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Lyft expands the ‘ditch your car’ challenge to 35 new cities

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Can you live without your car for a month?

Image: Lyft

Last month, Lyft challenged 100 Chicago residents to give up their personal vehicles for a whole month, and in exchange, they would get $550 in credit to use for Lyft trips, as well as other mobility services like bike-share, car-share, and public transit. The ride-hail company was so thrilled with the response — one participant said he was inspired to sell his car — that they’re expanding the challenge to 35 new cities.

Residents in cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, DC, and others will now have the chance to sign up for phase two of the “ditch your car” challenge, which kicks off October 8th and goes until November 6th. (A full list of the cities can be found here.) Lyft is hoping to get 2,000 people signed up. The requirements would remain the same: participants will have to (symbolically) lock their car keys in a Lyft-branded “lockbox” for 30 days, and in exchange, Lyft will provide a certain amount of credit (which varies from city to city) that can be used for Lyft shared rides, bike-share and car-share trips, and bus and subway fare passes.

This isn’t some marketing gimmick designed to elevate Lyft’s brand or promote its push to become a multi-modal one-stop-shop for carpooling, bikes, scooters, and public transit, said Lyft President John Zimmer — although those are sure to be ancillary effects. Rather, this is part of a concerted effort to jolt Americans out of their comfort zones and persuade them to give up the convenience of personal car ownership for good, he said in an interview with The Verge.

“There’s enthusiasm to try it,” Zimmer said. “By making it a movement, by making it an event, people are like, ‘Oh, let me try this experiment.’ Then they realize, ‘Wow, I get all this time back. I’m actually saving money. I’m more relaxed.’”

Zimmer said he was surprised by the reaction to the Chicago challenge, which encouraged him to expand it new markets. “Similar to the surprise we had in the early days of Lyft, when people said, ‘No one is going to share a ride in another person’s car,’” he said. “We all know how fast this industry has grown. I think what we’re seeing is early signs similar to that where there’s a lot of enthusiasm to ditch your car.”

For years now, Zimmer and his co-founder Logan Green have used their platform to promote big ideas about the future of transportation. They have predicted the end of personal car ownership, called for more people to carpool, and encouraged US households to sell their second cars to save money and reduce congestion. Lyft recently set the goal for shared rides (carpooling, bike / scooter / car-sharing, etc.) to account for 50 percent of its business by 2020.

It will be interesting to track the response to the challenge in these various cities, with various levels of transit and density, to see how well Lyft’s theory about the end of personal car ownership plays out across the country. For example, it is objectively easier to ditch a personal car in New York City, which enjoys robust (if occasionally malfunctioning) public transportation, than it would be in a city like Atlanta, where most residents own a car. Many of the cities selected have some of the highest rates of car ownership in the country: how will they respond to this challenge? While nothing close to a scientific study, the challenge should still yield interesting data for Lyft to study.

While ride-hailing companies are doing a pretty great job at adding non-car options for people to get around, they are also adding to congestion problems in major cities. A recent study by transportation expert Bruce Schaller found that transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft added 5.7 billion miles of driving in the nation’s nine largest metro areas. Schaller’s report aligns with an October study released by UC Davis. It found that, in US cities, 49 percent to 61 percent of ride-hailing trips would have not been made at all — or by walking, biking, or public transit.

Zimmer argued that the ride-hailing industry, as represented by Uber and Lyft, represents a fraction of a percent of vehicle miles traveled (VMTs). This business is still in its nascent stages, he said, and therefore can’t be blamed for the rise in gridlock in cities. “It’s early. It’s super early in this,” Zimmer said. “I would say there are probably cases where it’s already reducing VMTs. And there may be cases where it’s not.”

The “ditch you car” challenge, in addition to Lyft’s work with bikes, scooters, and transit, is an example of “working to be part of the solution,” Zimmer said.

Others would argue that it isn’t as early as Zimmer believes, and that ride-sharing is already baked in to the public’s consciousness. The momentum propelling the growth in ride-hailing companies is powerful — a combination of intense competition, venture capital financing, and a paradigm shift in technology — and unless cities act, these cars will continue to clog their streets. Zimmer says Lyft is dedicated to work with cities to find solutions. But there will be times that cities take extreme action — such as New York City voting to cap the number of new ride-hail vehicles for a year — that run counter to Lyft’s business. If the problem keeps getting worse, Lyft may find itself facing its own challenge.