn’t far behind, launching its own flavor of ridesharing in its home market of San Francisco soon afterward.

While there are other ride-hailing apps such as Sidecar and Hail-o, Uber and Lyft command the greatest chunk of the market. Ridesharing has become so popular that several major automakers are either partnering with Uber and Lyft, or preparing their own competing services. This buy-in by major manufacturers highlights the current shift in consumer transportation. Instead of a corporate car, many companies in urban areas now offer credits with various ridesharing services. People have begun commuting, shopping, and hitting the gym in an Uber or Lyft. Personal vehicles are reserved for weekend expeditions.

There are still some holdouts. Those without smartphones — a percentage of the population that shrinks each year — call for cabs. Those who prefer the privacy of their own car won’t commute with a stranger. Those with access to good public transportation won’t sit in traffic. These are the exceptions, however, not the rule.

The big question for most, then, is not whether they should use a ridesharing service, but rather which one to go with. While Uber and Lyft have grown closer to the mean since their inceptions, they still operate with unique business philosophies and interfaces. In this article, we’ll compare the two so you can ride smarter.

Booking a ride

Both Uber and Lyft rely heavily on location-based data, which means you’ll need a good internet connection, either through Wi-Fi or your cellular service. Once the app loads, it will drop a pin on your current location. If the pin is off the mark, you can adjust its position to get an accurate starting point. If you want to be picked up from a different spot, simply enter that address in the text box.

The next step is to enter your destination. Like Google Maps, both Uber and Lyft can work with street addresses or points of interest. Once you’ve input your destination, the apps will estimate your ride cost based on the service you choose, the time of day, and how far you’re going. Both Uber and Lyft will also give you an estimate of how long it will take for your driver to arrive at the designated pickup spot.

At this point, Lyft offers you two unique options. The first is to choose a waypoint along your route. This is useful if you need to drop someone off, pick someone up, or to grab something at home before continuing to your destination. The second option is to schedule a pickup for a later time. Uber’s differentiator is an estimate of your arrival time before you ever hit “go.” Lyft won’t give you an ETA until you request your ride.

After you request a pickup, both Uber and Lyft show a real-time visual of your driver’s progress to your location.

Winner: Lyft (for its waypoint options)

The passenger experience

Once your ride arrives, it’s time to hop in and go. If you’re nowhere to be found, Uber and Lyft drivers will wait five minutes before they’re allowed to cancel the ride. Uber will begin billing the passenger (per minute) after just two minutes of wait time. Lyft will wait until either the driver cancels or the passenger has buckled up to “start the meter.”

If you’ve never used a ridesharing service, you might not be sure where to sit. From the beginning, Lyft has encouraged passengers to ride shotgun if the seat is available. The idea here is that Lyft drivers and passengers should engage. Uber’s philosophy aligns more closely with the app’s livery service origins, meaning most passengers file into the rear seats. Also, Uber drivers tend not to start gabbing unless the passenger initiates a conversation. Depending on whether you’re an introverted or extroverted person, or whether you need to catch up on emails, you may prefer one app’s riding experience to another.

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Both Uber and Lyft require credit card information to be stored in the app, so passengers needn’t worry about fumbling for a card at the conclusion of the ride. Once you reach the destination, you’re free to leave. However, you still have some homework. The next time you access the Lyft app, you’ll be asked to rate your driver on a scale of 1 to 5 and offer feedback — you’ll also have a chance to tip him or her. Uber doesn’t allow in-app tipping, so riders who really enjoyed their experience should plan to give a cash tip before exiting the car. However, Uber does still ask for ratings (on the same scale) and feedback. Uber and Lyft drivers also have an opportunity to rate their passengers. This tells other drivers who’s a tough customer. Both driver and rider ratings are visible from the moment a ride is requested.

If you have questions or concerns about a trip, both Uber and Lyft will direct you to a FAQ section and an email for further assistance. Neither app provides a phone number or chat service for customer inquiries.

Winner: Lyft (for its added, but still very optional, tipping)

Services and rates

Now we’ll get into the varied services offered by Uber and Lyft, and the standard pricing structure for each app.

