Lyft, one of San Francisco's most beloved new apps, isn't a bad idea if you think about it very briefly: the city's transit service isn't great, so let's make it easy to pay for a ride from your fellow man. But, surprise, when you let almost anyone be a cab driver, your fellow man is going to creep you the hell out.
There are standards you have to meet before you can drive a pseudo-taxi, unregulated by the city: "As long as you are friendly and have a car and a clean record, you can drive on the Lyft platform," according to the site. If those standards seem low, it's because Lyft seems to want friendly drivers above all: the company tries to cultivate a chummy "community" aspect to a service that's basically Casual Uber, encouraging passengers to ride shotgun instead of in the back, greet their drivers with a fist bump, and pay a "suggested donation" instead of a "fare." The website touts the possibility of becoming buds as a feature: "maybe you're picking up your next best friend," Lyft winks on its press page.
Best friends. Or maybe you're being picked up by this guy, who a reader encountered earlier this year:
I got in his Lyft and he seemed normal. Told him I was going to NYC in a few weeks and staying in BK. Just small talk, and whatever. Got to my destination and he pulled over and parked, and asked if I would like to hang out some time, and I felt really uncomfortable being put on the spot so I gave him my number and bounced. He texted me later that day and I didn't respond and I pretty much ignored him. THEN, Tuesday is when those texts started.
Did they ever!
OK, so yes, it was probably a mistake for our tipster to ever reply to this guy in the first place—but surely she didn't expect the deluge and fake cancer claim that followed. She also probably thought he'd be like every other mostly cool, mostly normal driver she'd hopped in with. Fortunately, Lyft was responsive to her complaints: "I've had nothing but positive experiences with Lyft (minus this guy), and I even contacted them and said I never wanted this guy to pick me up again and they also refunded my ride." They did the right thing. They also seem to know that this has happened before, according to a Lyft driver who spoke to me:
In the beginning [Lyft drivers had access to passenger numbers] until a bunch of drivers started saving numbers and stalking chicks. Now all numbers are masked. Not sure how it exactly works, but neither driver or passenger numbers are released.
The friend fantasy is already fading.
But even if this kind of unwanted attention is a rarity, it can't be a surprising rarity: the service wants to erase the line between The Person Who Drives The Cab and The Person Who Rides The Cab. Good! We shouldn't treat people behind the wheel like worker robots. But the big risk of Silicon Valley's good vibes utopia delusion is that the person playing the role of your friend with a car isn't your friend. You're not their buddy—you're a paying hitchhiker with a smartphone. The world as described in a startup elevator pitch, wherein everyone can share everyone's car or apartment without risk is a fantasy. San Francisco, like the rest of our planet is a human crapshoot: the guy who picks you up with a fistbump could turn out to be a kind, interesting stranger, or a complete nutcase—and if the latter comes true, you're stuck in the front seat.
Lyft has not responded to an email inquiring about its customer feedback or vetting process.