This summer, Lyft — the fastest growing ridesharing service in the US — began the Richmond-area rollout of Amp, a device designed to make rides safer and more personalized. Amp is a pill-shaped device that sits on Lyft drivers’ dashboards, its front- and back-facing light-up screens making it easier to find your ride and identify your driver.
“It took a little bit of legislative work to get it here, but now that it’s arrived, we’re very excited,” said Cabell Rosanelli, Lyft’s market manager for Richmond. “You can imagine if you’re leaving the Fan late at night, and there are four black Toyota Corollas lined up out front. If the driver has an Amp you would be notified that your ride has an orange light burning in the front of the car.”
As someone who has gotten into the wrong Lyft in DC — a generic black Camry, of which there are always several — Rosanelli says Amp makes it more convenient for both passenger and driver, halting any mix-ups and ensuring an ease of transition.
The first few weeks of the rollout, I took Rosanelli at his word alone, but more recently, the Amp has blown up the Richmond ridesharing scene. A night time walk around the city now brings more than the glare of headlights: the device blazes in candy-neon shells on dashboards, a beacon of convenience. For me, it is something of a comfort — transportation exists literally at my fingertips, and I’m a sucker for bubblegum pink.
It’s a change that the drivers are excited about, said Rosanelli. They threw a big event to distribute Amps to those eligible — any driver who has done 125 rides in the last three months.
“I talk to drivers every day, and there are some amazing stories out there,” said Rosanelli. “We have every background, every story you can imagine… Whether it’s a wounded veteran, a single parent, a retiree, or someone who is unemployed or underemployed, we’re all trying to do something really great and create financial freedom for ourselves.”
While convenience is key, and Amp is helping to create a frictionless pick-up, it’s the safety concerns surrounding ridesharing that have everyone talking. A recently released CNN investigation found at least 103 Uber drivers in the U.S. who have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers in the past four years.
It’s the horror story that plays out on every college campus, in every large ridesharing market: How do you stay safe when you’re stepping into someone else’s car?
“We’re not necessarily trying to solve for a safety matter, we’re trying to make everyone’s life a little easier,” said Rosanelli of Amp. “I’d say it’s less of a safety matter, and more so an efficiency, matching, and conversion play. There’s less confusion at the point of pick-up.” Of course, to admit to trying to solve safety concerns would mean admitting there is a problem.
Ruth Walston has been driving Lyft in Richmond and DC for a couple months now, and despite being a female driver in a field largely dominated by men, most of her experiences have been good. In fact, she enjoys it.
The process of getting certified was easy. And after submitting all of her documents, she heard back in less than an hour: “You’re ready to go!”
“I’ve had part-time jobs, where I was only there for four hours, that killed me by the end of it. But I could do eight hours driving Lyft and feel fine,” said Walston. “I don’t feel like I’ve given my life to capitalism at the end of the day.”
She has interesting conversations with new people, works on her own terms, and clocks in and out whenever she chooses. But, as always, safety is on her mind.
“When you get into a stranger’s car, and when you allow strangers into your car, you’re opening yourself up to that possibility,” said Walston. “It matters and it sucks, but it goes deeper than Lyft — the fact that you can’t trust strangers at all in our society is the problem.”
To Walston, Lyft is getting the same treatment that almost anything new receives: immediate distrust, and a wish to unload deeper societal issues onto a scapegoat. “Let’s put it this way: the dark cloud that follows around Lyft about sexual harassment and violence, I feel like that’s another example of people targeting new things over old problems.”
“It’s the dark cloud that follows around everything that’s different and new: it’s innovative and cool, but what problems can we find with it?” Walston continued. “We find the same problems that exist throughout society, because humans are inherently flawed and we are all living amongst each other in the same damn shit. So everything that we make has the same damn problems.”
Another recent CNN article addresses these same issues, with similar results. After a Chinese ride-sharing firm dealt with the rape and killing of one of its passengers, allegedly at the hands of a driver, it’s clear that these safety concerns are literally universal.
In the article, CNN’s Sara Ashley O’Brien writes that Katie Wells, an urban studies foundation post-doc at Georgetown University who researches the social and economic effects of on-demand services, “called sexual assault and rape on ridesharing platforms ‘a symptom of the larger issue’ of violence against women.” Wells agrees with Walston that what can be done is for ridesharing companies to take accountability, address the problem, and put protective measures in place.
As a young woman living in a city, I’d rather take my chances in a rideshare than walk home alone at night, tipsy and on unfamiliar streets. That isn’t to say it can’t be dangerous, and that these companies shouldn’t be held accountable, but these are old problems, and I’m ready for new solutions: Like Amp, like all-women ride-sharing services, like companies that are willing to listen to driver and passenger complaints.
I took a handful of rides last week and chatted with some drivers about their experiences. Most had been driving for years, with largely favorable memories. Lyft was a supplement to their day job, a grab for extra cash, with the worst transgressions being overloud, midnight drunks. My driver on an 8 am ride said his last passenger had asked him out. And though it didn’t make him uncomfortable, we both decided that a 7:45 am romantic advance is just too early — not to mention an incredibly inappropriate thing to do to someone who has no easy way out.
We are at the beginning of a vast cultural change. Lyft has only been in Richmond for two years, Uber for four, and already, it’s hard to imagine the city without it. And it’s the kind of progress that will only continue to develop.
Rosanelli has a vision for the company that goes beyond the new LED light-up dashboard accessory. “I talk to our City Council and others about what we can do with ridesharing, and how it can continue to shape the city,” said Rosanelli. “Cities were built and designed around cars. And now there’s this opportunity with better public transportation, rideshare, bikes, and other modalities to redesign our cities around people.”
The Amps lighting the tepid Richmond nights this bizarrely warm October are a comfort to me. They are a symbol of innovation, of an attempt to move forward. I see them while I’m walking, be it out of bars, or a friend’s house, or a music hall, and I know, if I wanted it, I have a way home.
Photos via Lyft