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Ride-Hail Has A Woman Problem

Uber and Lyft may be battling each other for market share, but if their recent defeat in Austin tells us anything, it's that they're united on at least one thing: fighting consumer safety measures. And some women say that's a problem.

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Megan Osinski is a 27-year-old operations manager at a Los Angeles pet product company; like many women in L.A., she uses ride-hail a few times a week — but she only ever uses Lyft. "I've had friends who've had Uber drivers save their address and come back later,” Osinksi told BuzzFeed News. “I've been in a car before and a driver has said, 'You shouldn't wear that unless you want someone to have sex with you.'"

At this point, Osinski has taken to trying to convince her friends not to use Uber: "Whenever someone says they are taking Uber I will always tell them to check out Lyft instead, usually saying that the price is cheaper and the drivers aren't as creepy."

Osinski's not the only person who's adopted Lyft as a sort of conscious consumer choice. In interviews with more than a dozen women in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Austin — the cities where Lyft has had the biggest market share — the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that people think Lyft is the lesser of two evils — whether or not they actually have much evidence to support the theory.

"This could just be really good PR, but I think Lyft is friendlier than Uber," Rita Rausch, a 25-year-old law firm coordinator living in Los Angeles, told BuzzFeed News, adding that the service "seems to be more grassroots."

"Uber is like Walmart and Lyft is more like Target," said Chloe Feller, a 20-year-old video producer from Los Angeles. "I don't shop at Walmart because of their business practices and how they treat their employees ... I tell people who are visiting, don't take Uber, take Lyft."

Indeed, whether by virtue of its strategic silence on policy issues, its underdog position as the second in the market, or those fuzzy pink mustaches, Lyft seems to enjoy a reputation as a kinder, gentler ride-hail company. But it takes two to race to the bottom, and on a number of policy issues the two companies are more alike than they are different. Both rely on an army of contract labor, both have tussled with local governments, and both have far from spotless records on rider and driver safety.

Earlier this year, BuzzFeed News published screenshots of Uber’s internal customer complaint tracking database that revealed that the company has thousands of support tickets containing the phrases “rape” and “sexual assault.” While it's true that there have been fewer cases of alleged sexual assault by Lyft drivers in the press than there have been by Uber drivers, that company has not been immune from sexual assault and harassment allegations either. (And, of course, there are fewer Lyft drivers to begin with.)

In February, a University of North Florida student sued Lyft, alleging that her driver had sexually assaulted her. And in November, Austin police stated that they had received seven complaints about alleged sexual assaults from ride-sharing drivers — five Uber drivers and two Lyft drivers.

But perhaps the strongest evidence that the two companies are not so far apart on safety came in the way they acted in concert to shoot down a law in Austin that would have required drivers to be fingerprinted. When voters in Austin upheld a fingerprinting requirement for ride-hail drivers, the vote was a major defeat for both companies. Together, the two companies poured more than $8.6 million into the fight (orders of magnitude more than the estimated $100,000 their opposition spent). Following the defeat, both companies ceased operations in the city.

The fingerprinting rule in Austin could soon be repeated all over the country. Atlanta, Chicago, and California's Public Utilities Commission, among others, are considering similar measures. And that these rules are coming from legislation — rather than from voluntary measures within the companies themselves — indicates that Uber and Lyft may be politically united, even as the businesses battle it out for market supremacy.

Much of Lyft's positioning may be the result of savvier — or at least quieter — PR. While Uber has made an M.O. out of entering new markets and clashing with local regulators, Lyft's strategy has typically been to follow, entering the same markets with less noise and less friction. In 2014, when Uber saw major fallout from revelations that its employees could (and in some cases did) track individual riders, Lyft silently removed its own employees' ability to do the same.

And while Lyft's co-founder and President John Zimmer has largely flown under the radar, suffice it to say that Uber's has not. Feller, the L.A. video producer, called Uber CEO Travis Kalanick "very self-serving and negligent," a sentiment that was echoed by several other women who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

“Honestly, I don’t know that much about Lyft," said Toni Rocca, who lives in Oakland, California. "If it came out that Lyft was doing something awful, I wouldn’t really be shocked. For all I know, Lyft could do something egregious that I know nothing about. It’s been very public that Uber has done some egregious stuff. Lyft flies under the radar, I think … Ultimately, it feels like Lyft has very little politics, and Uber has bad ones.”

Michael Pelletz is a Boston entrepreneur who saw a gap in the market for a safer ride-hail product, one that’s functionally the same as Uber or Lyft but which requires more stringent background checks and — crucially — is for women only. In March, the local business blog BostInno published a piece about Pelletz's fledgling company SafeHer. After that — and with what Pelletz said was no effort on the part of the company — a grassroots movement in support of it arose on social media, pegged to SafeHer's launch date, April 19 (Pelletz has since pushed it back to the fall to keep up with overwhelming demand). Tellingly, the hashtag was #DeleteUber.

Pelletz, for his part, said that his market research revealed the two companies to be “more or less the same,” business practices–wise. So why is Uber perceived any differently than Lyft? As Pelletz said, “Uber has no problem acting like the big bully on the block."

Back in Austin two weekends ago, Lisa Kettyle, a 37-year-old musician and pedicab driver, voted in favor of keeping the fingerprinting measure in place — even though Uber and Lyft had said they would leave Austin if the rule was voted down. "I think both are huge corporations that want to get around the regulations and make as much money as they can without regard for drivers or passengers," she wrote in an email. "If they cared about their drivers and passengers, they wouldn't be threatening to pull out of our market."

UPDATE

This story has been updated to clarify that the California Public Utilities Commission is considering a ride-hail fingerprinting measure.

Doree Shafrir is a senior tech writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Doree Shafrir at doree@buzzfeed.com.

Ellen Cushing is an articles editor for BuzzFeed News' tech section and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Ellen Cushing at ellen.cushing@buzzfeed.com.

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