For 31 days, I ditched my car and relied on ridesharing instead. Dozens of conversations and $113 saved later, this is my story.
To say that I like to drive would be an understatement. In my small Texas hometown, I learned to drive manual by fourteen, behind the wheel of of a gloriously crappy 1985 Honda Accord. I still remember the first time I let out the clutch successfully, the gears shifting smoothly into first, the gravel of an alley crunching beneath the tires. When my crazy college friends decided to make the 20-hour drive to Chicago from Austin, I upped the ante on their crazy and offered to drive the whole way—straight. I say this not to brag, but to explain that I am perhaps not the most likely candidate to volunteer to give up my car in the name of curiosity. But just a month into my new gig as Director of SEO at The Zebra, an Austin, Texas-based startup in the digital car insurance space, I did just that.
My boss and coworkers looked at me with widened eyes. They were excited about the idea, but everyone agreed: “Better you than me,” they said. “I could never give up my car.” “I’d last a week.” But I was already a big Uber fan; I was curious about Lyft. And I was really curious to answer the question: Could I live without a car for a month, thanks to ridesharing?
The terms were unambiguous: For the entire month of January, I would use Uber and Lyft exclusively for transportation. My Volkswagen Jetta would sit idle in my apartment parking lot. I would not cheat and let my wife drive me around everywhere. I would probably be using more of Favor and Instacart. The timing was fortuitous. The on-demand economy is flourishing in Austin as it is everywhere else right now. Who knows, I thought. Maybe I might even lose a few pounds, from all those afternoon walks to coffee shops for java breaks.
So starting January 1st, 2015, I set out on my mission. Trips to and from work, grocery store runs, drinks with friends on the weekend, and everything else I needed a car for were replaced by one-way rides with strangers. I kept a log of each ride and tracked things like average wait time, cost, distance travelled, waters offered, and notes on each driver.
I also asked every driver a set of questions. Do you like working for Uber? Do you work for Lyft too? How does Uber’s insurance coverage work? Did you tell your personal insurance company that you use your car for ridesharing? Unbeknownst to them, I recorded all their responses.
I took 25 Uber rides the first half of the month and 25 Lyft rides the second half. After 50 rides, as many conversations with people from all walks of life, and a disappointing zero fist bumps offered, here are the top 5 things I learned:
1. It’s cheaper than owning a car.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d actually save money on being chauffeured around town all month. At best, I thought I’d come close to breaking even when I tallied up car ownership costs for December and compared it to ridesharing costs for the month of January. But sure enough, when the month ended and I compared costs, ridesharing was cheaper than owning a car — a lot cheaper.
After 50 rides, mostly to and from work, I ended up saving more than $100 by ridesharing everywhere for a month. I can’t present that number without also admitting that this is definitely one of the more subjective data points of the experiment, since daily commutes can vary wildly from person to person. And then of course there is my personal car information: I drive a 2010 Jetta and have a car payment of $333 per month. This is considerably less than the estimated national average of $471 a month. On the other hand, I also recognize that I live a mere 3.25 miles from work. While giving up your car and relying on ridesharing to save money may not work for everyone, it ended up being much more cost-efficient for me once the month was over.
One interesting thing to note here is early on in my experiment Uber cut price on rides. This ended up having a big impact on the cost of my Uber side of the study. Uber and Lyft costs would have come out fairly even if this had not happened. But as a result of the cuts, Uber was on average $1 cheaper per mile than Lyft. After 25 rides with each company, I ended up saving about $60 on Uber rides when compared to Lyft. Having the option to tip a Lyft driver when rating them definitely led to them being more expensive, too — but even without tipping, Lyft was overall a little more expensive than Uber’s fares.
2. Uber and Lyft are doing a good job as employers.
One of the questions I asked every driver was if they liked working for Uber or Lyft. I really wanted to see if drivers were satisfied with the company they worked for — were Uber and Lyft good to their employees? With all the bad press Uber has received recently, it’s rare you hear anything from the drivers’ perspective on the company.
Turns out, of the 50 rides I took, drivers were extremely satisfied, overall, with Uber and Lyft as employers. Lyft was a clear favorite among drivers who worked for both. Drivers praised them for various things like transparency with their policies, their mentorship program for new drivers, and the fact that riders could tip via their app. But Uber drivers also gave glowing reviews of the company. Perks drivers cited about the Uber experience included text alerts and nudges the app gave them to encourage getting out and driving during peak times, and the user interface of the app for drivers compared to Lyft’s app.
3. Uber and Lyft are a LOT alike.
Before starting this experiment, I had never taken a Lyft before. When the second half of the month arrived I was really excited to finally try them out. I had a lot of presumptions of what Lyft would be like. I had visions of fist bumps from my drivers as I got in their vehicle. I pictured the cars a little less luxurious than those of my Uber rides, but all donning that friendly bright pink mustache on front to greet me. In my mind, Uber was a lot like my sophisticated older cousin with kids, and Lyft was more like my fun younger college-aged brother—the one still trying to figure his shit out in life. While this presumption remained true for my very first Lyft ride (ask me about the story on Twitter and maybe I’ll tell you), the two services ended up being more alike than different.