Uber has a broader range of services (vehicle types). Here’s how they work:

  • UberPool: Share your ride with someone heading in the same direction and split the cost (cheapest option).
  • UberX: Book an everyday car with seatin for four.
  • Uber XL: Book an everyday vehicle with seating for six.
  • UberSelect: Book a more premium vehicle with seating for four (cheaper than UberBlack).
  • UberBLack: Uber’s original service composed of black livery vehicles that seat four.
  • UberSUV: Book a premium SUV with seating for six.

Lyft has a comparatively streamlined service:

  • Lyft Line: Share your ride with someone heading in the same direction and split the cost (cheapest option).
  • Lyft Lyft: Book an everyday car with seating for four.
  • Lyft Plus: Book an everyday vehicle with seating for six.
  • Lyft Premier: Book a more premium vehicle with seating for four.

Using Los Angeles as a sample market, here’s how the fee structure for a basic ride with UberX and Lyft compares:

Uber X:

  • Booking/Service Fee: $1.85
  • Cost per Minute: $0.15
  • Cost per Mile: $0.90
  • Minimum Charge: $5.35
  • Cancellation Fee: $5.00

Lyft:

  • Booking/Service Fee: $1.80
  • Cost per Minute: $0.15
  • Cost per Mile: $0.90
  • Minimum Charge: $3.50
  • Cancellation Fee: $5.00

As you can see, the pricing for each app is pretty similar, but there’s another variable that can dramatically change how much a ride can cost — surge pricing. Both Uber and Lyft will increase a typical ride rate by a certain percentage based on location and demand. Uber calls this situation “Surge” and Lyft calls it “Prime Time.”

Both Uber and Lyft bump rates based on “heat maps.” When an area gets busy, surge pricing and prime time kick in. While Uber’s heat map is usually a large area, Lyft’s heat map tends to be much smaller. For Uber riders, this typically means you have to bite the bullet and pay the higher fare if you’re in a busy area at a busy time. Lyft riders, however, may have the opportunity to walk outside the heat map and return to normal rates. Also, Lyft price increases are usually less than Uber.

Taking all this information into consideration, which is cheaper? In some cities, one app’s fee structure is higher than the other, giving a narrow, but clear edge. If you’re a tipper, then Lyft rates will work out to be more over time. If you aren’t a tipper, or if you typically ride during peak riding hours, Uber may be the more expensive service.

Winner: Lyft (for its smaller surge pricing areas and lower minimum charge)

How drivers are treated

We’ve touched on some of the driver experience as it pertains to tipping and rider interaction, but what else do drivers consider before picking a platform? Here, I can chime in with a bit of personal experience — I was an Uber and Lyft driver for a few months this past year.

It starts with the application process. Uber and Lyft approach hiring very differently. Uber gives drivers a number of hoops to jump through up front, and then stays out of a driver’s business except to request updated insurance or to settle a dispute. Lyft, however, “mentors” new drivers by pairing applicants with a veteran driver. Mandatory sessions with an experienced driver take each applicant through the complete hiring process, which is great — if you don’t mind setting aside the additional time.

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Once your car has been inspected, your insurance and registration approved, and your background checked, Uber and Lyft send you logos to display in your vehicle. These icons must be visible at all times when you’re on the clock. In some areas, like airports, failure to display your driver icon can result in a steep fine. Lyft distinguishes itself by sending drivers a welcome packet that includes a smartphone mount for his or her vehicle.

Drivers choosing between Uber and Lyft will likely factor in ease of onboarding and company culture, but the deciding factor is almost always income. In my case, I ended up driving for Uber far more often than Lyft. Though I preferred Lyft’s interface, customer base, and support, the down time between ride requests on Uber was far shorter than Lyft. To maximize my earnings (based on my location), I chose Uber.

If you drive in a densely populated area, the rates may be more important than down time between rides. Lyft drivers who applied before the first of January, 2016, take home 80 percent of the total fare (minus the service fee). Any Lyft drivers who applied after this date get the same rate as Uber: 75 percent of the total fare (minus the service fee), regardless of when they started. The kicker is that Lyft doesn’t take a penny from the in-app tips. Uber doesn’t either, but with cash tips being so unusual, that’s hardly a consideration. This means veteran Lyft drivers in Lyft-friendly areas stand to make a fair amount more than their Uber counterparts.

Winner: Lyft

Where can you find a ride?

Lyft has chalked up several category wins so far, but Uber is returning fire with its massive coverage area. First and foremost, Lyft operates exclusively in the United States while Uber extends to major cities in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, The Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific. Basically, if you want to grab a ride while abroad, your only option (between these two apps) is Uber.

