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Lyft hires Uber’s pricing expert to help figure out its impact on the city of the future

Garrett van Ryzin will lead Lyft’s Marketplace Labs

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Fresh off the news that it’s opening its first permanent office in New York City, Lyft announced today that it has hired away a notable pricing expert from Uber to help it figure out how it can play a more proactive role in shaping the cities of the future.

Garrett van Ryzin, a professor at Columbia Business School and Cornell Tech, will lead Lyft’s new Marketplace Labs, where he’ll oversee a team of applied scientists and technologists working on enhancing the current ride-sharing experience and better integrating Lyft with public transportation systems. He will report directly to Lyft’s new VP of engineering, Luc Vincent, who has been tasked with leading the company’s quest to develop its own self-driving car technology.

In an interview, van Ryzin said his goal is to “make the market more efficient — so all the things that have to do with matching and dispatching of drivers and pricing of the market and providing information to help balance the market.”

In other words, everything that makes Lyft Lyft: the speed at which a driver responds to your ride request, the length of time it takes to arrive at your location, and the fare you pay at the end of the trip. While at Uber, van Ryzin helped make the argument that surge pricing was a tool to increase rider efficiency rather than a back-handed way for Uber to make more money. He also saw the potential for the same model to change pricing strategies in other industries. Of course, most users just saw it as a necessary evil, even as they groused about having to pay more money during periods of peak demand. (Lyft has its own version of surge pricing that it calls Prime Time.)

And while van Ryzin is working on improving marketplace efficiency, he’ll also be pondering larger, more consequential issues for Lyft, such as its place in the city of tomorrow. This past summer, Lyft announced that it would begin hiring hundreds of engineers to develop its own autonomous technology. It also described its product of the future as an “open platform,” in which any of its partners in the self-driving space could plug into and begin offering trips. Van Ryzin said his job will be to optimize that process.

“How do you develop a marketplace you can plug anything into,” he asked. “You can plug human-driven ride-sharing vehicles into, you can plug in public transit links, you can plug in autonomous vehicles. Anything that would potentially get a person from A-to-B, you can synchronize and optimize with the same platform of marketplace technology.”

If that sounds too Columbia Business School-ish for your tastes, van Ryzin boils it down like this: “To me, it’s about how all these modes of transportation integrate... how do you smash all that stuff together seamlessly.”

In the future, someone could open up their Lyft app (if apps are still around) and see “a menu of options” for how they could get to where they need to go, van Ryzin said. “Basically you wouldn’t have to think about the combinations, we’d do that for you,” he added.

In addition to connecting riders and drivers, Lyft also thinks of itself as think tank for urban planning of the future. Co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green have written essays on the transition to autonomous vehicles and proposals for ending traffic congestion. Creating a new division of applied scientists to crack some of transportation’s most intractable problems seems to be an extension of that.

Of course, recent studies suggest that the impact of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft is not entirely benign. A new national report by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that ride-hailing apps have only caused a slight decrease in vehicle ownership. Meanwhile, as people use these apps more, they are using public transportation less. Many trips that could be made by foot, bicycle, or via public transit are now made by ride-hailing services.

From his perch at Lyft, van Ryzin says he plans to continue to study the physical impact of ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles on urban street life. “There’s an entrenched set of interests around current modes of transportation,” he said. “But a lot of cities are outgrowing that. And I expect Lyft to play a big part.”