Lyft’s Vibe Shift Signals the End of the Gig Economy Dream

Last week, Lyft suddenly announced that its cofounders, president Logan Green and CEO John Zimmer, would step away from the ride-hailing company after 11 years. David Risher, a former executive at Microsoft and Amazon who has been on Lyft’s board since 2021, will take the helm later this month.

Lyft’s C-suite shuffle was sudden, but hardly surprising. For one thing, tech companies in their teens and tweens seem to be entering a founder flop era. Twitch’s Emmett Shear, Instacart’s Apoorva Mehta, Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann, and Peloton’s John Foley all recently bid adieu. But Lyft in particular is struggling. It hasn’t turned a profit. It’s losing market share to Uber. It laid off 13 percent of its staff last fall. Its stock price is down nearly 90 percent since it went public in 2019. 

And yet the exits of Green and Zimmer say something about how tech industry vibes have shifted since the early 2010’s, when young-ish dudes were raising mountains of cash to disrupt, well, everything.

In the beginning, Lyft’s primary offering was … vibes. Travis Kalanick’s Uber was cutthroat, modeled after pricier black car services and founded because Kalanick and his crew aspired to be “ballers.” Lyft, by contrast, recruited anyone with a license, a vehicle, and a willingness to affix a pink fuzzy mustache to their car and greet strangers with a fist bump, welcoming passengers into their front seats. It was Lyft that piloted the peer-to-peer model of ride hailing, the idea that anyone could become a taxicab driver if they downloaded the right app.

Zimmer loved to wax on about the city-shaping potential of the service. An urban planning class at Cornell University, he often said, had opened his eyes to the corrosive effects of the automobile on city life—the traffic, the smog, the too many parking lots taking up space that could become parks or playgrounds or housing. Lyft and services like it, the theory went, could help many people escape the tyranny of car ownership by letting them use other peoples’ vehicles occasionally instead. When Lyft acquired America’s major bikeshare operator in 2018, it pitched that transaction as another way to help cities. 

It was a heart-warming story that got a credibility boost from the public implosion of Uber in 2017. But it didn’t quite work out. The ride-sharing concept Lyft first proved out fed the growth of the gig economy, which has some serious flaws. We are still learning about the complicated effects of decoupling service work from benefits like health care and sick pay.

Meanwhile, ride-hailing seems to have actually increased traffic in cities. And that killing car ownership thing? Just a few months ago, Lyft rolled out services to help car owners book parking and vehicle maintenance. How Lyft fits into anyone’s urban planning syllabus is less clear-cut than Zimmer might have hoped.

When I spoke last week to Risher, Lyft’s new CEO, it was clear the vibes-based strategy has given way to the realities of turning a failing enterprise around. Gone were some of the glossier marketing concepts; in were the brass tacks. “I feel a real energy around saying, ‘let’s really focus on our rideshare business,’” Risher told me. “Let’s pick people up on time. Let’s give them a good rate, so they don’t defect to Uber. Let’s drop them off where they say they need to go.”

When I asked Risher to name a distraction that had no place in the new model, he highlighted Shared Rides (formerly known at Lyft Line), the service that offers users cheaper rates in exchange for sharing a car with a few other travelers. The shared option went away at the start of the pandemic, but it has returned in a handful of US cities.


Author: showrunner