When Uber burst onto the scene earlier this decade, it solved a problem most people didn’t realize they had. By making ride hailing more intuitive, efficient, and cost-effective than the century-old taxicab industry, Uber has been able to expand to 600 cities across 80 countries, and reach a valuation of almost $70 billion. Competitors have popped up, but none have managed to truly trouble the company whose name has become synonymous with ride hailing itself.
Despite its dominance, Uber’s had a bad few months. The company has long been associated with ruthless disruption, competitor sabotage, and a willingness to bend state and national rules in its race to supremacy. In the last year, though, the company’s cutthroat mentality has manifested itself in the media in more obviously distasteful ways. Multiple public sexual harassment allegations, a reported culture of aggressive competition internally at the company, resignations of key figures over ‘cultural differences’ - Uber has had it all. Couple this with its scandal over its surge pricing system in action during emergencies and natural disasters, and it’s understandable that consumers would be open to a more friendly alternative.
Lyft has previous when it comes to acting in moral opposition to Uber. Founded in 2012, Lyft is the US’ second-biggest ride hailing app, and will be seeking a $6 billion valuation in its next funding round, according to TechCrunch. After Donald Trump announced his widely contested ban on immigration from majority Muslim countries, drivers from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance opted to ignore pickup requests from the John F. Kennedy International Airport between 6pm and 7pm on 29th January. The strike was intended to keep people at the airport as mass protests took place, but Uber seemingly saw this as an opportunity to capitalize, turning off its surge pricing at the airport and transporting passengers as normal.
The Twitter community in particular condemned Uber’s decision; the hashtag #DeleteUber trended and many accused CEO Travis Kalanick of collaborating with the newly inaugurated US president. In response, Lyft pledged to commit $1 million to the ALCU over the next four years and published a statement expressing its rejection of the President’s order, describing it as ‘antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values.’
The attack on Trump is interesting. Uber has refused to condemn the President and Lyft’s vocal disagreement is bold. The company will be hoping that, though it operates in over 300 cities, the majority of its customers will be urban dwellers. Among these, some 59% voted for Hillary Clinton while only 35% voted for Trump. By contrast, in rural populations (where Lyft doesn’t operate), Trump picked up 62% of the votes. Couple this with the fact that the majority of Lyft’s users are likely to be younger - Trump only won among those aged 40 and upwards - and Lyft’s demographic is likely to be largely anti-Trump. These numbers will have made Lyft’s decision to engage politically far less difficult.
Not wanting to miss any opportunity to make up ground on its far bigger competitor, Lyft is looking to once again distance itself from Uber’s self-cultivated image after a particularly bad month for Kalanick’s giant. Not only have key resignations rocked the company, but Kalanick himself was caught on video arguing with one of his employees (a driver) in less than sensitive terms. In a well-timed response, Lyft has announced its new ‘Round Up & Donate’ program, which gives users the option to round their fares up to the nearest dollar with the difference going to charity.
The program will be trialed at first and then rolled out to users over a number of weeks. Lyft has announced that the funds raised will initially be given to one charity before localized charities are included as the program develops. ‘We'll be launching with one charity, then onboarding more with a focus on being unique in each of our communities,’ Lyft vice-president of marketing Melissa Waters told USA TODAY. Though the ride-hailing company is not putting its own money toward the charity, providing the infrastructure and the incentive for charitable spending will be enough to distance itself from Uber’s colder public image.
Whether consumers view Lyft’s generosity and playfulness as a contrivance is more or less irrelevant; the company is quite clearly more conscious of its public image than its much larger rival. Earlier in its lifespan, Lyft encouraged its drivers to affix huge pink mustaches to the grills of their cars, and to offer fist bumps to their passengers, as well as giving riders the option to tip drivers. Lyft’s US-only approach will likely not see the company expand to anything like the size of Uber, but it will be hoping it can chip away at its rival’s user base by taking advantage of bad patches like this.