Test riding Sidecar and Lyft, the Coke and Pepsi of ride sharing

There's no mistaking a Lyft driver's pink mustached car. (Photo by Lyft driver Chris Glosecki)

There’s no mistaking a Lyft driver’s pink mustached car. (Photo by Lyft driver Chris Glosecki)

Seattleites don’t just have an option of catching a cheap ride from a stranger with a smartphone app.

We have a choice.

Lyft launched its ride sharing service in Seattle last week, joining direct competitor Sidecar in a battle for the city’s thrifty, mobile, smartphone-wielding crowd.

With most apps I use, one service is so far ahead of the pack that there’s no contest. Not here. Uber is rolling out its lower cost UberX service in Seattle and says it wants a piece of the ride sharing pie. But it’s Sidecar and Lyft that are leading the way for social, questionably sanctioned hop-in-my-car transportation.

I thought I’d be struck by the differences when I gave the two services a test ride this week. I wasn’t. That’s because despite cosmetics and one key split in how riders connect with drivers, Sidecar and Lyft are two strong versions of the same new thing. And that thing was pleasant. Even fun.

“Can you bring mace?” my husband asked when I told him I was doing this. Nah. Both services interview their drivers, check their records and run background checks. Maybe I’m more trusting than most. But that was good enough for me.

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I reached for the back door when my Sidecar driver, Curtis, pulled up in his Ford Fusion. With a laugh, he invited me to the front. I didn’t make the same mistake with Lyft. That’s part of the selling point with both these apps — sit up front and have a chat. I get carsick checking my phone in the back of cabs because I have nothing better to do. This was a nice change. I left both rides smiling, and it made the rides more casual.

And I mean casual. Curtis took me from University Village in the University District to lunch at the Brave Horse Tavern in South Lake Union. My Lyft driver, Michael, took me back. Both made the kind of small mistakes a friend could make, but a cab driver never would. Michael missed the turn to University Village. Curtis forgot to get on I-5 and took me on the scenic route. In both cases, we laughed it off. I was in no rush, and both guys were a blast to talk to.

The apps look so alike that using one makes you more familiar with the other. In both cases you download the app, enter your credit card info, and go to a live map screen where you can request a driver.

Here’s where that key difference comes in, and it’s a big one — visibility.

Both apps ask for your pick-up spot — presumably your current location — but only Sidecar asks for your destination. That does two things. It gives drivers more information about your ride, in case they’d rather pass, and it gives you a sneak peek at the suggested “donation” you’ll pay for the ride before you confirm the request.

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Sidecar also lets you see the available drivers’ names, photos and star ratings and request a particular driver, even if he or she isn’t the closest one to you. On Quora, Sidecar CEO Sunil Paul compared Sidecar to Match.com and “dispatching” services like Lyft to “arranged marriage.” Practically, it’s not so dramatic. Drivers get kicked out if they’re no good. Sidecar gives you more choice, but also more work.

Then there’s this: At the end of your ride, both apps ask you to rate the driver, and the driver to rate you. Sidecar drivers can see what you paid when you pay it; Lyft drivers don’t until they get a daily donation summary later on.

A Lyft spokeswoman said the company wants drivers to rate you on the experience, not how well you pay. The same ends up being true of Sidecar, though if you pay immediately when the ride is over, a Sidecar driver could technically see the donation before they rate you. That hardly ever happens. Either way, not paying is not good. Curtis, who’s given a record 450+ Sidecar rides in Seattle, told me about a woman who took multiple long rides but never paid. She was eventually blacklisted from the service. He didn’t say if she was nice. (Update: I changed this paragraph after hearing from Sidecar drivers in the comments and checking in with a Sidecar rep. Earlier I’d implied Sidecar drivers might easily rate riders after knowing what they’d paid. Turns out that’s rare.)

It was clear enough on my rides that Lyft has the marketing advantage. I complimented Curtis on the small heart-shaped sticker he had on his windshield. Turns out it’s supposed to help identify Sidecar cars. Other drivers use bigger stickers, but Curtis said he prefers to drive “incognito.”

