Ride App Showdown: Uber, Lyft, and More Battle for the Crown

Apr 30, 2015

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I’ve been a fan of Uber from the start, but it’s not the only game in town. Today, TPG Managing Editor Peter Rothbart reports his side-by-side comparison of competing rideshare apps to see which one comes out on top.

Mobile devices are revolutionizing the way we travel. In addition to airline and hotel apps for all the major carriers and chains, platforms for keeping in touch while you’re on the move, and other great travel apps ranging from translators to restaurant guides, rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft have created a new paradigm for getting around major cities.

In case you’re not familiar with these services, the term Rideshare is a misnomer. You don’t really share a ride with your driver—at least, no more than you “share” a flight with your pilot. They’re more accurately described as Ride apps: you pay a driver to pick you up and deliver you to your destination. Whatever you call them, they’re growing both in number and popularity.

Lyft, Uber, and other mobile ride apps are changing the way people get from place to place in cities worldwide.

I use ride apps regularly, but with so many variables in play (driver, route, time of day, etc.), it’s hard to compare them fairly. To get a better sense of how the different options stack up, I convened a group of friends on a Saturday night in Seattle, and together we tested these services against one another in a city-wide cage match for mobile ride app supremacy. This experiment involved some major players in the market, as well as some relative upstarts:

  • Uber — The standard bearer of mobile car services, Uber is available in around 150 North American cities, plus well over 100 more cities in 55 countries worldwide. Having recently inked partnerships with Amex, Starwood Preferred Guest, and now Capital One, Uber is reaping the benefits of brand recognition to further cement its place as the industry leader.
  • Lyft — Once known for its iconic pink mustaches and friendly fist bump greetings, Lyft is now fostering a (somewhat) more professional image in an effort to cater to both business travelers and the late night bar crowd. Lyft currently operates in about 60 US cities.
  • Sidecar — This service stands out by allowing drivers to present their own rates up front (so you know exactly what your ride will cost before you request it). Unfortunately, Sidecar is limited to just 10 US cities (half of them in California), though there are ongoing plans to expand.
  • Flywheel — Unlike the apps listed above, Flywheel is a mobile platform crafted specifically for the taxi industry. It’s like any normal cab service, but with a competent dispatcher (so, not really like any normal cab service). Flywheel currently operates only in Seattle, San Francisco, Sacramento, LA, and San Diego.
  • Car2Go — The ride service that lets you be your own driver. Car2Go offers fleets of Smart cars that you can rent by the minute in 30 cities across North America and some parts of Europe. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with the other ride services, but it’s in the ballpark, and I thought the contrast would be enlightening.

We summoned our rides simultaneously as we made our way around the city, and then tallied the the time to pick-up, the duration, and the total cost, as well as whether the car arrived on time (according to the estimate provided when the ride was requested). We also took notes on the state of the vehicle and driver, and any other salient details. Finally, we allowed drivers to move at their own pace along whatever route they saw fit, only providing directions upon request.

Each ride brought some new insights into what sets these services apart, and which ones are likely to survive in an increasingly competitive market. Here’s what we learned.

Ride #1

Our first ride took us from my friends’ apartment on North Capitol Hill to one of my favorite Italian restaurants in town, That’s Amore. According to Google Maps, the drive is a shade under 4 miles.

First stop, dinner at That’s Amore.

As we summoned our respective rides, we immediately hit a snag: there was no Sidecar. Whether due to faulty GPS or a lack of drivers, there were simply no cars available at any price, so those castaways instead piled into the other rides as they arrived. Here’s how the rest of us fared:

Ride 1 Time to Pick-up Arrival Door to Door Cost
Uber 2 minutes on time 16 minutes $11.74
Lyft 2 minutes on time 18 minutes $13
Flywheel 8 minutes late 28 minutes $16.23
Car2Go 2 minutes 19 minutes $7.21

For Car2Go, the “time to pick-up” is however long it took to reserve a car, find it, and put the key in the ignition. Similarly, the “ride duration” includes the extra time needed to park and walk to the destination (which is one of the major disadvantages of Car2Go). Also note that in all cases, the “cost” category only includes the mandatory charges (with taxes and fees); tips are excluded.

Uber was the winner here among the cars with hired drivers. Lyft was a close second, but considering the drivers reached the starting point at the same time, you could reasonably blame the extra two minutes on a single traffic light. Both cars and drivers got positive reviews.

Not only did Flywheel take 6 minutes longer to show up, but the car was in comedic disrepair — the driver literally had to pull over at one point because he thought a piece of the vehicle had fallen off. He spent the ride talking on his phone and half-heartedly browsing the web, even while the car was in motion. Tack on that the ride took longer and cost more, and Flywheel was off to a grim beginning.

Parking is plentiful around the restaurant, so Car2Go didn’t suffer from time spent looking for a spot. It was also the cheapest option by a substantial margin. $4.50 isn’t a king’s ransom, but as you’ll see, it adds up over the course of a night out.

As for the restaurant, it’s worth the trip no matter how you get there. I hope someone is working on an app for making tiramisu that good!

Apps ride 2
The meal is over, but the phones are hungry for more.

Ride #2

After eating our fill, we went to the University District for some lively entertainment at Jet City Improv. If you take the highway (as shown below), Google pegs the journey at 8 miles and an estimated 15 minutes.

Next up, improv comedy in the U-district.

Car2Go scored a sneaky victory on this trip, since the vehicle we drove to the restaurant was still parked down the block. There was another one about 6 blocks away; other than that, we were in a Car2Go desert. You can always opt to hold on to a Car2Go even when you’re not driving it, but it gets pricey, and rolling the dice on whether your ride will still be there is half the fun!

