Power wheels: Lyft drivers pivot to help essential workers

June 10, 2020 | By Grace L. Williams

Los Angeles is known for its gorgeous beaches and glamorous Tinseltown allure. It's also known for its never-ending traffic. As drivers for Lyft, Anita Stahl and Jack Kinney have learned to navigate LA freeways like pros. But when COVID-19 cases ramped up, more people stayed home, the economy grinding to a halt. To help keep these drivers working and at the same time respond to critical needs in the community, Lyft offered them the opportunity to be part of the LyftUp Driver Task Force to provide services and transportation for front-line workers.

When LyftUp launched in January, its goal was to bring all of its ride equity programs into one collective vision — to expand affordable, reliable transportation access to those who need it most, starting with free one-year bike-share memberships. But since March, the country — and its immediate needs — have changed dramatically.

As people sheltered in place to avoid catching and spreading the coronavirus, Lyft knew that vulnerable communities were in need of critical transportation. With philanthropic funding from Mastercard, they extended the program to provide access to free rides for more essential workers and those who may need a ride to the doctor or pharmacy. LyftUp is also delivering food and life-sustaining medical supplies to families in need, seniors, those with chronic diseases, and other vulnerable communities.

Those rides are helping drivers continue to earn money even as demand for rides is down. Kinney started driving on the Lyft platform a few months ago when his wife was diagnosed with cancer and needed chemotherapy treatments, making a traditional 9-to-5 schedule impossible to navigate. He says that in his previous job it was not as easy to accompany his wife to all of her appointments. But as his own boss, driving for Lyft helped him be with his wife when she needed him.

From the moment he started driving, he has enjoyed transporting others, but now his work has taken on a whole new meaning: "I'm not picking up people and taking them to the airport, I'm taking them to something that's much more important now." 

"I’m not picking up people and taking them to the airport, I’m taking them to something that's much more important now."
Jack Kinney

Stahl has been driving for Lyft for nearly three years, originally signing up to supplement her work as a freelance makeup artist. From the moment the app sent out a notice to drivers that they could participate in the LyftUp Driver Task Force, she has been on board.

“The meal recipients are so grateful because, in some instances, they have no other way to get food,” Stahl says. “Even if it’s just helping one person, it’s a big deal.”

Lyft works with trusted partners, like the National Urban League and National Federation of the Blind, to distribute rides to those who are most in need, says Lisa Boyd, director of social impact for Lyft.

In addition to providing rides, Lyft also offered free scooter trips and bike memberships to those working on the frontlines of the crisis in cities across the country. In New York City, Lyft offered free annual Citi Bike memberships enabled by a $1 million contribution from Citibank and Mastercard. Those memberships are an expansion of a program that began in March for first responders, health care workers and transit staff, and has been extended to essential City of New York employees and those who work at food service nonprofits such as food banks.

In New York City, a COVID-19 hot spot, biking has become a critical form of transportation as people avoid subways and buses. More than 5,500 people have enrolled in the program, Boyd says: “We think it’s incredibly important that the critical workforce has access to affordable, reliable transportation that supports physical distancing.”

Kinney emphasizes that it’s clear that Lyft has taken driver safety and the safety of others into account while they provide access to rides during the pandemic. To mitigate and minimize health risks, Lyft provides drivers with critical personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer.

And one thing Kinney and Stahl have appreciated is they often have the roads to themselves, making their trips quicker and more efficient — “the ever-present thing of Los Angeles traffic,” Kinney says, “it’s simply not there.” But if the passing of the crisis means a little gridlock now and then, they’d probably take it.

Grace L. Williams