Lyft drivers, meanwhile, can’t say no to the pink mustache. The fuzzy monstrosity on the front of Michael’s Mazda M6 turned heads in South Lake Union’s busy lunchtime rush.

“Sometimes they stop in the middle of the street to take pictures,” Michael said.

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If the services compete for customers, they’re united against regulators. I mentioned that Lyft and Sidecar are “questionably sanctioned.” Truth is, I have no idea how to describe their status in Seattle or anywhere. Even the city doesn’t know. Seattle City Council President Sally Clark admitted to The Stranger this month that services like Sidecar and Lyft are probably subject to for-hire regulation, but the city hasn’t figured out how. The California Public Utilities Commission has had the most time to deal with the services. But even they’re still scratching their heads.

Both Sidecar and Lyft insist they’re legit as is. Their drivers aren’t employees but volunteers. Rider payment isn’t a mandatory fee but a voluntary “donation.”

Curtis quit his job as a car salesman to drive Sidecar full time. Michael, a bartender, saw Lyft driver ads while job hunting and gets his shifts a week in advance. As for not paying, it’s an option, but who’s going to take it?

Sidecar and Lyft launched in San Francisco last summer. Sidecar landed in Seattle in November. Lyft’s been here a whole week. Too fast for the bureaucrats?

They’re still on the road. I guess that’s what matters.

I’d be shocked if either company had to retract its model over regulations. It makes too much sense. More likely, regulations will change to accommodate them.

I have a car and wouldn’t need these services often. When I do, I’d say I prefer Sidecar’s visibility, but I like Lyft’s spirit. Coke one day. Pepsi the next.

They get me somewhere for cheap and make the ride interesting.

The rest is pretty casual.

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist, freelance journalist and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • Jefferson

    One difference between the services: Lyft requires you to sign in via a Facebook account and Sidecar does not. It may seem trivial but is important for people who don’t have a Facebook account or want their commercial transactions tracked by Facebook.
    I became a Sidecar driver when the service was first announced on Geekwire since it was billed a “ridesharing” service. I figured that it would be nice to offer a ride if someone was heading in the same direction that I was. However, emails from the Seattle manager portrayed it as an alternative to a car service like Uber or a taxi, complete with scheduling shifts for drivers and offering incentives to drive during particular time windows. That seems a little different than ridesharing.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I’ve seen references to that idea of drivers giving rides to people “going the same way” — thus asking for people’s destination before request a driver. But I wonder how often that happens when many drivers drive in shifts, much like cab drivers would. When Curtis came to pick me up at U Village, he was near downtown. He drove up to the U District then went back down to South Lake Union to drop me off.

      • Jefferson

        Sorry, should have been more clear. I interpreted a “ridesharing” service as a means to connect people who want to carpool out of courtesy, not as a for-profit business opportunity for drivers.

        • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

          Gotcha. The companies, of course, also get a cut. Drivers get 80 percent, the companies 20 percent. Lyft did tell me, though, that during the initial launch, drivers are keeping 100 percent of donations.

      • Jaques

        Lyft specifically requires drivers to sign up for blocks of time by the hour and then penalizes those drivers if they break their assignments within 24 hours of the shift. They also prevent drivers from going online to accept ride requests unless they’re signed up for a shift. This is essentially the same model which is used by the City in it’s limitation of available taxi medallions.

        SideCar allows drivers to go online at any time and is conducive to picking up passengers on one’s ordinary commute if they’re going the same way. They also don’t have guidelines which direct drivers to keep all seats and also the trunk clear of cargo, which Lyft does.

        Both of these services bill themselves as “ridesharing platforms” but only one gives the driver a clear choice prior to accepting a ride request from a passenger. This is significant and there is a bright line between the two, however similar the experience may taste from the perspective of the passenger.

