Meet Lyft, A Startup Trying To Change San Francisco’s Decades-Old Transportation System

john zimmer lyft
John Zimmer, cofounder, Lyft

[credit provider=”Lyft”]

In San Francisco, a hotbed of transportation innovation from ferries to cable cars to high-speed rail, the latest way to get around is sporting a giant, pink, fluffy mustache.If you see a car with that hood decoration, you’re looking at a driver for Lyft, a new app from a startup called Zimride that lets you order a car ride from one point to another on demand.

Instead of working like Uber, a similar service for professional limo drivers, Lyft has more of a community aspect, focusing on regular car owners who want to help their friends and meet new people.

We caught up with John Zimmer, chief operating officer and cofounder of Zimride, the maker of Lyft. Here’s what we learned:

  • After being out for about three months, Lyft has served thousands of rides. Right now it’s only available in San Francisco, but it should be expanding to other cities “once it gets San Francisco right,” Zimmer says.
  • The average cost of a Lyft ride is about $10. Most Web-based apps like Uber charge a lot more than that.
  • For Lyft, it’s more about the community. Think of Lyft as an Airbnb for cars. You can’t quite turn it into a job yet, but you can make some money to recoup the cost of your auto bills.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the interview:

BUSINESS INSIDER: Can you give me a little bit of background on Zimride and Lyft? 

JOHN ZIMMER: Lyft started three months ago, and Zimride started about 5 years go. Zimride and Lyft were founded by myself and Logan Green, my cofounder and CEO of Zimride. He has a background in transportation hacking, he built the first car-share program at University of California at Santa Barbara, before even Zipcar. He was on the transportation board in Santa Barbara working on buses. He was frustrated that public transportation was based on tax revenue, so only about 30 per cent of the operating costs were covered by fares. When a bus line folded, he couldn’t add more bus lines, so he wanted to build a transportation form that would get better as it got used.

alexia tsotsis day in the life 21

[credit provider=”Alexia Tsotsis / @alexia” url=””]

I went to Cornell’s hotel school. I studied hospitality and when I took a green cities class, we were looking at transportation. I saw a slide on the evolution of transportation, from canals to highways, and I thought about what would be the next slide. I thought it would be a layer of efficiency on top of our current cars and road systems, going back to that idea of occupancy I was learning in the program. 80 per cent of our seats are empty and I thought if you could get that 20 per cent occupancy up by even 10 percentage points, you’d have an incredible social, financial and utilitarian solution.BI: So, I have to ask, what is the deal with the mustaches?

JZ: Every car has this “carstache,” it’s the pink furry mustache. When we were designing the app experience and the in-car physical experience, we wanted to create something that would help people recognise the car. It’s a person’s private vehicle, so they’re all different. We wanted something for riders to identify. It’s created a ton of buzz because people see these cars all the time in San Francisco, asking, “What is that?”

BI: What’s the point of Lyft? Why shouldn’t I use Uber, or Sidecar?

JZ: It’s all part of the same mission to change the fact that 80 per cent of seats are empty. Zimride was long-distance trips, we have saved $100 million for the population with our long-distance service. We said, with that milestone, “How can we do this even faster for more people?” We had long-distance, we should also tackle short-distance. That’s where Lyft was born. We decided it was the product we wanted to build. Three months later, we’ve done thousands of rides.

BI: But what about cost?

JZ: The average ride is about $10, it’s a little less expensive than a cab, and a lot less expensive than an Uber. It’s about a third of the cost of Uber. The experience is different too, there’s a professional driver feel to Uber and Sidecar. There’s more of a community-powered feel to what we’re doing. 80 per cent of our passengers sit in the front seat when they get in the Lyft. The concept we’re going after is “your friend with a car, on demand.” We have a community and culture—we have pink mustaches on every car. It’s part of that community experience, you smile when you see it, the passenger smiles, the driver smiles, it breaks the ice. The drivers often do a fist bump as part of welcoming someone into the culture. They’re encouraged to express themselves. We’ve had drivers make coffee in the morning, it’s like Airbnb with hosts. It’s more of that feel.

“We’ve had drivers make coffee in the morning, it’s like Airbnb with hosts. It’s more of that feel.”

BI: What’s the advantage to drivers?

JZ: I don’t have an exact number, but the basic idea is if people have a few extra hours in their days and they want to help others out in the community, they can fill their time and make some money using Lyft. It’s similar to Airbnb, where you have extra space and need to do something with it. They’re able to make some money and reimburse themselves for some of their auto expenses.

We’ve had people meet their new best friends, they’ve met people who they’ve hung out with several times outside of the experience. We’ve had people start a band because they met someone who’s had similar music taste. There are some that do it more than others, the average is more in the 10 to 20 hours a week range, that’s more of a side job. It does range from people doing it a couple hours to people doing it more. 

BI: What are you guys planning on doing next?

We want to do San Francisco really well, it’s a market we understand. There’s a transportation void that needs to be filled. In a few months we’ll look to find other cities where that’s also true.