Here’s how the second set of rides turned out:

Ride 2 Time to pick-up Arrival Door to Door Cost
Uber 1 minute on time 17 minutes $17.55
Lyft 7 minutes slightly late 23 minutes $18.09
Flywheel 10 minutes late 32 minutes $19.68
Sidecar 16 minutes on time 33 minutes $22
Car2Go 2 minutes 24 minutes $9.61

Uber pulled a Knight Bus and magically plopped onto the curb in front of us in under a minute. The restaurant is as much in the boondocks as one can be in central Seattle; it’s a nice joint, but not that nice, so I have no idea what an Uber driver was doing lurking outside for fares. I don’t hold the longer pick-up times against Lyft and Flywheel; that’s about how long I’d expect a pickup to take. However, Sidecar took a full 16 minutes to arrive, and you’ll notice that it was actually “on time” according to its own estimate. This speaks to just how sparse Sidecar’s coverage is in Seattle — there simply wasn’t anyone closer.

Once again, Uber came out on top by offering the fastest ride and edging Lyft on price. Sidecar was fine on time once the car showed up, but it was substantially more expensive. Flywheel again showed up late, took longer door to door (thanks to routing along local roads), and cost more than both Lyft and Uber. At least this time the car and driver were up to par.

Car2Go was again much cheaper, but parking is less abundant in the University District, which added a few minutes to the trip. If the first car hadn’t still been parked outside the restaurant, we would have needed an extra 5 minutes to reach the other one nearby. Even still, the $8 savings might be worthwhile if you’re not in a rush or getting boozy.

We hadn’t bought advance tickets for the improv, and they were already turning folks away when the first of our group arrived. We headed instead to the nearby Monkey Pub, where (in keeping with the comparison theme of the evening) we fired up a rousing game of Apples to Apples.

When life gives you lemons, drink beer and play board games.

Ride #3

Our final ride took us back to Capitol Hill’s main drag for (more) dessert at Dilettante on Broadway. The two most likely routes are parallel and roughly equal, and Google estimates 3.5 miles and 12 minutes.

Last stop, more dessert!

Time-wise, this proved to be the closest contest, with all of the rides arriving over a span of 5 minutes. However, the cost spread remained wide:

Ride 3 Time to pick-up Arrival Door to Door Cost
Uber 3 minutes on time 15 minutes $9.43
Lyft 7 minutes on time 16 minutes $9.8
Flywheel 4 minutes on time 13 minutes $17.08
Sidecar 7 minutes late 18 minutes $14
Car2Go 2 minutes 16 minutes $6.25

Flywheel managed to arrive on time, and was even the shortest ride from door to door. However, those minutes saved came at a premium of almost $8 over Uber, or $11 over Car2Go. That kept Sidecar from again being the most expensive ride, though it was the slowest (and remained on the pricey side).

Uber and Lyft were comparable in both time and cost, though Uber came out slightly ahead on both fronts. While Capitol Hill is a notoriously difficult area to park, Car2Go performed well on time, and was unsurprisingly the least expensive option.

The Final Score

Here’s how each ride service performed over the course of the evening:

Total Average Pick-up Arrival Average Door to Door Total Cost
Uber 2 minutes on time every time 16 minutes $38.72
Lyft 5 minutes on time twice, late once 19 minutes $40.89
Flywheel 7 minutes on time once, late twice 24 minutes $52.99
Sidecar 12 minutes unavailable once, on time once, late once 26 minutes $54
Car2Go 2 minutes 20 minutes $23.07

To calculate the Total Cost for Sidecar, I added the average ($18) of the two rides that were actually taken. That might be a bit of an overestimate since the first ride was relatively inexpensive. However, Sidecar clearly didn’t perform well on price, as just two rides alone cost nearly as much as all three rides with Uber or Lyft.

Setting Car2Go aside momentarily, Uber is the clear winner here. Without Uber’s fluky one minute pick-up for the second ride, Uber and Lyft would have had almost identical door-to-door times. Still, Uber was $2 cheaper over the course of the night, even excluding the tips Lyft drivers received. Uber also impressed as the only service to meet its arrival estimates for each ride.

Sidecar and Flywheel clearly have a lot of catching up to do. I’m willing to give Sidecar a pass for now, because clearly its network in Seattle is thin and inefficient. I’m curious to hear from Bay Area readers whether the service is more reliable in Sidecar’s hometown. Flywheel has plenty of drivers in Seattle, but the relatively poor quality and high price is making it uncompetitive. I still use Flywheel occasionally when it offers promotional $5 rides, but never when I’m in a hurry.

Car2Go ended up at least $15 cheaper than any of the other rides. You can chalk that up to the cost of a night out, but it adds up quickly. If you save $5 per ride with Car2Go, and you take 100 rides each year, then you’re looking at an extra $500 annually to be chauffeured instead of driving yourself. On the other hand, if it takes you 4 extra minutes to park and walk, then those 100 rides with Car2Go cost you almost 7 extra hours in transit. If you live in a city where parking is very tight, or if you mainly use these apps when you plan to be intoxicated, then Car2Go is much less useful. Otherwise, it’s a great option to save a few bucks.

Flywheel has a built-in network thanks to its partnership with taxis. Unfortunately, that network isn’t making it any more reliable.

Bottom Line

This experiment encompassed a handful of rides in a single city on a single night, so the results aren’t statistically significant. Still, even with this limited scope I think Uber and Lyft demonstrated why they’re on top of the market. Other ride apps will need to figure out how to provide superior service or innovate in other ways if they want to compete.

That said, there’s not much point in being exclusive to any one of these apps (especially with no loyalty programs in place). Price and availability varies between markets, so if you find that one service is consistently faster or cheaper in your town, then stick to it. Otherwise, go with whatever works in the moment.

I’d love to hear from readers about how these ride apps compare elsewhere, so please share your experiences in the comments below!

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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