        • Driver for both

          Lyft also allows drivers to go into driver mode at any time. The ‘shifts’ you talk about are for people who want to have a set schedule/shift. Drivers are asked that if they do that, cancel them before 24 hrs to not take another drivers spot. There is no penalizing, just accountability. If you signed up before hand you get priority for those hours and if you get kicked out bc you didn’t sign up, you can always go in real time and select that hour. This is what is great about lyft, want a schedule? Have it. Don’t want it, don’t have it. And they balance the drivers on the road unlike sidecar where you might on the road with 50 other drivers which sucks bc you won’t make money. Also, you have ‘fight’ for those requests vs lyft goes one by one to the drivers based on location. Go on the sidecar driver lounge vs the lyft driver lounge (only drivers can do this) and you’ll see waaaay more ranting on sidecars and only positive things on lyft (with te exception of a few complaints here and there)

    • ChetCrunch

      The “pick me up if you’re headed in the same direction” model would be fantastic, but realistically would take an absurd amount of “volunteers” and coincidence to actually function the way that people relying on a service like this would need it to. I imagine the language is currently structured around this hiring loophole that they’re jumping through, and until the regulations are moved around to fit the service it’ll probably stay that way.

      • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

        That’s my suspicion, too. Logistically, the whole “it’s just on the way” thing isn’t really feasible.

        • lee colleton

          More HOV lanes could help: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slugging

          • eech1234

            Slugging works only during peak times (commute hours) and on key routes (popular suburbs to downtown). It doesn’t work so well if you want to go to costco at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon and want to get a ride with someone.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=673747912 Michael Kostin

      While it is true that Lyft requires a sign in via Facebook, to the best of my knowledge, no financial transactions in the Lyft app are shared with Facebook. The Lyft app does not post to Facebook at all, and the only information taken from Facebook into the Lyft app is a person’s name and their Facebook profile photo so that Lyft drivers can know who they are picking up (although that does not always work since not everyone uses an actual photo for their profile photo).

      An overwhelming majority of people that have smartphones also have Facebook accounts, as well as have the Facebook app installed on their phone, so I really do not see what the big deal is about requiring a Facebook login. I find it rather amusing that people are paranoid about Facebook tracking, and yet will use grocery store loyalty discount cards (which, by the way, tracks all your purchases), and credit/debit cards at most retailers (which also tracks all your purchases). The only true way of avoiding financial tracking of any kind is to only use cash.

      • Kris Noel

        That’s not the point. People shouldn’t be FORCED to use social media for something that has nothing to do with social media. It’s invasion of privacy and borderline id theft. I created this anon profile for that. None of their damn business!

        • Michael Kostin

          The sad reality is that more and more services are requiring a login via some form of social media, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc., and with Facebook being the dominant social media platform, that is the one most companies default to.

          No one is forced to use Lyft. Using Lyft is a choice, and part of that choice is logging in through a Facebook profile. It prevents people from abusing the system, and provides Lyft drivers a small amount of security about the riders they are picking up.

          There are other options out there (Sidecar & Uber X/Black/SUV). Even so, both of those services also require the use of a debit/credit card, which as I mentioned already, tracks all purchases, and all three companies retain records of your trip history.

          If you are truly concerned about privacy, your best option is to not be online at all, to not use any of these services (stick to using public transportation and/or taxis), and to only use cash.

          • Kris Noel

            at michael, no, its an asshole move to force any social media, and the smart consumer will have a fake account. it also allows discrimination, for example if someone is a race not liked by the other person, no pick up or ride. fuck facebook

          • Michael Kostin

            You are not making any kind of sense. No one is forcing anyone to do anything that they do not want to do. If you do not want to use a Facebook login, then do not use Lyft. It’s as simple as that. When you choose to use these services, which are optional by the way, you choose to abide by their terms of service, whatever they may be. There is no forcing of any kind. You have other options.

            At this point, I will bow out of this conversation, and wish you a good day.

  • ChetCrunch

    Great write-up Monica! I was actually really curious as to the differences in experience, and I haven’t had the opportunity to try the services yet. Lyft did give me a free 30 minutes at the Tech Meetup the other night though, so they’re likely to have the first opportunity to win my loyalty! I’d also be interested to hear about the differences in experience from the drivers perspective. :)

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      That would be a good perspective to get. Both my drivers seemed to like the experience. Curtis, of Sidecar, told me he really loved it. It’s his way of “going out without going out,” he said. Maybe he can join the thread and fill us in :)

    • http://twitter.com/curtislui Curtis Lui

      I’ve been driving for Sidecar for a few months now. I can’t tell you how Lyft differs from Sidecar (Lyft has only been in Seattle for a short time.), but I can tell you want being a driver for Sidecar means to me.

