Lyft's Emily Castor: New Forms of On-Demand Mobility & Public Transit 'Mash Up'

Emily Castor

Lyft's recent announcement that it will launch a fleet of autonomous vehicles in the Bay Area is the latest in a string of bold pilot programs the rideshare company is rolling out. Partnering with public transit agencies, vehicle manufacturers, and other start-ups alike, Lyft's new initiatives build on the company's core on-demand services—from first-last mile subsidies, to its own hardware and software for autonomous vehicles. In this interview, Lyft’s Director of Transportation Policy Emily Castor addresses how the rapid pace of marketplace innovation is disrupting established urban mobility systems and how the company’s growing partnerships anticipate future urban mobility services.

In January 2016 at the VerdeXchange Conference, you joined LADOT GM Seleta Reynolds and Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole to address how choice impacts urban transportation. Update our readers on your thoughts about the urban transportation choices consumers have, or are about to have, and Lyft’s role in creating those consumer choices.

Emily Castor: It’s been a very busy couple of years since we last had the opportunity to speak. It’s incredible to look at the projects that have occurred in that short period of time with respect to collaborations between ride-sharing companies like Lyft and traditional public transit operators. We’ve seen a rapid pace of innovation in pilot programs between Lyft and a number of different transit agencies large and small throughout the state of California, which I think is indicative of a very significant shift that’s starting to arise in which the lines are blurred between traditional forms of public transit and new forms of on-demand mobility.

It’s quite likely that we are just now at the beginning of what is going to be a much larger-scale move by public transit agencies to adopt new on-demand technologies and incorporate them in the way that public transit is provided, which will be a very significant win for consumers—especially in a place like California, where public transit is so difficult to access conveniently in most communities where people live.

Elaborate on the current pilot partnerships with smaller transit agencies, and what their success might mean for Los Angeles County Metro in the future.

We have some great partnerships with agencies in Southern California—for example, with the city of San Clemente in Orange County. A couple of years ago, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) made some service changes and decided to remove a couple of very low-performing bus routes from San Clemente. The city and OCTA worked together to issue an RFP to procure a partnership with a ride-sharing company, which Lyft won. That allowed us to offer Lyft rides in the areas where the bus route used to operate, and for those rides to be subsidized by the city to make sure that they were just as affordable as the routes that previously operated. That pilot has been operating for the last several months, and it’s continuing to move forward.

We also have an awesome partnership on the horizon with LA Metro. As one of the pilot programs that was awarded a grant under the Federal Transit Administration’s Mobility on Demand Sandbox program, LA Metro, in partnership with Sound Transit up in Seattle, received a grant to subsidize Lyft rides for first- and last-mile access to their rail stations. This will allow Metro riders to take advantage of that kind of a subsidized on-demand service to help them access Metro rail. We’ve been in the process with Metro over the last several months of planning that pilot, which is slated to go live in 2018.

We’re seeing a great appetite from public transit agencies, both large and small, to investigate ways that Lyft can help fill mobility gaps traditionally left by fixed-route transit systems. This a model that we’re looking to scale much more broadly across the country in these kinds of suburban locations where traditional fixed-route transit simply can’t gather enough riders to operate on a convenient or financially viable basis.

Elaborate on pilots in other jurisdictions, especially how they might be scaled going forward.

We have a few great partnerships up in the Bay Area, including a partnership with the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) that will provide first- and last-mile access to the new SMART train service, which will get Bay Area commuters to Marin County. We also have an ongoing partnership with the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA) on their Wheels service, in which they subsidize Lyft rides in Dublin, California—out in a suburban part of the East Bay area—that allows people to get around town where they simply are not able to provide that service with traditional buses.

In another partnership, we help provide access to jobs for folks in Solano County by taking them from the Amtrak station to jobs that are located a few miles away and that are not served by existing forms of transit. By offering that last-mile connector, we help commuters be able to choose the train for the vast majority of their commute.

We also recently announced an exciting new national partnership with Amtrak itself that allows Lyft to be connected seamlessly through Amtrak’s ticketing app. We’re going to be promoting that partnership in specific Amtrak locations where there is a big need for first- and last-mile connections around the country, including great Amtrak corridors like the Capitol Corridor up in the Sacramento area.

Recently, Lyft started testing “shuttles” in Chicago and San Francisco. Is shuttle service the next step in Lyft’s evolution?

The shuttle is a very exciting development for us, because it takes us one step further to fulfilling our long-term mission to fill as many empty seats in cars as possible.

As many observers of ride-sharing services are aware, we’ve made a progression over time. We started out in 2012, when this industry was born, providing single vehicles to single riders. Over time, we were able to accumulate enough volume of participation by our passengers that we could start matching up multiple riders who were heading the same way at the same time. That is our Lyft Line service, which we launched in 2014. And importantly, that was only made possible by the fact that we had previously built a marketplace for passengers requesting rides on demand.