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Within the U.S., the coverage maps are fairly similar. Uber is available in all 50 states, reaching 209 total cities and covering 75 percent of the U.S. population. That’s a lot of cities, but Uber has either left of been banned from a few major ones, too. Uber doesn’t operate in Austin or San Antonio, Texas, nor does it operate in Buffalo, New York, Anchorage, Alaska, or Auburn, Alabama.

Lyft is currently available in 240 cities (hitting 45 out of 50 states), with a plan to expand to another 60 cities throughout the remainder of 2017. Presently, the app covers more than 60 percent of the U.S. population and by year’s end, that figure will be up to 72 percent. Lyft doesn’t operate in Alaska, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, or South Dakota.

If it’s a global battle, Lyft has a lot of catching up to do, but here in the U.S., Lyft is hot on Uber’s heels.

Winner: Uber

Which app is less controversial?

When pioneering a market, there’s bound to be some ruffled feathers, but Uber — and to a lesser degree, Lyft — have built a rap sheet of major controversies. We’ll start with the issues that plague both Uber and Lyft.

The very concept of a peer-to-peer transportation service completely undermines the taxicab industry, which has led licensed taxi drivers to protest every ridesharing app. Uber and Lyft’s safety standards, background checks, under-regulated procedures, and insurance have come under the most fire.

Surge and Prime Time pricing has upset taxi drivers and app users alike, with the potential for a $20 ride turning into one that costs hundreds of dollars. Massive increases in normal fares aren’t the worst of it, though. During emergency situations such as Hurricane Sandy and the recent bombing in New York, Uber was slapping Surge rates on people who were attempting to flee dangerous situations (at least briefly). Lyft isn’t immune to PR trouble, either. Though the app capped Prime Time increases at 200 percent, the company lifted the ceiling in February of 2016, upsetting many users.

Apart from these broader points of contention, Uber takes the cake for controversy. Here are just some of the headline-grabbing “WTF” moments in the app’s history.

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Since the app launched in 2009, Uber has skirted the issue of employee benefits by considering its drivers “contractors,” but that line in the sand has lead to dozens of lawsuits by drivers who claim they are entitled to traditional benefits. In the United Kingdom, a court ruled drivers are in fact employees, but the jury is still out elsewhere.

There have been several accusations by Uber passengers of driver attacks over the years. Two independent lawsuits have been filed by women who were sexually assaulted by Uber drivers, a woman in L.A. accused her driver of kidnapping her, and one San Francisco Uber driver smashed his passenger’s head with a hammer. The public and government have cited these instances and others during calls for improved driver background checks. Uber has been forced to pay millions for misleading safety fees and marketing related to its “gold standard” of background checks. While Uber does require driver names and social security numbers, it doesn’t use fingerprinting, which would reveal when a driver has been charged with a crime (even if they haven’t been accused).

Just in the first two months of this year, Uber has drawn ire for operating at JFK International Airport during the taxi strike of Trump’s Immigration ban, absorbing self-driving vehicle service, Otto — whose founder has been accused by Google of trade secret theft — and for Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s dashcam-recorded argument with a driver.

Winner: Lyft

Overall winner: Lyft

The executive summary of this comparison is that Uber and Lyft offer nearly the same service. Both provide convenient, inexpensive transportation in most major areas, and either option is more than sufficient for day-to-day commuting. But while Uber and Lyft are more like apples and pears than apples and oranges, there are enough differences for us to declare a clear winner.

Yes, coverage areas and diversity of service are in Uber’s favor, but for the rest of the spread — booking, passenger experience, driver experience, and company controversy — Lyft is our pick. If none of those issues are contributing factors for you, let’s get down to brass tax: Lyft is generally the cheaper option. Not only is Lyft’s minimum charge lower, its heat maps are usually smaller as well, meaning your ride will be easier on your wallet during peak hours. Add in the option to tip on the app and you’re left with an easy decision from a financial standpoint.

To its credit, though, Uber has invested heavily in innovative technology to make the riding experience simpler. Specifically, the app is testing self-driving vehicle fleets and hopes to have driverless rides available to the public in mere months. Lyft is of a similar mind, but has yet to invest on the same scale. The future for ridesharing drivers looks grim, but riders may be in for the safest, smoothest experiences yet.