In fact, Uber and Lyft ended up being almost identical experiences for me. A big part of that is likely because most ridesharing drivers drive for both companies. It turns out about 60 percent of my drivers drove for both Uber and Lyft. I estimate that number is a little bigger already, since I had a lot of Uber drivers who told me they were planning on signing up for Lyft soon, too. In a year when it seems like Uber drivers have had a ton of bad press, it’s interesting how much of an overlap there is in the employee pool. In other words: Bad people can work for both companies, they are not specific to one company over the other.
One thing Lyft drivers mentioned frequently (and something that might help Lyft filter out those “bad” drivers) was their mentorship program. Before Lyft applicants are approved to drive for the company, they must meet with an experienced Lyft driver, or mentor. The mentor sits in the passenger seat while the applicant drives them around for 30 minutes. The mentor then has to submit a rating to Lyft on the applicant as a driver and how comfortable their driver was holding a conversation. The Lyft-ers I spoke with believed this helps make sure Lyft is only picking the best drivers possible.
Another thing that always comes up in Uber vs. Lyft discussions is the comparison in the wait time for each. Is one any better than the other? This was a question I was super curious to answer during the experiment. Every time I requested a ride, I started a timer. When the driver arrived, I stopped the watch and recorded the time. After 50 rides, Uber and Lyft were almost identical in average wait time, with Lyft being just a slight bit faster. All in all, the average wait time for both was right around 4 minutes. Just four minutes! I was shocked: In less time than it takes to walk the dog in the morning, you can catch an Uber or Lyft.
4. Insurance is a mess.
Because we compare car insurance companies, we were of course interested in the intersection of insurance and ridesharing. Although many people (nearly all of the drivers I hitched rides with) don’t work for Uber or Lyft full time, offering a ride in your car for money does make you a delivery service, and in the eyes of your car insurance company, that means you need commercial insurance. That being said, insurance companies recognize that ridesharing is forging new territory, so it’s a landscape that’s changing incredibly rapidly.
Quoted’s editor recently explained the car-insurance-and-ridesharing dilemma in a prominent industry blog: “As more and more drivers take on working for Uber and Lyft as part-time income, insurance companies are becoming increasingly wise to the fact that people are relying on personal policies to cover commercial work. Eventually, I bet we’ll see some kind of hybrid policy developed by insurers, but the current model doesn’t seem sustainable to me.”
In the weeks since that post was published, USAA and GEICO have made headlines for piloting hybrid insurance programs developed specifically for rideshare drivers. But for now, those programs are still just pilots, and regulation is still a mess. Insurance-wise, you’re covered by Uber and Lyft as long as you’ve got a rider, but not all rideshare drivers understand that if you don’t have a rider, your own personal insurance is supposed to be the first line of defense. That puts them in a gray area, and it’s a particularly murky one: I feel like I only understand the way it works fully because I work here.
So during the month of January I asked them, and it turns out, the vast majority of drivers (in the Austin area, anyway) don’t understand how insurance works for Uber and Lyft. On top of that, a whopping 92 percent of them hadn’t told their insurance companies about their gigs. To me, that’s just further proof that some new insurance product is going to be absolutely necessary for rideshare drivers—and soon.
5. It’s convenient—but it doesn’t replace owning a car.
In just about four minutes (see above), you can have a Lyft or Uber at your doorstep ready to pick you up and take you anywhere you like. It’s cheaper than a cab. There is no need for cash with either — all you need is your phone. You never need to pay for downtown parking or valet. You can grab drinks after work and not panic about getting behind the wheel of a car. You can text and check emails during your daily commute—the ultimate commute lifehack, amirite? There’s no arguing it; Uber and Lyft are revolutionary. They are changing the way we get around. But no matter what they offer in convenience, for this rider anyway, they do not replace owning a car.
After doing this experiment, I realized that having the flexibility to go anywhere at any point in my own car was something that’s hard to put a price tag on. Giving up my car and relying solely on Lyft and Uber was a little restricting, to say the least. On cold and rainy days, this feeling was even more exaggerated. While I’m fortunate to work in an area that is near lunch options, I had to make sure I brought lunch with me most days. I also couldn’t really run errands very easily and had to rely on Amazon Prime for getting some household goods and necessities. (On the plus side, though, I also got a break from my monthly routine of walking into Target for paper towels and walking out $150 poorer.)
But there’s something more, something other people have written about far more eloquently than I can: There is an element to just getting in my car and driving around that’s very therapeutic. I didn’t fully realize this until February 1, when I was finally able to drive again. That first day back was one of those gorgeous Austin days that makes everyone who doesn’t live here want to move here. I hopped in my Volkswagen, rolled the windows down, and headed South on Mopac. I took a big loop around the city, driving down streets I don’t normally take, shifting gears, feeling the car I own beneath me and the city I live in around me. Ridesharing may work on just about every practical level, but driving is an emotional experience, too—one I wouldn’t want to give up.
Here’s a recap of what I learned in the study:
|Average Wait Time||4 mins, 16 seconds||4 minutes, 10 seconds|
|Cost Per Mile||$3.20||$4.20|
|Drivers Work For Both Companies||40%||76%|
|Drivers Know How Insurance Works||36%||20%|