A shuttle is the next step in that evolution. It identifies the corridor where we have the highest volume of usage during peak commute hours—when we know that our public transportation system is straining against its capacity. Those are the times at which it’s the most valuable to achieve efficiencies in vehicle occupancy, and to reduce the number of vehicles that are needed to serve the same number of passengers. Shuttles help to do that at an even higher potential occupancy than Lyft Line.

We identified the routes where Lyft Line was used the most, and started offering this shuttle service where people can get a ride from a fixed place during commute times by walking a few blocks to a pick-up location, instead of having door-to-door service. That gives them a streamlined, express route on their way to work and a predictable price and travel time. It also makes it easier for us to make a larger number of matches, so that we’re more likely to be able to fill up the entire vehicle, because people are all gathering along that corridor.

This is a really important high-occupancy product for Lyft, and it’s something that we think can attract passengers who may have been choosing to drive their own cars and park in the past—because Lyft might have been too expensive or they might not have seen the travel-time benefit—and now, with the shuttle, they might be able to start using Lyft on more of a commute basis.

It’s important to be clear that the vehicles that are being used to operate the shuttles are actually the exact same pool of Lyft drivers that we already have serving all the other types of Lyft rides. It’s not a different, larger type of vehicle or different drivers; drivers could actually do a regular Lyft request right after doing a Lyft Line request, and then do a shuttle request. These are all dispatched interchangeably to make the most efficient use of our existing driver pool.

When you last spoke at VerdeXchange, Lyft had just entered a partnership with General Motors. How are such OEM partnerships impacting Lyft’s priorities and, more specifically, market interest in autonomous vehicles?

Partnerships are a very important part of our strategy for autonomous vehicles. General Motors was a landmark partner for us, and provided a great opportunity to collaborate on learning more about how to bring autonomous service to market. More recently, we’ve added additional partners, including technology companies like Nutonomy and other OEMs like Jaguar and Land Rover. And of course, we’re working with Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, as well.

All of these diverse partners are attracted to Lyft because we—unlike any other public company to date—have experience offering hundreds of millions of rides on demand to passengers through an app-based platform, which is going to be critical to the roll-out of autonomous vehicles. The experience we have in understanding how to provide an on-demand service, as well as the potential for us to roll out autonomous services in a controlled fashion through our platform—perhaps through the use of wheel-sensing technology or other types of controlled dispatching appropriate to the capabilities of the vehicles as they develop and become more mature—will be a huge asset for autonomous manufacturers who want to get rapid experience and testing, and to expose more products to real passengers who are already using the Lyft platform.

We’re also excited about the most recent announcement in our autonomous strategy: the creation of Level Five, which is the new research and development center that is developing a self-driving system within Lyft itself. We will develop the hardware and software necessary to power vehicles that are manufactured by OEMs, and allow them to provide autonomous mobility service on our platform. This is a huge investment by the company, led by Luc Vincent, the man who brought Google StreetView into the world. We’re going to be hiring hundreds of engineers down in Palo Alto in the next couple of years to roll that center out, and we’re very excited about that.

Lastly, pending before state legislatures regulatory commissions are proposals for increased funding of transportation infrastructure, particularly electrification. Does Lyft hold a view on infrastructure funding—i.e., via a gas tax or vehicle miles traveled fee?

Absolutely. It’s a very important question that our policymakers need to answer in the coming years.

Lyft has made very bold commitments about electrification of the vehicles on our platform. As we move into autonomous, our expectation is that the vast majority of the vehicles that we operate will be operating on electric power—which, of course, is also a broader transition happening among consumer vehicles as electric vehicles become more affordable and longer-range.

It’s going to be necessary to find an alternative source of revenue for transportation infrastructure as the gas tax declines, and we’ve been quite engaged in monitoring the progress of discussions about policy ideas like the road user charge (which is another name for the vehicle miles traveled fee) here in California and in other places around the country. We think that is a very sensible approach to alternative revenue mechanism.

Of course, it will be very important to make sure that any new revenue mechanism like that avoids penalizing commercial or shared high-occupancy vehicles at the expense of efficiency. Really, it would be best for these types of fees to be applied across the board to all types of moving vehicles.

Sometimes there’s a temptation to single out new technologies. But rapid electrification and high-occupancy utilization of shared vehicles are the category that really provides the promise that policymakers in California are looking for: to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reductions in congestion in our transportation system. It’s important not to create a disincentive for people to use those services.

That being said, as long as road user charges are applied across the board to all types of vehicles, including personally owned single-occupant vehicles, we think that it’s a very sound idea and one that can lay the groundwork for a more rational funding mechanism for transportation infrastructure in the future, which has been lagging sorely behind in California and across the nation under the gas tax.

"Lyft’s experience offering hundreds of millions of rides on demand to passengers through an app-based platform is going to be critical to the roll-out of autonomous vehicles." —Emily Castor