The Lottery of LyftLine and UberPool

Near the tail end of 2017, I was riding an UberPool almost daily. The San Francisco Bay Area, especially the South Bay region from Palo Alto to Santa Clara is nearly impossible to navigate without the assistance of a car. Caltrain, the main public transit that connects the region only serves the northern half, mostly following the route of highway 101. Other transit, such as buses or the several local “rail” systems, are slow, infrequent, and make far too many stops to be efficient.

Thus, Lyft and Uber came along and compared to the experience of taxis, revolutionized what shared transit looks like.

And a few years ago, both companies introduced a carpooling service, Lyft calls theirs LyftLine and Uber calls theirs UberPool. And there’s virtually no difference between the two services, you call a car using your phone, wait at the location you’ve selected, and get routed towards your destination. Depending on demand and who else is around calling for a ride, these services will take a detour to pool people together. Customers get a cheaper ride with the potential to have a longer ride, drivers get a chance to make to add additional rides in a similar trip, and Lyft and Uber makes more money by getting more customers and using a different formula for its share of the service.

Something that came to my mind as I was taking these pools, roughly 25 minutes one-way rides was that the entire experience of taking a LyftLine or UberPool had become a lottery. Obviously, as a rider, I want to pay as little as possible and travel as fast as possible. The situation to make this happen is 1) call a Line or Pool; 2) The matched driver is near me; 3) Have no other riders join. However, it is complete luck whether or not the worst case scenario occurs – one in which the driver is far away (I’ve seen as much as 20 minutes) and after waiting for the car, another rider is matched who is picked up and dropped off all in the span of my ride.

The lottery of the whole experience was interesting. While not mathematical, an optimization question was always asked by me. “Do I have time to risk a delay?” “What is the difference between a Pool and regular Uber right now?” “I really hope no one far away gets matched.” The whole experience was one that was unpredictable and one that swayed from extreme satisfaction of a great deal, to one of frustration at seeing the little car on the app navigate all over map.

Interestingly, Uber has recently put out an even cheaper option, called ExpressPool. While cheaper, this system asks the rider to relocate himself to a spot in a certain radius that is more convenient for pooling and the driver. I can say confidently that as of now, I do not recommend using this feature in South Bay, as large buildings may be between one’s location and pick up location. It seems however, potentially useful in cities. My understanding though is that the ExpressPool guarantees that other people are in the car with you.

Overall, both LyftLine and UberPool are interesting products. The experience is not a curated one, and is relatively unpredictable. Although it has much better chances than a lottery, my experience has me riding alone about half the times, in critical moments the delay could be excruciating. As a business product, I am certain the both Lyft and Uber take notice of the random nature of this product and actively try to maintain that randomness. The fact that about half the cases results in a “cheaper” ride for the customer, keeps customers feeling good and loyal to the product. In fact, I noticed around November 2017, that UberPool was especially aggressive in pairing me up with other riders, even if the rider was relatively far away from the route. That made me avoid UberPool all together, making the choice to use LyftLine easier or just the standard Lyft/Uber.