Organic Rideshare: A Messy Experiment in Actual Ridesharing

After four months of driving for Uber and Lyft, I decided to finally become a rideshare driver.

It began out of both necessity and curiosity. I had just started a new job in Arlington, about 6.5 miles away from my apartment in Washington.  Since my first paycheck wasn’t coming for another 4 weeks, I decided to keep driving for Lyft after work.  Lyft sends paychecks every week, so I figured this would help pay the costs of working in an office again, namely: parking, dry cleaning, and lunch.

I decided to test the concept of organic rideshare, in which I would drive for Lyft and fulfill every ride request I received until I dropped off a passenger within 1 mile of home.  (Hat tip to Patrick Smith for coining the term)

At the least, Lyft would pay for my gas that day and I would get to chat with a new person or two.

At the most, I expected it would pay for gas, parking (a hefty $15/day), and lunch.

Either way, I would ostensibly be reducing the number of cars needed on the road and thereby play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and congestion.

Before launching into the results, it’s worth discussing what rideshare really is and why it matters.

Right now, Uber and Lyft aren’t really rideshare services. “Rideshare,” when used to describe transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, is a generous term, if not an outright misnomer.

I’m not the first to point this out—critics of the companies have long argued they’re more accurately higher-tech networks allowing unlicensed taxis to operate under the unquestioned halo of disruptive-startup ethos. 

The way I paid my rent from July-October bore very little similarity to the optimized-carpooling dream of Lyft founder and CEO Logan Green.  As a full-time driver, I almost certainly lured more customers away from taxis and public transit than from their own vehicles, perhaps with the notable exception of driving on Friday and Saturday nights. 

In the past four months, I was never a rideshare driver in the true sense of the word.  In fact, I might have been doing more commuting than everyone else on the road: if I wasn’t working (read: driving) with a passenger in the car, I was “commuting” to the next passenger.  When I ended up further than 15 miles outside of DC, I usually had to drive back into town before I could find another passenger.  That’s the same distance as my roundtrip commute to my new job, and this happened at least 5 times per week.

But then, we’re still in the transition period, where the TNCs need to focus first on establishing user and driver bases, and second on establishing commuting patterns that replace our single-occupancy-vehicle standard, which Uber has begun to test using its Smart Routes feature.  The next step – which is the step I am attempting to take on my own – is for the services to consider each driver’s destination and timeframe for travel (if they have one) to allow them to engage in the actual practice of rideshare on their way to and from work.



Organic Rideshare

I decided to test organic rideshare exclusively on my way home from work.    This is because, as any driver will tell you, driving for Lyft/Uber is out of the question if you’re on even the loosest timeline. 

Drivers are usually thrilled to see a passenger with luggage: it means a long-haul trip out to the airport and probably a ride back – and, depending on the airport, this can be anywhere from $30-90 in fares for two hours of work.  But sometimes it seems like this only happens when I have imminent plans or an event to attend; my first couple months of driving were a long series of missed meals, delayed (un)happy hours, and justified excuses to skip the gym.

Rideshare Metrics by SherpaShare

As you can imagine, anyone who’s serious about supporting himself via rideshare needs to track expenses, work-related tax deductions, time spent and earnings. SherpaShare has proven to be a great, free resource for freelance drivers, and the app also produced the maps for my trips that you see below. This was an entirely unsolicited, but well-deserved shoutout.

Day 1

Distance Traveled: 30 miles

Time Elapsed: 2 hours, 1 minute

Number of Rides Completed: 5

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $42.04

Trip Notes: My first four rides took me on a giant loop through Arlington and my Lyft passengers seemed thoroughly uninterested in the fact that they were my organic rideshare guinea pig, except for Passenger #1.  (I told you I’d remember you, and I hope your cold went away!)

By the 1.5 hour mark I regretted that I had even began this experiment.  I even started to believe that I would never cross the Potomac again and that I was doomed to remain in Arlington County for the rest of my life.  Luckily, my fifth passenger requested a ride from Arlington to Northeast DC. 

His drop-off location was a little over 1 mile from my house, but I convinced myself that it was a rounding error and called it good. Usually I'm lucky just to end up in the same quadrant as home.

