Weekly Brief: Ride-Sharers’ Desperate Battle for Their Future

Lyft expanded its safety measures to protect drivers and passengers against COVID-19 transmission last week.

The ride-sharing company plans to supply vehicle safety partitions to 60,000 of its highly active drivers in 30 regions across the US. The partitions are made of semi-rigid plastic and can be easily installed in vehicles. Those drivers who don’t qualify as “highly active” will be able to buy the partitions through a special Lyft Store for $50. The store also sells cleaning supplies, face masks and other personal protective equipment at cost.

When riders open the Lyft app, they can see which vehicles in their vicinity have partitions installed. There is no way for riders to indicate within the app that they only want to see partitioned vehicles but that functionality may be coming. Lyft piloted the safety partitions with highly active drivers in Atlanta, Baltimore and Denver before taking the program nationwide. The company has already mandated that drivers must wear masks whenever riders are on-board and has disabled the carpooling and shared rides components of its app.

Expect Uber to follow suit on the partition front in the coming weeks. Lyft’s rival has unveiled some safety measures already, most notably a partnership with Clorox that will distribute 600,000 cans of disinfecting wipes to drivers around the US. Uber encourages drivers to use the wipes to disinfect handles, steering wheels and cupholders and to have more wipes at the ready for riders to disinfect seats and door handles themselves when they start a new ride. Riders receive an in-app message if their vehicles have disinfecting wipes onboard.

These safety measures are positive steps. The question is how customers will respond. Lockdowns during the pandemic have been devastating to the ride-sharing industry over the last six months, in Asia first and in Europe and the US subsequently. App usage for the likes of Lyft, Uber, Didi and Grab plummeted, because neither riders nor drivers wanted to participate in a COVID-19 petri dish. Those people who still needed to travel increasingly opted for their own vehicles. New car sales may have nosedived in April and May but used car sales showed sharp rebounds and in some markets hit record highs.

In a post-pandemic world, it’s possible that riders will return to ride-sharing at previous rates. It’s equally possible that COVID-19 will fundamentally alter future trends in personal mobility. Last week our Robert Gray investigated how some car-sharing services, like Renault’s Zity, are navigating these tricky waters. Some CEOs expressed optimism to TU-Automotive that their services will rebound quickly. That may be but the truth is that uncertainty is king right now, as is the same as in every other facet of our lives.

Consider the workplace. If you had asked architects about the future of the workplace six months ago, they would have talked about the move away from closed offices toward shared workspaces and open flooring. Ask them today and everything has changed. Who would want to give up a personal office with a door that you can close and a desk that you can keep separate and sanitized? No one! Furthermore, who would want to come into an office at all if they can work just as effectively remotely? No one!

The same may hold true for mobility. Six months ago experts believed the future of transportation was headed toward a world where people in cities avoided car ownership and expensive insurance and parking. In their place were easy and readily available mobility options like ride-sharing and car-sharing in addition to public transportation. Will that still hold true after the pandemic leaves us in peace? Uber, Lyft, Didi and Grab better hope it does. Their lives depend on it.

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