Ridesharing Inches Forward as Industry Looks for New Path

Years of rising demand for ridesharing services came to a full stop this spring, as coronavirus spread and communities across the globe were put under lockdown. Now, as ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft begin inching their way forward toward a new normal, they’re looking at how to adapt to the completely new environment in which they find themselves.

After seeing rider volume drop by 70% to 90% in March and April, ridesharing companies are starting to see customers returning. The Texas-based Alto saw a 300% increase in demand in May compared to April, although that’s still down 80% from where it was before the pandemic. Lyft has reported a 26% lift in rides in May compared to April.

A recent survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value found significant change in attitude toward ridesharing services, with a clear shift away from public transit and ridesharing toward individual transportation.

Some of the earliest customers to return to ridesharing services have been essential healthcare workers. As statewide lockdown orders expire, traditional commuters are slowly coming back, as well. In this post-pandemic landscape, though, riders have greater expectations. More than price or speed, riders now are concerned with cleanliness and safety.

With drivers who are independent contractors using their own vehicles, figuring out the best path forward to implement rigorous safety and cleaning protocols has been a challenge.

Some companies, like Alto, are using this to their advantage. Alto manages its own fleet of vehicles and gives its drivers a salary, benefits, and sick leave. The company provides masks, gloves, and sanitation training for its drivers, and conducts temperature checks before each shift. Its cars now feature plexiglass barriers and hospital-grade sanitizing mist that kills bacteria and viruses, along with HEPA air filters.

Alto’s small size — it’s currently just serving two cities in Texas — makes this possible. Larger players like Uber and Lyft would have trouble implementing the same measures.

For its part, Uber is reportedly now requiring all drivers and passengers in the U.S. to wear masks in vehicles, and the company is using facial scanning to make sure drivers comply. Drivers must also confirm that they don’t have Covid-19 symptoms before starting work.

Third-party firms are coming up with their own solutions to help drivers and get the ridesharing industry back on track. A San Francisco-based company called Firefly has started offering protective in-car sheet-film to rideshare drivers, in a bid to help reduce their exposure to Covid-19. Firefly places internet-connected smart screens on taxis and rideshare vehicles. The company works closely with “driver partners,” who agree to place Firefly screens on top of their vehicles.

“During a time when shelter-in-place or other restrictions on activity are part of the response to the pandemic, the number of ridesharing trips is down and so are the average earnings of rideshare drivers,” says Kaan Gunay, CEO of Firefly.

Firefly’s decision to start offering the protective sheet-film came in response to feedback from its driver-partners and their concerns for staying safe. Similar to the plexiglass divider in some taxicabs, the sheet-film acts as a barrier between the driver and passenger, limiting the risk of exposure on both sides. Gunay says sheet-film can easily be installed by the driver to ensure there’s not any unwanted damage to the vehicle’s interior, and it’s also more consumer-friendly than hard walls of plexiglass.

“We have not communicated with the rideshare companies about this product,” Gunay says. “We know the rideshare companies are taking steps to help protect their drivers, and we offer this product to our driver-partners as another option.”

If ridesharing companies are going to make up for the losses they have sustained, they will need even more safety features. While plastic sheets are temporary, changes like limits on the number of passengers allowed in vehicles and requirements that passengers wash their hands before entering could end up enduring for the long term.

The way passengers use ridesharing services could be forever altered, as well, and companies will have to adapt their business models to meet those rider needs.

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

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