Lyft doesn't always set up shop without permission, said Emily Castor, the company's director of community engagement. She handles outreach in cities where Lyft is planning to expand.
"We wait until we see there's a strong demand for Lyft in new areas before we make a decision about where to expand next," Castor told me at the Share conference. "Sometimes we'll launch quickly in a new place and have the opportunity to go in and have conversations with the city. Especially launching 24 cities in one day, we have to try to get to as many people as quickly as we can, but sometimes we can't begin those conversations until we're there."
The company, along with other ride-sharing services like Uber and Sidecar, has lobbied for legislation in California, where the rules for ride-sharing are pretty favorable, but watched as other cities issue tough restrictions on how its drivers can operate. In Seattle, ride-sharing companies are forced to limit the number of drivers they have on the road to 150 each after taxi drivers complained that Lyft and the like are flooding streets with cars.
Sharing startups haven't been warmly welcomed in any market, but have still racked up users aplenty. The question is: How do they convince cities to change the laws to accommodate them and protect the people who use their platforms? The answer seems to be the users themselves, who happen to be constituents that politicians need to appease. Lyft's Castor sets up community outreach sessions in neighborhoods that lack public transportation or are ignored by cabs to entice new drivers—and new potential passengers.
"We see Lyft as a platform that people can use, by neighbors for neighbors, to improve mobility in areas of cities that have been very underserved by traditional forms of transportation," Castor said.
If people can turn their cars, which are cash sinkholes, into money-makers, and also help other people get to where they need to go, Castor considers Lyft's job done.
Other peer-to-peer startups have similarly high-minded mission statements, but it's clear that good intentions don't mean much to regulators.
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