Living in the small town of Lewiston, Jon Coats had no idea what would happen when he signed up to drive for the ride-sharing service Lyft. Hours after he was approved, he found out: He got a driving request.
Lyft and a similar service, Uber, work through smartphone apps. Once the app is downloaded, people can connect to nearby drivers who will pick them up and deliver them to their destinations. Payment is done instantly through the app. Lyft launched in 2012, a few years after Uber. The popularity of both services has disrupted traditional taxi cab business in metropolitan areas. People like Coats are making them available in smaller towns.
“We thought we’d just see if anyone’s out there. It doesn’t cost us anything but being available,” Coats said.
There are no start-up costs to driving for Lyft. Both Lyft and Uber require a background check and driving records before approval, Coats said. Drivers must use a vehicle that is no more than 10 years old. Coats initially went with Lyft because it didn’t require a vehicle maintenance report from a mechanic like Uber does. The approval process took only a couple of days.
After about a month of driving with Lyft — and confirming that he liked driving strangers around town — Coats joined Uber as well. He now gets more requests through Uber, but continues to drive for both services.
Coats does most of his driving in the evening. He opens the app, lists his availability and goes back to doing whatever he’d otherwise be doing. He gets an average of one request a night, so it doesn’t take up a whole evening. He only gets paid for driving, not for being on call. Drivers can choose their availability and aren’t required to drive or be available for any amount of time.
When someone in Lewiston makes a ride request through Lyft or Uber, it goes out to the drivers in the area who have listed availability. Coats gets a notification on his phone and has 15 seconds to respond. Because the request can go out to multiple drivers, whoever responds first gets the job. In this way, Coats said, it feels a little bit like a game — a game he gets paid to play.
“Mostly, I’m so excited to drive that I just hit yes,” Coats said.
Evenings and weekends are the busiest time, in his experience, but then, that’s also when he’s most likely to have his availability on.
“Most of the requests are people wanting to go out and have a good time and be safe by having someone else drive,” Coats said.
The typical destination is a bar or restaurant. Some requests are from locals, but he also gets requests from out-of-town visitors who need a ride from the airport or hotel. From what his clients in Lewiston have indicated, both the response time and driving rate are better with Lyft or Uber than a traditional taxi. Through an app downloaded to their phones, passengers are notified of the type of car to expect and can see a photo of their driver so they know they’ve got the right vehicle.
Coats has taken visiting sales representatives to bars, bored and hungry family members at a funeral to get a bite to eat, a group of friends to a bar a couple of blocks down the road, and a University of Idaho student to Moscow after a flight to Lewiston. He has a regular passenger whom he drives about once a week to her job. She knows all the Uber drivers in town, Coats said, and she has told him there are about seven who drive at various times. Neither Uber or Lyft indicate how many drivers are in the Quad Cities area.
The entire transaction takes place through the app, so there’s no awkward requests for payment or hassling with a credit card. The service takes a certain percentage and Coats gets the rest. Clients can tip the driver with cash or through the app — either way, all of the tip goes to him.
Sometimes he’s lucky and gets a request for a nearby ride from someone who tips well. Other times he has to drive across town for a short ride with someone who isn’t friendly and doesn’t tip at all.
Either way, it’s not much. Most rides are within the city limits and Coats makes $6 to $7 per trip, depending on a variety of factors. But that’s not the only reason he does it. For Coats, meeting people and hearing their stories is part of the adventure.
“I’m someone who likes to talk to people,” Coats said.
Both Lyft and Uber support their drivers by sending regular information on how to be a better driver. They’re encouraged to be friendly, to know passengers by name and to know where they’re going. After the ride, rating questionaires can be filled out discreetly through the app.
“I get rated by the people that request rides, and then I rate them as well,” Coats said.
The services generally work well, but they have their quirks. Sometimes there are glitches in the app, such as the state line between Idaho and Washington that Coats said creates some issues. He recently took someone from Lewiston to Lancer Lanes in Clarkston, but because his driving area is associated with his home address in Lewiston, that person couldn’t request a ride back with him. Drivers also must avoid driving people who have purchased legal marijuana in Washington into Idaho, where it is illegal.
All of this is a welcome variance from Coats’ work as a youth pastor, where he spends time in an office and interacts with teens.
“It’s so not what I do. It’s a totally different world that I wouldn’t have a chance to interact with,” Coats said. “That’s part of the fun.”