      Driving for Sidecar is about connections. May it be that rider that is running late to his/her dance class or a group of friends heading out to dinner.

      • http://twitter.com/curtislui Curtis Lui

        Also want to add: You should never do anything you hate. I was in a job that I hated and Sidecar was there to give me the flexibility to concentrate on my other business interests.

        • ChetCrunch

          Thanks for sharing Curtis, glad to hear your experience has been so positive. If I was Sidecar, I’d be paying you a little bit extra to keep being a great ambassador here in Seattle! I’d still be interested in hearing about how this is similar/different from the perspective of a Lyft driver!

        • Kris Noel

          It doesn’t reduce traffic because it’s the same as a cab. It’s nit real ride sharing

          • Kerry Flood-Mellen

            Kris, whether this is ridesharing depends on the individual drivers. I work full-time but my husband is in school and only works part-time. While I would not take on working for a company like Lyft or Sidecar as a traditional part-time job to supplement my income, I am considering driving for Lyft (I live in Cleveland, Ohio and this type of service is just breaking into our market via Lyft, I don’t think Sidecar has a presence here yet) for those times when I am going somewhere and would be more than happy to drive someone somewhere even if it’s a little out of my way. I think that was the original concept of these companies, but has evolved as drivers have figured out a way to make a living this way.
            For those who do use this for ridesharing, this very well could help reduce traffic. Even if it reduces traffic by 1%, that’s better than a zero reduction or an increase for that matter.
            I also think your complaint about having to use Facebook to use services like Lyft or Sidecar is moot. Like others have said, nobody is forcing you to use Lyft or Sidecar and if you really wanted to, you would comply with the requirements to use the service. If someone wants to be an approved Lyft passenger, he or she must sign in with Facebook. I am all for privacy but at the same time, anonymity can lead to undesirable consequences too.

  • http://twitter.com/TySpace Tyler Riggs

    Great write up. One clarification: I am a driver for Sidecar, and we rate passengers before seeing the donation. I think the article may imply that we give ratings after seeing what donations are given to us (kind of like eBay where there is a culture of users giving ratings after getting ratings). Once I end a ride, I am immediately prompted to rate the passenger before continuing to drive. This is the way it should be, as it makes the ratings authentic and not “pay for ratings.”

    Ridesharing is great. I’ve really enjoyed it as a driver, and have also enjoyed being a passenger. Regardless of the service you choose to use, ride sharing > cabs.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Thanks for that. Alex at Sidecar told me drivers can see the donation as soon as it’s made. Lyft reports the donations to drivers in a kind of daily digest. Do you check out the donation right after you make your rating, then? Does it matter much to you to check as you go about your rides, or leave it to the end of the day?

      • lee colleton

        Hi Monica, I’m also a SideCar driver.

        The passenger isn’t able to select a donation amount until after the driver has rated the passenger and closed the ride. This is specifically designed to prevent a bias in the rating based on the level of donation or lack thereof. However, a driver may go back and block a passenger at any time which doesn’t affect their rating.

        I usually check my donation rates after a weekend of driving or when I’m curious about a specific ride. The percentage above or below the recommended amount is another good signal of how well I’m doing as a driver, aside from the rating system. Stars are cheap, though the road to them is hard.

        • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

          Thanks, Lee. I’m checking with Alex about this and may update the story to clarify, if the “rate after they pay” essentially applies to both services.

      • http://twitter.com/curtislui Curtis Lui

        As others have stated, we rate a passenger once the rides is over and we do not gauge this based on how much they donate, but on the experience of the ride. This is to prevent bias on the driver and passenger.

        As for the passenger that was blacklisted, she was rare poor experience that only occurs +450 out of the 1 rides I have given.

