How Lyft plans to continue to grow in Pittsburgh, from an IRL office to driver events

If you’re seeing more from the ride sharing company, you’re not alone.

courtesy of lyft
MJ Slaby

Sick of bartending part-time ahead of the holidays, Clyde Callicott started driving for Lyft almost a year and a half ago.

He decided to start by driving for Lyft rather than Uber because a smaller ride volume made it easier to learn. When he felt experienced and ready to pick up more rides, Callicott of Mount Lebanon started driving for Uber, too.

But that didn’t last long. The number of Lyft rides has picked up so much that he’s been driving just for Lyft for about two months.

After being in Pittsburgh for nearly four years, Lyft is ramping up resources here with a three-person team that’s planning to grow and a coming-soon service hub to be an in-person resource for drivers.

“We’re investing in this region specifically. The team here is really focused on building up the driver ambassador community,” said Josh Huber, Lyft market manager for Pittsburgh.

To him, Lyft’s success always comes back to the drivers — whether that’s how the company stands out, how riders stay happy or how ride sharing continues to grow.

Local team, local knowledge

Pittsburgh is one of nearly two dozen cities where Lyft has recently expanded its local teams. Before, a team in San Fransisco mostly supported Pittsburgh drivers, but for the last six months, there’s been a team based Downtown.

Local knowledge makes a difference, Huber said. The team in California “might not understand why is this East Carson Street place is really popular at 2 a.m. … what is happening in the North Shore.”

Huber expects the team in Pittsburgh to increase to six or nine staffers in just as many months. Also in the works is a service desk in the Pittsburgh region expected to be announced by the end of May.

“We’re working on a couple of options right now,” Huber said of the location, adding that it would be a place for drivers talk with the team IRL and have questions answered.

In the meantime, he said, the team has already started driver events — like a Steelers’ watch party for people working that day and a pre-St. Patrick’s Day lunch and swag bag giveaway.

Uber has had a team in Pittsburgh since 2014 and, in August 2017, opened its current Greenlight Hub in Lawrenceville, where a staff of four answers drivers’ questions and helps new drivers get on the road.  The ride share company launched “180 Days of Change” in June 2017 to improve the driver experience and has also done local programs such as giving drivers $500 each for tuition, fees or books at Community College of Allegheny County.

Tom Dongilla, of North Side drives for both Uber and Lyft and said it seems each tries to project different priorities — Lyft stresses its focus on drivers, while Uber seems to stress its commitment to riders. But overall, a lot of things for drivers like bonuses and support end up being similar, he said.

To Callicott, the customer service is one of the perks to Lyft. He said it’s personable and responsive.

Regardless, Huber said Lyft’s relationship with drivers is what makes the company standout, especially when price and ETA for riders are comparable.

“Our big differentiation is treating our drivers better, and it’s hard to do that — you can’t fax in a handshake, as they say.”

Plus, he said that when drivers are treated better, they will treat riders better and that improves the experience for both.

Self-driving on two coasts

Until March, Uber’s self-driving cars — with company logos and the ability for app users to ride in them — were common sights in certain parts of Pittsburgh. But since a fatal pedestrian crash in Arizona, the company has halted testing, including in Pittsburgh, while it awaits the results of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

Meanwhile, Lyft also has a self-driving arm — just not in Pittsburgh. The company has a slew of partners including Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, GM, Waymo, nuTonomy, and Aptiv to share Lyft’s open platform.

One of those partnerships launched a self-driving pilot in Las Vegas on Thursday, TribLive reported. Aptiv, which works on autonomous technology in Pittsburgh, paired with Lyft for a pilot similar to the one Uber paused in Pittsburgh — users of Lyft’s app will be able to ride in self-driving BMWs.

In addition to partnerships, Lyft is also working on its own autonomous system in Palo Alto, Calif., where the autonomous team is based.

Would Lyft consider joining the other companies already in Pittsburgh?

If so, they aren’t telling. Per the company, the focus is on current partnerships in the self-driving space, such as pilots in Boston and Las Vegas, as well as work in Palo Alto.

Doubling the numbers

According to Huber, Lyft is seeing results in Pittsburgh — doubling ride volume, drivers and passengers in the last year. He declined to provide specific numbers for Lyft drivers in Pittsburgh. Uber, however, pointed to a Post-Gazette article that cited 5,000 Uber drivers in the Pittsburgh region as of February.

Huber pointed to a growth in ride-sharing overall, driver recruitment and retention, and service quality as reasons for that growth. Lyft will “make sure our drivers are being treated really well, and they’ll pass that on to riders.”

And the drivers that The Incline spoke to echoed that, all saying they’d noticed an increase in riders over the past year to 18 months.

But the drivers also noted negative news about Uber impacting ridership. In January 2017, Uber faced backlash in the form of the #DeleteUber movement, after lowering pricing and appearing to not support a taxi drivers’ strike spurred by President Donald Trump’s executive order that stopped the resettlement of Syrian refugees and prevented people from seven predominantly Muslim countries to enter the U.S. for 90 days.

Then, Susan Fowler published an essay in February that exposed a culture of sexual harassment within the company.

When Uber was constantly in the news, Dongilla said his ridership went from about 70 percent Uber / 30 percent Lyft, to about 50-50. Callicott also saw an uptick in Lyft rides and noted that a few riders told him they’d made the switch on purpose.

Despite the dark cloud over Uber, they still have a bit of an advantage as the more well-known company, said Mary Beth Green, founder of The FIT, LLC, a local consulting firm that gives organizations strategies to innovate and grow.

She added that an increase in marketing would be beneficial for Lyft to make the company more visible and said she’s encouraged by the company’s push for face-to-face events with drivers. If Lyft has a genuine, transparent presence, that could help them stand out, especially if they have promotional offers that compliment other options.

Green’s advice to both Uber and Lyft? Think about how ride sharing compliments other forms of local transportation and make it clear to the community how they fit in and give back.

Huber is confident that Lyft will continue to grow, adding areas for expansion, including rides to hospital appointments, rides to the suburbs and helping solve parking challenges at Ross Park Mall during the holidays.

All of that, combined with good service will lead to more growth, he said.