J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Lyft (and Uber?) Drivers Don’t Know Where They’re Going

Logan Green of Lyft (photo by JD Lasica)

As part of an ongoing no-car month experiment (not owning or leasing a car for the last eleven months), I’ve relied heavily on the freelance taxi/ride-sharing service Lyft. Overall my experience with Lyft has been good. The drivers are generally courteous, friendly (but not too friendly), and drive safely. In turn I try to be a good rider, being ready when drivers arrive, not slamming doors, and tipping (which Lyft allows in-app; their competitor Uber doesn’t). I like most of the drivers I meet, and I almost always give 5-star ratings.

But here’s the thing–if there’s any complexity to a pickup or drop-off location, most Lyft drivers will get it wrong. Lyft drivers rely almost entirely on GPS, and even though GPS navigation is a miraculous invention, it fails consistently with large buildings, detours, poor cell-service areas, and even some straightforward locations (GPS often ignores the street I live on and directs drivers to one block away from my house).

This generally isn’t the fault of drivers. Talking to Lyft drivers, I’ve learned they cover extremely large areas. A typical Bay Area Lyft driver day might include the East Bay, San Francisco, San Jose, and even Marin. It’s impossible to know all these areas like the back of your hand. Even if there was a will and a way to implement some sort of ambitious driver training program like London’s The Knowledge, the average Lyft or Uber driver’s range is just too vast. The majority of the time, these drivers are navigating areas they don’t know well.

GPS navigation works pretty well, but that isn’t good enough. There is some kind of minor or major navigation problem with the majority of my rides. And I pay for those problems–the virtual meter is always ticking.

Navigation problems include:

  • GPS directs to wrong pickup/drop-off spot (this is mostly some weird bug with my home address–it happens about a quarter of the time).
  • GPS recommends an inefficient, indirect route. Maybe the GPS system thinks it is “saving time” by avoiding traffic or stop lights, but the weaving around, adding-extra-left-turns GPS directions in my traffic-free residential neighborhood are pointless and annoying. Sometimes I tell the driver to take a more direct route, but my “override” only works about half the time (either because the driver doesn’t speak English well, or because the GPS directs them back onto the inefficient route before I can intervene).
  • Big buildings. Though Google Maps seems to have it right, yesterday a Lyft driver was directed to the back of 1000 Oak Street (the Oakland Museum). Since I’m using crutches at the moment, we had to take the long way round to the front entrance, adding a few bucks to my ride. I had a similar problem getting picked up at the Kaiser Center by Lake Merritt after a client meeting. The driver kept getting near my location at the front entrance, but it was only after a ten-minute phone conversation that he managed to pick me up.

Once again, not the fault of the drivers. The way Lyft works, drivers have to go to where the riders want to go, and that often deposits them in unfamiliar areas.

I’ve only taken Uber a few times, but I experienced a similar rate of navigation issues from that small sample.

What can Lyft do to fix the issue? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Let drivers specify the areas with which they are familiar. Don’t connect drivers with riders who need to go outside of those areas.
  2. Compile a short list of “frequent issue” pick-up/drop-off locations for each metropolitan area, and train and test drivers on how to effectively navigate to and from these locations.
  3. Make GPS navigation smarter.

With the demise of City Car Share, ongoing navigation problems with Lyft, and my apparent inability to use bicycles and skateboards without injuring myself, I’m thinking the no-car experiment may soon come to an end.

Has your experience been different? Similar? Let me know in the comments.


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  1. Stephen Robert Kuzmic

    J.D. per usual you hit the nail squarely on the head! It’s beyond frustrating having a clenched stomach knowing well in advance a driver will not only take me an inefficient way, but many drivers neglect basic safety. Further, when did the masses decide stale, warm air is the norm? Friggin’ turn on your car air vents!

    • Almost all of the Lyft drivers I’ve had have been safe drivers. Uber rides have been hit and miss in that area–since there is no in-app tip system I think Uber drivers may feel more pressure to drive fast and get in more rides (as opposed to making the ride a good experience, even if a bit slower).

  2. Henry Joe Peterson

    There’s no question Uber and Lyft are superior to taxi service in every way. I have not taken a taxi here in SF in years, and won’t ever again. Gross cabs, rude drivers, unreliable service, antiquated badge system–the whole taxi system is a mess and seemingly refused to evolve over the years.

    But, the one thing I miss is that cab drivers knew where the hell they were going, and got you there fast. They were savants. Uber and Lyft drivers are shockingly dependent on their gps. To your point, they have a much wider area to cover. Hard to have an instinctual sense of direction in multiple cities. But I miss that about cab drivers. They knew the city, the short cuts, and how to avoid traffic.

    The other beef I have is when I am driving my own car and encounter anyone driving ridiculously slow and obstructing traffic, you can pretty much guarantee it’s an Uber or Lyft driver dicking around with their phone/gps on the dash board and not paying attention to the road ahead or the backups they are causing behind them.

    Drivers have become severely codependent on that gps. It’s a shame.

    • I wonder if this will change as Lyft and Uber mature and the drivers acquire more experience. Or maybe we’ll be dealing with a generation of inexperienced robot drivers soon …

  3. As a part time Lyft driver for two years, I haven’t seen as many GPS issues as you describe. But I do drive in Phoenix which is built on a big grid for the most part.

    One thing that will help with setting your pickup location: the app will default on where GPS thinks you are, but it’s wise to zoom in and verify if it’s accurate. If it isn’t, you can drag your location pin to be better placed (or if you’re planning to walk to a better location for pickup) just by dragging the map around.

    I also did a 3-month no car experiment a couple years ago, before lyft and uber were going strong. JD, I don’t know if you know about this or wrote about it, but Enterprise rents cars for a suprisingly afffordable $10/day Friday-Monday. I’d get the car Friday morning and return it on Monday morning on the bus route to work, all for less than $40 including tax. I found this to be so affordable that I was able to defer many longer trips to the weekends a couple times a month.

    One annoying thing about not having auto insurance for a while, I’m told, is that if you let it lapse and then get it again your rates will reset higher, as if you have no driving history. I opted to continue my insurance – there is specific non-owners type that will apply when you drive other’s cars.

    • Thanks for the tips Ben. Didn’t know that about the insurance gap … hopefully won’t be the case with Statefarm.

  4. debra dampier

    Oh I agree with their complete dependence on GPS. But even with all their flaws, I still take them over a cabbie. In New Orleans, most of the old cabbies are gone. The wonderful, colorful stories left with them. The cabbies here are clueless, complain if your trip is short. In NYC they flat out refused to take you to Brooklyn..They throw you out of the cab. I like the smaller area coverage for a newbie driver, but they need to make a living too. So it’s rather a catch 22, isn’t it?

    • Agreed–Lyft and Uber fill a real need, and I continue to use Lyft.

      Here’s a possible scenario: Lyft and Uber drivers unionize and provide training for members, thereby protecting themselves from the “inevitable” takeover of self-driving cars by actually being able to navigate better than computers.

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