The feature, Women+ Connect, is an option within the Lyft app that can be selected by users and drivers. If selected, Lyft will “prioritize matches with other nearby women and nonbinary riders,” the company said in announcing the new feature on Sept. 12.
However, the Women+ Connect option does not guarantee that women and nonbinary drivers and riders will be paired for every ride.
“If no women or nonbinary riders are nearby, drivers with the preference on will still be matched with men as Women+ Connect is a preference feature, not a guarantee,” Lyft said.
Phoenix joins Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose as a testing ground for the feature.
Encouraging new drivers
Women make up nearly half of all Lyft riders but account for just 23% of the company’s drivers, according to Lyft’s 2023 Economic Impact Report. Only 8% of Lyft drivers identify as LGBTQ+, the report stated.
Lyft is hopeful that its Women+ Connect option will help encourage more drivers from those two demographics to jump behind the wheel.
“Women+ Connect is all about providing more women and nonbinary people the opportunity to earn money on their terms and giving riders more choice,” said Lyft CEO David Risher said in a press release. “We hope this gives millions of drivers and riders another reason to choose Lyft.”
The news was exciting for Karen Smith, a Lyft driver with five years of experience shuttling people around the Valley.
She opted in for three reasons: "First, for my safety. Second, for my passengers to ease their minds," she told Phoenix New Times. "Most women feel safer getting in a car with a woman."
Third? Women are more likely to tip, she said.
But the notion that women are more likely than men to tip may be largely anecdotal, according to a 2019 University of Chicago study. The nationwide study looked at the tipping habits of Uber riders and found that nearly 60% of riders never tip, while 1% tip for every trip.
Still, according to Lyft, its drivers averaged $36 per hour including tips in the second quarter of 2023.
Not a surefire safety feature
One major pitfall to the Women+ Connect feature is that it doesn't account for women who book rides on their accounts on behalf of men. When an account is linked to a rider who identifies as a woman, that person can use the new feature even when booking a ride for a man, without indicating the identity of the actual rider.
Smith said that she wishes more female passengers who schedule rides for men would take a second to share that information in a note on the app.
"I have had a man be bold enough to reach over to grab a body part and ask if I could come home with him," she explained. "His sister booked him a ride to get him home safely because he was drunk."
Sadly, Smith’s experience isn’t an isolated one.
Lyft's sexual assault data for 2019 identified over 1,000 attempted rapes in rideshare trips arranged through its app that year. An additional 292 rapes were reported. Some 1,014 cases of attempted nonconsensual sexual penetration of drivers and riders were also reported, according to the company.
In 2022, Lyft was hit with 17 separate lawsuits from U.S. users who said the app failed to protect drivers and passengers from sexual and physical assault. Fourteen of those lawsuits came from plaintiffs who claimed to be victims of sexual assault.
While Lyft offers safety protocols, like mandatory driver’s license verification for drivers, it does little to protect drivers.
Smith said that she has experienced many instances of picking up a fare only to find it was a different person than the one listed on the account.
"If you book a ride, and your boyfriend, significant other, brother or your son or dad walk up to my car, why haven't you put it in the notes that I'm picking up a man? Have my back," she said.
Mixed reaction from Lyft drivers
Although Smith admits that Women+ Connect isn’t a safety guarantee, she said she was happy to test drive the feature.
"I did opt in to connect with more women," Smith said. "I love the extra money that I get from driving. I also love getting to know and see Phoenix and the surrounding areas."
Smith, who also works as a flight attendant, said, "It's the second-best job I've ever had."
Another Lyft driver, Natalie Ringger, told New Times she isn't impressed by the new feature.
"Honestly, I feel like it’s kind of stupid," she said. "I believe you can update your gender, and men can say they’re nonbinary and be included in the program. But there’s no way to verify that info, so cis hetero men can easily claim to be nonbinary."
She also wondered if male drivers would lie to take advantage of the safety feature.
"Some of them may think this will limit their ability to get rides and opt in to avoid losing rides," Ringger said. "I think more than anything it provides a false sense of security."
For Eva Steele-Galindo, the director of programs for Phoenix Pride, the Women+ Connect feature is an exciting upgrade.
“I work out in the community and several times must take a Lyft after bar hours. Being a proud transgender woman, my husband and I are always anxious when I am riding alone. The new Lyft feature allows me to set my preferences to ensure I feel safe through my ride,” Steele-Galindo said. “It may seem small to some, but to me it’s life-saving.”