How The Tumult of 2020 Will Shape the Future of Ride Sharing

By WIRED Staff

LG: What was it like? Was there plexiglass? Were you bring a face shield?

MC: There was plexiglass and other than that, it was normal. It was nice.

LG: Normal. What is normal anymore? All right, I guess we're going to try to figure that out on today's show.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

LG: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED and I'm joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior editor Michael Calore. Hey, Mike.

MC: Aloha.

LG: How are you doing today?

MC: I'm doing great, thanks.

LG: Good, good. We're also joined by WIRED transportation writer, Aarian Marshall, who's joining us from DC. Aarian, thanks so much for coming on Gadget Lab.

Aarian Marshall: Thanks for having me. It's so good to be with coworkers for a moment.

MC: It's good to see you on the postage stamp.

LG: It's good to see you on Zoom. Today, we're talking about how we got around this year. I mean, not that we were able to get around to this year because that would have been nice, but how we actually moved from place to place and how ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft and even scooter shares were effected by both the pandemic and legislation.

Just nine or 10 months ago, it was nearly impossible to imagine modern transportation without Uber. But when the pandemic hit, it devastated demand for ride shares. Meanwhile, in California, legislation like Assembly Bill 5 and the recently passed Prop 22 are likely to have big repercussions for gig workers, the people who actually drive for these companies. The laws will probably set a precedent for how the companies that rely on these workers do business. Aarian, you cover these companies closely. How are they fairing?

AM: They are not doing great, probably not surprisingly. Uber and Lyft notoriously debuted on the stock market last spring. It was like one of the big first tech IPOs of the modern sort of unicorn era. Since then, their stock prices have kind of struggled and they've struggled to actually make money. There are still lots of people pouring money into these companies, but they're still not really turning a profit and they're certainly not turning a profit this year.

Rides are still down in most places across the world. In the US, at one point they were down 75, 80 percent. We've heard more recently that rides are kind of coming back in some places and some cities, but I think like the coronavirus itself, there have been waves of people going out and about, then things shutting back down again. So they're not doing great. It's been a hard year for everyone, and that includes Uber and Lyft.

MC: Right before the pandemic, they made some changes to their businesses. Both of them shed parts of their business that they didn't want to deal with anymore and they made some acquisitions and moved into some new areas. How has that decision-making played out?

AM: That is a great question. I think it sort of depends on which things you're talking about. Uber notoriously pulled out of some places around the world. They pulled out of Asia, sold part of their business to other companies over there. That's kind of... Was part of them consolidating, rearing up for this Wall Street IPO.

The other big thing that both Uber and Lyft moved into in the last few years are scooters and bikes and sharing those things instead of just car rides. That has also proven to be a difficult business. It's actually doing a little bit better during the pandemic. It turns out that people are getting super into biking these days. It feels a lot safer to some people. We'll see whether those trends will keep up during the winter. I think it's going to be really hard for people to get around in places where it gets really cold and snowy and unpleasant to be on a bike or scooter.