The Enabler: Getting a Lyft without a cab

The car service, one of several smartphone-app-based, has drivers using their own cars to pick up people and works on a donation and rating system.

May 17, 2013|By Jessica Gelt
  • Ruth Grayson is a driver for the hip new car service, Lyft.
Ruth Grayson is a driver for the hip new car service, Lyft. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

It's past midnight on Saturday and the Enabler is riding shotgun in a cherry red Honda Fit with a woman named Ruth Grayson. We're trolling the streets of Hollywood, looking for people to pick up. No, the Enabler is not desperate for a date, she is checking out a new car service called Lyft that set up shop in L.A. in January.

Lyft is part of a growing number of smartphone-app-based car services, including Uber and SideCar, that aim to fill the safe-ride gap left by traditional cabs, which can be pricey, impersonal and, quite often in Los Angeles, late. Lyft drivers aren't professional cabbies — they are mostly young and spunky, and they pick you up using their own cars (in the case of Lyft, these cars are outfitted with pink mustaches on their grills). At the end of the ride the Lyft app suggests a donation and you pay using credit card information stored in your phone.

It's scary to contemplate the number of Angelenos who drive with blood alcohol levels well above the legal limit of .08. Besides the obvious and heart-wrenching consequence of possibly hurting someone, the Automobile Club of Southern California recently reported that the cost of a first-time DUI conviction can approach $16,000. That's $15,990 more than a typical 3-mile Lyft ride.

No cash passes hands, unless, in Grayson's case, you count chocolate coins. Grayson calls her car the "Loot Lyft," and she happily distributes tasty rewards to passengers who answer Trivial Pursuit questions correctly. She also has Christmas lights in her car and keeps a variety of useful personal grooming tools on hand, much like a bathroom attendant at a fancy club.

Grayson picked up the Enabler at the Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard, which has been open since 1925 and manages to maintain a pleasing patina of Old Hollywood glamour. That glamour — defined by a sense of mystery, elegance and dignity — has been pummeled into extinction by the cellphone, the Enabler sullenly thinks while staring into the depths of her vodka and soda. Then her iPhone rings.

It's Grayson waiting outside. She greets the Enabler with the standard Lyft driver greeting — a fist bump. The Enabler doesn't fancy herself a fist-bumping kind of girl, but coming from Grayson it seems totally appropriate. It's as if she called a friend of hers to pick her up at the bar, and that's exactly the vibe Lyft is going for. Passengers are even invited to sit in the front seat.

Realizing she has never taken a ride with a female cab driver, the Enabler wonders aloud if Grayson ever gets scared picking up strangers in the city. Grayson just laughs.

"If you feel uncomfortable, you just end the Lyft," she says. "You and I rate each other at the end of the ride and if I rate you less than a three, the app will never put us together again."

(If only such an app existed for ex-boyfriends, who seem to pop up with increasing frequency at the bars the Enabler favors. But that's another column all together.)

After a night riding around with Grayson, it becomes clear that Lyft's marketing strategy, which is geared toward the young and technologically savvy, draws a relaxed and friendly demographic.

Grayson's first passenger is Campbell Paget, the singer in a rock band from New Zealand. "I don't really feel like annoying a cab driver," says Paget, adding that his friends turned him on to Lyft.

"Cab drivers are not really fans of Lyft," says Grayson.

"The drivers will stare you down and cut you off," says Paget.

"It's the mustache that sets them off," says Grayson. "To them we're infringing on the market, but to us we're serving a market they haven't figured out how to serve."

After dropping off Paget at Dragonfly on Santa Monica, Grayson picks up Brian Woods, who admits he's been drinking already and plans to drink more at a birthday party in Los Feliz.

"I've never gotten a DUI, but I've made my mistakes and I've learned from those mistakes," says Woods. "Plus Lyft is slightly cheaper than a cab."

What stops people from underpaying the suggested donation? It turns out the system registers that kind of behavior and lets Lyft drivers know if it's consistent. Be a Scrooge, and chances are the next time you request a Lyft you won't get a ride promptly, if at all.

"I usually pay $2 more than the suggested donation because it seems like the right thing to do," says Woods, whose suggested donation from Hollywood to Los Feliz is $9, with tip.

"I rate you as awesome," he says to Grayson as he gets out of her car in front of Rockwell: Table & Stage.

"And you as well," says Grayson, handing him a keepsake. "Enjoy your sticker!"

A handful of equally congenial rides later, the Enabler says goodbye to Grayson at the Virgil, a mixology bar in Silver Lake, where she enjoys the company of a whiskey neat. Home, after all, is only a Lyft away.

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