To hear Charlotte Munoz tell the story, you’d barely know she was working. The curly-haired Ph.D student was behind the wheel at a drive-through, waiting for tacos with her passengers. The man in the backseat, who’d been drinking, was trying to whisper to his friend, riding shotgun.
“The guy was like, ‘Dude, I think she’s your soul mate.’ The guy in front was like ‘Who is?!’ And he was like, ‘Charlotte. I think our driver is your soul mate.’” Munoz laughs. “And I was like, ‘I already have a soul mate.’”
Munoz and her soul mate (read: husband) take turns driving their gray Toyota sedan for Lyft, the ride-share service causing pink mustaches to seemingly sprout from the grills of cars around Nashville.
Lyft just expanded into the city late last year, along with its competitor, Uber. The two San Francisco-based tech firms use smartphone apps to connect drivers with people who need a ride and have a credit card.
She Says It Beats Waiting Tables
Rolling up one bright December morning, Munoz wore Ray-Ban sunglasses and a fuzzy red snow cap. She’s working on a doctorate at Vanderbilt’s Peabody school to do with how math is taught.
Partly because that dominates her schedule, and partly because she values the spirit of hospitality, she and her husband are into offbeat ways to earn some cash on the side while sharing kindness with strangers. (They also rent out a room in their house through the app Airbnb: “Lyft is ride-share,” she explains. “Airbnb is home-share.”)
“Primarily we’re looking for help for the car payment and stuff like that, and for as few hours as I’m able to work at a time, I feel like it’s really—It’s good.”
Munoz says driving for Lyft beats out a job like waiting tables. She doesn’t have a boss or rigid schedule, and she sets her own playlist—a mix of sing-along pop ranging from the Jackson Five to Britney Spears.
‘Not A Creeper’
While routinely welcoming strangers into her car, Munoz doesn’t worry about potential maniacs, or even sick drunks.
“For one, I’m a statistics kind of person. And statistically, I just don’t buy that something bad like that will happen to me,” she says. “Another thing, as far as like, oh, no, what if somebody yaks in my backseat? Well, Lyft will take care of me. And they’ll reimburse me for the cleaning, and also help take care of me for the hours that I would’ve lost that night.”
In riding along with Munoz, nothing like that came up. Instead, she ferried a fellow Peabody student name Diana Morris, who shared her sense that it’s safe:
“I think the good thing about Lyft is I think they vet it on their side, to make sure the person has a good driving record, that they’re not a creeper trying to steal random people and take them places.”
Lyft screens drivers’ history for red flags, like DUIs. Applicants have to send in pictures of the car they’ll be driving. There’s a phone interview, training videos online, even riding with a Lyft mentor. And for passengers, it’s not exactly anonymous either, since just to install the app, it has to connect to a Facebook account and credit card.
In fact, the app keeps almost eerily close track of what’s going on; for instance, if a driver forgets to set the meter, the app can look back and see how long the driver and passenger’s phones were moving side by side, and work out the fare that way.
The fare, as far as Lyft’s terms of service outside California are concerned, is a “donation,” not a fee. In other words, paying is voluntary, although if a customer doesn’t go into the app and adjust payment when the ride ends, the suggested fare is automatically charged.
Technically, a Lyft passenger has the option to “donate” zero dollars, though then the driver might say so in a review, which would make it harder to get rides later on.
In Nashville, the company has tinkered with giving free credit to lure in new customers, which it says has been successful. Officials did not answer questions about the number of drivers, rides, etc.
Co-founder John Zimmer says really, he wants payment to be an afterthought. To him, the point of Lyft is to work toward a world where people don’t drive around with quite so many empty seats in the car, as they often do now. If it’s done right, he says such efforts could save people money, help them make new friends, and, he hopes, burn less gas.
“The transactional nature of, hey, I need to give someone a few bucks for that ride, we’ve really tried to remove that from the experience by having it in the app, after the ride is complete.”
Ride-shares have their critics. Cabbies see the competition as unfair, pointing, for instance, to the limit on the number of taxis in Metro. And cab fees are regulated, whereas when ride-shares are in high demand, say, after New Year’s Eve celebrations, or during a snow storm, their rates can skyrocket. That’s led to accusations of price gouging.
There are also questions over whose car insurance kicks in, if there’s an accident, since a driver’s personal coverage might not apply if the carrier instead equates driving for Lyft to working commercially. (Zimmer insists that’s overblown, pointing to Lyft’s own liability policy for such cases.)
Not that any of that pushback seems to be hurting business in Nashville, if the flourish of pink mustaches is any indicator.