“I drove for Uber for two years, but now I’m only with this one,” Chaudry Akram said as he cruised east on Canal Street under a moonlit sky. The “this one” he was referring to is Lyft, the only credible rival to Uber in New York’s ongoing war for app-based car-service supremacy. Akram has been taking Lyft hails for just over a month, and now he freely hurls spite toward Uber’s customers and management: “It’s a big mess over there.”
Akram’s far from alone in his resentment. Ever since Lyft arrived in New York in July, it’s picked up drivers who had previously worked for Uber — and because those drivers are independent contractors, they’re free to work for both companies. In the past month, I took rides with a random sampling of ten drivers who’ve worked with both Lyft and Uber, and asked each of them which company they preferred. (The methodology was pretty basic: I hailed Lyft rides and asked the drivers if they’d also driven for Uber. If they had, I interviewed them about their experiences. For what it’s worth, the rides were all in Brooklyn and Manhattan.)
There was an overwhelming consensus. Of all the drivers, only one said he preferred Uber over Lyft. The other nine had an array of grievances about Uber, ranging from the financial to the personal. Eight explicitly expressed a preference for working for Lyft.
Many drivers railed against Uber’s notoriously strict rating system, going so far as to say it makes them fear their own passengers. Both Lyft and Uber ask riders to rate their drivers on a scale of one to five. But Uber often severs relations with drivers whose average ratings get too low (there’s no official cutoff, but the consensus was that you don’t want to drop below a 4.7). The drivers said they have no way to fight back when Uber riders give them low ratings for things a driver has no control over.
“Lyft won’t terminate your contract just like that because you had one or two bad ratings, but Uber, they’re very strict,” said one driver who — like many others — asked to remain anonymous for fear of angering Uber. “Nine out of ten times, it’s the foreigners that aren’t good at speaking English that frustrate a customer. If they’re trying to get somewhere and the language is a barrier, it’s difficult. They don’t mean to give the driver a bad [average] rating. But based on communication skills, they’re giving you the rating on that.”
“With Uber, the customer will complain about the drivers and then they fire the drivers a lot, right away, they fire,” said Muhammad Ali, who’s driven with Uber for two years and started with Lyft last month. “They say, ‘You need to go fast!’ And I cannot go faster! If we go fast, you get a ticket!” Ali fears such incidents, because they lead to low ratings, but he noted that Lyft passengers “never complain about that — they never say ‘go faster.’”
Akram thinks Lyft passengers are easier to deal with because Lyft hasn’t become as widely used as Uber yet. Uber says they currently have “millions of riders” in New York, and although Lyft wouldn’t give an official number of riders, it’s certainly not in the millions. The way Akram sees it, more Uber users means a higher likelihood that you’ll get a verbally abusive passenger.
“Uber is like a taxi now and people are not friendly anymore,” Akram said. “One guy, I pick up on 44th Street and he says, ‘I’m going to fuckin’ Crown Heights. Fuck the app. I’ll pay you $60.’ And I say, ‘What are you talking about? No, that’s not a $60 ride.’ And every time, he started using the F-word. Then I refused. I canceled the ride and just said, ‘Get out or I’ll call a cop.’”
That was the beginning of the end for Akram. “This guy, after that, he complains [to Uber], says, ‘Your driver canceled the ride, he did this, he did that.’ And they reduced my rating. Other times, twice, three times, I had the same happen. I felt one day, they’ll tell me, ‘Your account is deactivated.’ So I say, Before they deactivate me, I’ll leave them.”
But the most common complaint from drivers was a simple one: You can’t tip with Uber. After each ride, the Lyft app prompts passengers to tip their drivers, allowing users to tap buttons that offer gratuities of $1, $2, $5, or an amount of the user’s choosing. Uber, on the other hand, has no tipping in its app — a fact lost on many riders but acutely obvious for drivers.
“They have tips on Lyft, and it’s a big difference,” said one driver who started using Lyft last month and had been with Uber for two. “It can be $50 to $100 a week.”
“Lyft and Uber, the [base fares] are almost the same thing,” said another driver. “But at least you get to get your tips on Lyft.”
Uber says tipping isn’t part of its philosophy. “With Uber, there is no need to tip,” a spokesperson told me in an email. “Riders choose Uber for a seamless experience — a cashless and hassle-free ride. However, if a rider absolutely insists on providing an additional cash tip, drivers are of course free to accept it.”
Another driver, one who says he’s worked with Uber since its first days in New York, finds that kind of explanation infuriating. He drew a contrast with Uber’s recent announcement of a feature that allows passengers to take control of a driver’s stereo in order to play their own Spotify playlists. “If you could do that,” he said, “you could also say, ‘Here’s a line item to tip the driver!’”
Despite their complaints, most drivers are still hedging their bets and driving for both Uber and Lyft. Only Akram and one other driver have completely jumped ship to the new kid in town. Using both services can maximize income, but drivers also pointed out that Lyft, while preferable, is far from perfect.
“When I turn on both the apps, I get more jobs from Uber,” said one driver who’s used Uber for eight months and Lyft for six. He also complained that Lyft’s app doesn’t warn a driver beforehand if surge pricing is in effect for a given ride until after the ride is over, a problem he doesn’t experience with Uber’s app. Another driver, Dian Jiang, said he prefers Uber over Lyft simply because he makes more money overall on Uber rides. Incremental differences outside of that didn’t matter to him.
What’s more, some of those differences are disappearing. Until two weeks ago, Lyft boasted a major cost-saving element for drivers: You could pick up hails using your own phone, whereas Uber required you to put down a $300 deposit in order to use a special Uber iPhone, then pay for its data plan. But as of November 25, Uber drivers can now take hails on their own phones — and can return old Uber iPhones for a full refund. And last month, Lyft raised its commission on each fare — previously about 10 percent lower than Uber’s commission — to roughly the same level as Uber’s.
With all that in mind, drivers who prefer Lyft to Uber fear what success might mean for Lyft.
“At Lyft, there are people who gave me their cards and said to call if I had a problem,” one longtime driver of both Uber and Lyft said. “They’d call to make sure I was okay. Of course, that’s how everything is, in the beginning.”