Word on the Street: What My Lyft Drivers Told Me About Uber

New York cabbies have it the roughest

“Uber are assholes.”

This is Alex, sitting behind the wheel of his luxury SUV. We’re stuck in traffic on Ninth Avenue in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City at 9:30 a.m., stopped just outside a soup kitchen near my apartment building. Alex appears to be in his mid-20s and seems like the type of guy you might find drinking a $14 Heineken at 2 a.m. in a midtown club. Apparently, about 10 minutes earlier, one of Alex’s two iPhones buzzed: A Lyft customer wanted a ride from Gramercy Park. Alex accepted, darted over to the park and poof, the customer canceled.

The motherfucker, he says.

Here’s the thing, though—Alex doesn’t even believe it was just some random dude that changed his mind. Alex is convinced it was a rival Uber driver messing with his day. When I ask him why or how he knows this, Alex sighs. The “customer,” he tells me, had just created the account with no picture, and the location pin was dropped inexplicably in the center of the park. Alex also drives for Uber—pretty much every Lyft driver in New York does—and it’s the type of thing he’s seen before.

“Some of these drivers don’t have a very high IQ,” he says. “I have to wait for them to stop being children.”

This week, CNN reported that Uber drivers and employees had sabotaged more than 5,000 Lyft drivers by ordering—and then canceling—rides. A day later, Uber countered that Lyft drivers and employees were doing the same. The two companies are competing in cities around the country, and the sabotaged rides are apparently happening in all of them.

Lyft was just introduced to New York three weeks ago. The San Francisco startups are vying to take over New York’s taxi business, but right now they’re in desperate competition for new customers—and the battle is clearly getting ugly. 

I was curious, though. What do the drivers think about this public beef?

My editor and I hatched a highly insignificant experiment: I’d take a bunch of Lyfts one morning and ask them. (Plus, truthfully, Lyft had given me a crazy amount of free credits—$1,250 worth—to use as part of an initial marketing effort to lure customers away from Uber, and I figured I might as well put them to use.)

What I found by chatting with just a handful of drivers on Wednesday morning is that Alex’s sabotage claim, though I certainly believe him, doesn’t really seem like the most pressing problem drivers are facing.

First of all, it’s important to make a distinction here, which is that in New York, Lyft drivers need to be licensed cab operators, and no driver technically works for Lyft or Uber. They’re independent contractors who can choose to work for both, and most of them do. In San Francisco, Lyft drivers don’t need a special license, so anyone can do it, as long as they’re vetted by the company.

In New York, it’s actually sort of a ridiculous scene when you enter these guys’ cars. Most have two, sometimes three, iPhones with different taxi apps, waiting for customers to ping them. (There’s been talk of Uber potentially acquiring Lyft—and judging by the amount of iPhones needed to operate all the different apps, a merger seems to make sense.)

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