Day 2

Distance Traveled: 10 miles

Time Elapsed: 1 hour, 9 minutes

Number of Rides Completed: 2

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $17.15

Trip Notes: Traffic was horrendous and my hourly rate would have averaged out to $15, which is less than the $22.50 from the day before.  However, I probably would have spent at least 30 minutes in traffic on my way anyways.

By spending an extra 40 minutes on the road, I paid for my parking pass and gas that day.  I also gave my passengers the gift of sitting through what they seemed to think were uncomfortable stories on NPR.  Top 40 stations didn’t seem to help either, but 5 stars were had all around regardless.

Day 3

NOTE: Time and distance adjusted to reflect if I had gone home directly.

Distance Traveled: 6 miles (Total: 12 mi | Last Dropoff to 1776: 5 mi | Last Dropoff to Home would’ve been: 1 mi)

Time Elapsed: About 1 hour, 4 minutes (Total: 1 hour, 9 minutes | Last Dropoff to 1776: 10 minutes | Last Dropoff to Home: 5 minutes)

Number of Rides Completed: 2

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $18.09

Trip Notes: This was a difficult day to plan – as well as adjust numbers – because I wanted to go home before attending the grand opening of the new office of 1776 (a DC startup incubator), in Crystal City, VA. The map above includes the driving from my last dropoff (within a mile of home) to the event.

This was a frustratingly real demonstration of why using Uber and Lyft for actual rideshare doesn’t yet work with any sort of time constraint: I didn’t end up having time to go home before the event, and instead rushed down to 1776 after my last passenger.  However, I did adjust the numbers in the report to reflect the hypothetical of having gone home. Had I not been in such a rush, I could have dropped in quickly after my last passenger.

Day 4

Distance Traveled: 9 miles

Time Elapsed: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Number of Rides Completed: 2

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $17.25

Trip Notes: This was the day that I realized I wouldn’t be taking $40+ home with me every day that I did organic rideshare. But that’s okay.

Fortunately, the route home was quite a bit more efficient on Friday, allowing me not only to make money while talking to some great passengers, but also to make it to happy hour in time while cutting carbon emissions (maybe). This, in a sense, is the ultimate goal: for ridesharing to defray the costs of each person’s trip, take cars off the road, and maybe facilitate a little social interaction, all in the course of a relatively direct trip to the driver’s destination. If I want to make a living off of driving individuals around, that’s fine too, but it’s not really rideshare anymore.

Moving Forward

In short, organic rideshare worked within the parameters that I set out at the beginning:

  • Complete every ride request
  • End day’s driving only once within 1 mile of home

Organic rideshare has the capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the necessity of urban car ownership, and in the process put a little lunch money into drivers’ pockets.  But it must be noted that this is still an imperfect, stopgap measure that doesn’t solve how we can most effectively use cars to move around our cities and move away from the paradigm of inefficient single-occupancy vehicle use. 

If one of my passengers had requested that I drive them 40 minutes north to suburban Maryland, I would likely have had to drive back to DC in an empty car and these maps would look very, very different. 

Furthermore, this demonstrates the unlikelihood that I would be able to successfully do “organic rideshare” on my way to work and be able to predict when I would arrive at my office.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this would end up making me very, very late to work – especially in the region with the worst traffic in the country.

And it’s here that we see a huge opportunity for TNCs to integrate a feature with the potential to revolutionize how motorists look at rideshare during their commutes. If a driver could enter a destination with a necessary arrival time, then scan for similar rides that could be completed along or close to that route, a huge number of new drivers could be brought into the rideshare mix, and we could really start to talk about taking cars off the road. Interesting to note, too, that when the drivers don't depend on it as a primary source of income, compensation only needs to cover expenses and a little incentive (like my gas and parking—and lunch if we’re lucky). This could keep the service significantly cheaper than current Lyft and Uber rides.

To gather more data, this experiment will continue in the coming months – if you have any comments or questions about my methodology or your attempts at organic rideshare, please reach out to us at or on Twitter at @TheAutonomer.