    • http://www.facebook.com/andru Andru Edwards

      Yep, this is true. SideCar drivers do not see the donation amount prior to rating a rider.

      • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

        Thanks. I updated the post. According to Alex, SideCar Seattle rep, it is possible but very rare. Essentially, both SC and Lyft drivers rate before you donate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brothenberg Brett Rothenberg

    Left out UberX, Instantcab and all the other ones spinning up. All powered by unregulated, un-drug tested, no commercial insurance, no airport permits, no drivers license connections apps that take no responsibility for what happens in the real world and have spent half their legal fees on the $1mm insurance policy and the lawyers denying responsibility for any real life actions, let the app wars begin.

  • Mylk.me

    Tired of drinking the same old “homogenized” (boring!) “pasteurized” (who cares?) “milk” from an old smelly cow?

    Try Mylk, the new sharing platform that allows friends to come together to share milk and milk-like substances!

    TERMS OF SERVICE: Mylk does not represent its product as actual milk. You and those you share Mylk with accept all risks of the transaction including obesity, weight loss, heart palpitations, sudden death, slow death, and death from radiation poisoning. For a full list, see mylk.me/terms.

    • Ansh Narula

      stupid as a stupid does

  • Josie

    I’m more of an Uber gal but if I have used SideCar and it’s been absolutely great. I wont ride in a Lyft because it feels forced – the whole mustache (come on, can this trend be OVER, finally?) and fist pump made me feel like I was being sold to. It didn’t feel authentic or real. I don’t want an actor for my driver – I want someone real who can get me to point A to B. That’s why I like Uber drivers and SideCar – they are run by real people not co-eds who think fist pumping and the Jersey Shore is cute.

  • http://twitter.com/cabmatch CabMatch
  • Fred

    I agree about whole “ridesharing” idea. How is this any different in terms of “green”ness than simply calling a cab? It’s not. It’s still a car coming from god-knows-where to pick me and take me wherever, guzzling gas just for me the whole time. I understand that it’s not feasible to have a service that simply finds cars already going my way (like hitchhiking) but that’s what “ridesharing” says to me. These services are as enviromentally unfriendly as cabs are. The whole idea that they are “volunteers” and these are “donations” is just ridiculous. If they were volunteers, people wouldn’t be quitting their paying jobs to do it.

    • DeSoto Driver

      Actually, in terms of greenness the SF Cab industry was rated #1 in the country as a result of Newsome’s hybridization campaign. The cost of buying all those hybrids was passed on to the taxi drivers. We pay an extra $7.50 per shift to use hybrids, a fee without an expiration date.

    • Vince Sidecar

      It’s more green because as demand for rides increase in an all-cab environment, you simply need more cabs. In a city like LA where it’s impractical for much of the city to be carless, we’re repurposing existing resources. I already have a car that presumably wasn’t doing anything rather than making a whole new cab to do nothing but serve as a cab.

  • Laura James

    Late to the party but since this article is one that comes up regularly when researching the two companies I wanted to put my 2 cents in. I drive for both
    (tho not at the same time:)

    I do like that Sidecar lets me look at my account/$ anytime I want. I like that they allow me to work anytime I want with no penalties, even just an hour. I like that Sidecar lets me choose a radius in which I want to drive. It moves with me as I give rides so I am usually nearby (usually set at 1-2 miles). I like that Sidecar lets me choose rides based on the destination (especially that last one of the day that is on my way home:)

    With Lyft you may pick riders up near where you are but you may have to go all the way back across town. I like that Lyft lets you set what you’ll accept as a minimum donation. Most drivers set it at 90%. If the rider donates lower than that then you simply won’t be paired with them again. That means as a rider if you are a habitual low donator then you may find that there are usually no drivers available for you when you want a ride. Nice way to regulate things without blacklisting someone. It’s all about accountability. Lyft has even more accountability for the driver. If you set a schedule and don’t work it’s bad. If you don’t accept every ride they send you it’s going to ding your reliability performance percentages. Which could affect your ability to schedule prime hours. So there is a lot to learn with Lyft and there is a lot of fiddling around until you figure out when and how often you want to work.

