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Lyft says it’s ‘woke,’ so we decided to put it to the test

Lyft says it’s ‘woke,’ so we decided to put it to the test


Let’s check the woke scoreboard, shall we?

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge

“We’re woke. Our community is woke, and the U.S. population is woke,” Lyft president John Zimmer told Time magazine for a story that published yesterday about how the ride-hailing company is capitalizing on Uber’s many scandals.

Most people define “woke” as being alert to social injustice, especially racism, and expressing a commitment to stopping it. But is Lyft, a multi-billion dollar technology startup that’s main product is an app, actually woke? Well, let’s check the woke scoreboard, shall we?

Ties to the swamp

For starters, I think we can all agree that Donald Trump is the antithesis of woke. Lyft has deep ties to the Trump administration, much deeper than any of the connections that helped kick off the grassroots backlash against Uber last month. Quick refresher: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was planning to participate in an economic advisory council for Trump, but later backed out after the #DeleteUber campaign started costing the company its riders. But by that time, Uber’s scandals began to metastasize and take on a life of their own.

Meanwhile, Lyft’s ties to the Trump world were pretty much ignored. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn, a top economic advisor to Trump, invested $100 million in Lyft back in 2015 and currently sits on the company’s board. Peter Thiel, a vocal supporter of the president and Trump’s leading Silicon Valley advisor, is also a major investor in Lyft and has branded Uber an “ethically compromised” company.

Trump haters tweeted about dropping Uber and using Lyft instead, while angry Trump supporters tried (and failed) to launch their own #DeleteLyft campaign — most likely unaware of the connections between the company and their chosen politician.

Lyft notes that Thiel’s firm, not Thiel himself, is an investor in the company. And leadership claims that its commitment to social justice issues is pure, as evidenced by its vocal opposition to Trump’s travel ban. Nonetheless, the company has Trump acolyte Icahn helping steer the company as a board member. Icahn is Trump’s designated regulation buster, and a regulation-free playing field is certainly in Lyft’s interest as it looks to expand into new markets.

Ruling: Not woke

Social awareness

Thanks to some savvy marketing moves, Lyft managed to emerge as the socially acceptable alternative to Uber. The company announced that it would make a $1 million donation to the ACLU (spread out over four years) and just recently said it would allow riders to round up their fares and make a charitable donation.

But then the company tried to spin a story about a Lyft driver who went into labor while finishing a trip into a marketing win. It was supposed to be a positive tale about a driver who loved working for Lyft so much she could barely stop to give birth to her own baby. But instead it served to highlight the lack of flexibility freelancers have in the gig economy, to say nothing of the fact that Lyft drivers don’t get paid family leave, medical insurance, or any of the benefits traditional employees have come to rely on.

Ruling: Sort of woke

Treatment of drivers

Speaking of drivers, Lyft is widely known as the driver-friendly alternative to Uber. Surveys show that Lyft drivers are happier than the ones that drive for Uber, citing perks like in-app tipping and more generous earnings. Recently, Lyft touted the fact that it collected $200 million in tips for drivers thanks to its tipping option.

But that can be misleading. In many markets, drivers moonlight for both services. And while Uber is louder in its opposition to tips and local efforts to organize drivers for better benefits, Lyft is often there in the background, quietly cheering on its bigger rival in its push to quash these efforts.

And like Uber, Lyft is also pursuing self-driving technology in the hopes of one day replacing all of its drivers with computer-driven cars. I wonder what will happen to that happiness quotient then?

Ruling: Quasi-woke

Diversity and inclusion

Uber just released its diversity numbers for the first time, revealing that like other tech companies, the ride-hailing company is predominantly white and male. How does Lyft measure up? Unclear. Lyft choses not to release this data.

The company has taken the Tech Inclusion Pledge, along with Airbnb, Intel, Box, GitHub, and others, to recruit more women and minorities. This includes a promise to release its diversity numbers, though we have yet to see Lyft’s data. Maybe it’s the most diverse company in Silicon Valley, but a more likely scenario is that Lyft is as white and male as other tech companies.

Ruling: Not woke

Later in the Time interview, Zimmer said, “We’re not the nice guys. We’re a better boyfriend.” This would seem to undermine any claim of wokeness, but I digress.

Full disclosure: I’m a 37-year-old white guy who lives in Brooklyn. I’m literally the last person in the world who should be flapping his gums about who is and isn’t woke. But I know the ride-hailing industry. Like many of these companies, Lyft thinks it can change the world for the better by improving the way we get around. Another way of looking at it is that Lyft is just a more advanced version of stepping out into the street and raising your hand to hail a cab.

Is Lyft woke? Not my call to make. But according to The Verge’s resident teen expert, Kaitlyn Tiffany, maybe it is, assuming we’re using the common derivation of the term to mean “performative caring about things you don’t really care about.”