This past April, I rerouted my career by going back to school. Needing to still pay the bills, I started driving for Lyft. I expected a straightforward transaction between me and Lyft: my driving services for a cut of their earnings. However, I was surprised to find that I received more than a monetary payout. I was also shaped by new perspectives and stories that made me feel more like a rider than a driver.
According to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her 2009 TED Talk, discovery saves us from having a single story, and that’s what driving for Lyft did for me. Adichie found that when she moved from Nigeria to the United States, people made numerous false and unfair generalizations about Africans; they had bought into a single story. Likewise, my original assumption (my single story) of the type of people who use Lyft was almost immediately destroyed. I started driving in Chattanooga and realized I was getting more ride requests in the poor suburbs than in the urban gig-economy hub. It forced me to ask the question: who really uses Lyft?
Going in, I had my assumptions about who I would be driving around. Lyft, after all, is an edgy tech company. I assumed it would be a bunch of white, yuppie millennials who needed to get from their bachelor pads in a trendy part of the city to their hip job at a tech start-up, only to need another ride at the end of the day so they could go out drinking with their friends, getting back home at 1am while trying not to throw up in your back seat. Why did I assume that? Because I spend most of my time with white millennials.
I’ve only been driving for Lyft a few months, but it seems that although Lyft is used by all kinds of people, the majority of my time was spent picking up poorer people who don’t have transportation to and from places that allow them to survive: work, Walmart, the doctor, home. Lyft allows people without transportation to live their lives, to proceed with the day-to-day. Sure, there were times where I took people home from weddings, baseball games, and bars. After all, stereotypes don’t spring up out of thin air. Yet, that didn’t seem to be the norm.
Rider after rider, my original assumptions continued disintegrating. One of the first people I drove was a poor, African-American woman who lived about 20 minutes from work. She didn’t have a car or access to public transit, so she used Lyft to get to and from each shift. I don’t know exactly how much a one-way ride costs her, but judging by the time and distance I would guess about $15. Let’s also generously say she makes $10 per hour at her restaurant. If she works an 8-hour shift, that’s $80, not taking into account taxes. Less a $30 round trip, at the end of the day she’s walking home with only $50—a touch over 60% of her original earnings. Using Lyft regularly is no financial joke, but she’s doing what she must to survive.
Given they’re in my car, the people in my backseat may feel like foreigners in my life. But, I also feel like a foreigner in their lives. They’re allowing me to enter into their lives—to know where they live, where they work, what they like to do—rather than them entering into my life. To request a Lyft ride is an act of vulnerability; it’s opening up part of your world to a complete stranger, a stranger who will come to know significantly more about you than you will about them. For example, I once picked up a guy at a cheap hotel with his young daughter. His daughter was making a lot of noise in the backseat, and I could tell the man was embarrassed. We first dropped his daughter off at his mom’s house, and then I dropped him off at work. Sometimes, vulnerability can lead to shame. Even though I wasn’t looking down on him, there’s no doubt his embarrassment didn’t make him feel dignified or put-together. While he gave me a glimpse of the hardships in his life, he walked away knowing very little about my life.
Ironically, to be a Lyft driver is really to be a rider in someone else’s story. Participating in someone else’s story is an avenue for growing up, something we should always be doing. And I’m grateful for the strangers who have opened up their worlds to me. One ride at a time, my single story of humanity is expanding into a multi-faceted story—a story where I’m not really the driver, but just along for the ride.