    So as a driver, I would say, both have slightly different philosophies and cultures but both are pretty easy to work for once you get the hang of how their driver apps work. Sidecar just gave us orange mirror covers to help passengers with visibility. No matter what I think of the crazy pink mustache most of my passengers love it! Go figure:})

    • Lisa Meyer

      I have a challenge for you drivers! My husband is mostly blind and certainly not able to drive. He carpools to work when he has to go in but if he has to go somewhere else, he usually uses several buses or a cab. I’m very happy to post reviews for how your various companies or drivers compare if you take him around.

      • Guest

        Do you plan on having him pay for the rides?

  • DeSoto Driver

    The saddest thing about Lyft, Sidecar, and other “evolved” non-professional rideshare services is that the extent of the hoodwink and drinking of the tech-industry kool-aide will likely only be dispelled when someone is killed in an accident and the publicity generated from that sheds light on the fact that the “insurance” held by Lyft is nothing short of a sham — if it is in fact one million dollars (and not just a million in the pocket of the PUC) it’s at most a million dollars in total, that’s it for covering everyone, NOT a million dollars PER passenger like you have in a cab. There have already been some serious accidents, just without fatalities: a motorcyclist slammed into on Lombard when the Lyft driver ran a red, a bicyclist hit in the mission. Accidents happen. It’s only a matter of time.

    If you want to order a professional, fully insured and protected ride via your smartphone, try the Flywheel app. There’s even a coupon going around for $10 off your fare: the code for that is NHH29J (can be used once per person).

    At least until the owners of these app-based rideshare services fess up and pay for the full professional driving coverage that the public deserves, you’re risking life and limb, literally, if you hail a ride in one of these “rebel” services. The truth is, they don’t want to pay for it, and you ride at your own risk. It’s in the usage agreement. Look into it. Don’t believe the hype.

    • leftoversright

      And how about the people who live in the neighborhoods? Who drives them? I can tell you cabs don’t. I’ve been kicked out of so many cabs as soon as I tell them I want to go to 19th and Judah! I wouldn’t even consider calling a cab for pick-up at 19th and Judah, I could wait all day and night.

  • Jeremiah Jones

    I love driving for lyft! It really is a good way to share what I have, and the donations I get support the other good things I do in my life. If you want to try lyft for free use promo code DF7H76 before you request your first ride!

  • mon

    If you are a new sidecar member, use the promo code dxvtx when signing up! $5 credit.

    • Mon

      Or for a $10 uber credit for new members, enter GCSPE when setting up a new account!

  • Susie K

    some people, it turns out, just want to be left alone when getting from point a to point b! this person does anyway! http://www.ozy.com/the-oversharing-economy/4126.article

    I for one, like to try everything once and while I prefer the slightly more “formal” Uber experience, Lyft can be fun if you’re in the mood for some randomness.

  • Kris Noel

    It’s a scam because a donation is voluntary. With all these services if you don’t donate the amount they want you’re banned. That’s not a donation. Uber charges MORE then cabs during peak demand!

  • Mike

    $10 in FREE Sidecar Credits!

    1) Download and install the “Sidecar Ride” app for your iPhone or Android.

    2) Create Account –> Enter referral code: jdhmd (before requesting your first ride!). $10 will be added to your account immediately.

    This code will work for new Sidecar users who haven’t requested a Sidecar before, and is valid anywhere Sidecar is available.

  • Denis Smith

    PROMO CODE With CODE: ” Jchnk ” $10 Credit for First Time SideCar Riders!
    http://www.sidecarpromocode.com/

  • JOHN

    $25.00 CREDIT WITH PROMO: RD3TQ

  • Gabriel

    $25.00 CREDIT FOR YOUR 1st RIDE WITH UBER USE PROMO CODE: 5Q512

    USE IT TO SIGN UP AS DRIVER AND RECEIVE $100.00 AFTER 25th DROP OFF.
    PROMO CODE: 5Q512

  • Sammy

    $30 ride credit for all new users: JEN310