Ridesharing in Pittsburgh

Lyft and Uber are mum on whether quiet rides are coming to Pittsburgh — and the irony’s not lost here

“I kind of think of myself as the modern day hairdresser or bartender,” one Pittsburgh driver said.

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courtesy of lyft
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Few people would blame Jim Lokay for not feeling chatty when he headed to his 3 a.m. shift.

When he Ubered to work, he prayed for a driver who could “read the room.”

“I never wanted to talk. Never,” the former KDKA-TV traffic reporter said. “I got in, mentioned my name, and laid back and closed my eyes.”

He’s since left the station where he appeared on air at 4 a.m. for a more regular shift at a station in Washington, D.C. When he takes Uber or Lyft there, he sometimes gets drawn into conversation about that town’s favorite resident. “I think the rider controls the tenor in the car. If the rider engages the driver in conversation, that opens the door.”

It’s the modern introvert’s nightmare: you summon a Lyft or Uber, and the app tells you your driver is known for “great conversation.” The social pressure is pretty significant; just like passengers rate drivers’ performance, drivers give ratings to passengers, too. And enough people are fretting about it that Lyft, at least, has toyed with the idea of a “quiet” mode.

While it’s “not a feature at this point,” Taggart Matthiesen, head of product for Lyft’s autonomous driving division told The Verge, “we have thought about it.”

Pressed for updates, Lyft spokesperson Chris Nishimura said this week in an email: “I have nothing to share. We can’t comment on speculation.” Uber spokesperson Danielle Filson promised comment but did not provide it by deadline (and this reporter is not above pointing out the irony that the spokespeople didn’t comment for an article about making conversation).

Lyft, especially, used to encourage drivers to be super friendly to passengers; remember the days of the pink mustaches, fist bumps and sitting in the front seat? It’s moved away from most of those suggestions as the company has grown.

According to Lyft’s website, the company’s position now is that drivers should follow the passenger’s lead. “Some passengers are looking for a quiet, peaceful ride and may not want to talk. You may not want to force a conversation with a quiet passenger,” its help page advises. Asking for personal information and discussing sensitive topics are also best avoided, the guidance suggests.

Uber’s community guidelines state that a passenger may lose access to its platform due to “inappropriate language” including “asking overly personal questions.” But it doesn’t address the niceties of small talk.

So barring any official policy about whether to talk or not to talk, it’s up to drivers and passengers to work it out among themselves.

Not all drivers are skilled at the art of conversation, of course.

“The worst part of living in Lawrenceville were all the Lyft/Uber drivers from Monroeville who mansplained the neighborhood to me,” said frequent passenger Andrea Laurion. Mansplaining it seems, knows no boundaries.

Sometimes, conversations can veer into frightening territory for the passenger.

“I once had a driver tell me stories of his recent personal life, including a prostitute girlfriend and his gun that he said he was currently carrying and police raids at poker games,” said Pittsburgh passenger Pam Doyle. “We could not get to the destination soon enough.”

But Doyle said she gave the driver a good rating, because he picked her up from her house and was worried he knew where she lived. “File under: Things that men do not have to think about.”

If you, the passenger, are worried about getting a bad rating for failing to hold up your end of a conversation, Lyft driver Evan McCann says: Don’t be.

“A lot of people seem to be worried about that,” he said. “The drivers I’ve talked to, none of them care. I don’t really care.” And, he added, a Lyft driver has to go out of his or her way to rate a passenger at all; it used to be part of ending a ride, but Lyft changed the app a while ago. “As long as someone’s not making a mess of my car” — read: puking in the back seat — “it’s not worth the bother to give them a bad rating.”

McCann has been driving for Lyft since he moved to Pittsburgh about a year ago. “At first it was brutal, not knowing those little subtle things, like should I talk, should I not,” he said.

Usually, McCann said, you can pick up whether a passenger wants to talk in the first few minutes. “I try to play off them, and let them set the tone. But the kinds of conversations I tend to have are natural, so it doesn’t necessarily strike me as off if we talk for a few minutes then the rest of the ride is quiet.”

The informal survey by this reporter of Lyft and Uber drivers in Pittsburgh (a lot of whom preferred not to give their full names) found this to be true: A passenger would have to be especially egregious to warrant a “bad” rating for not engaging in chit chat.

Jim O’Sullivan, who’s been driving for Lyft for about three years, always has snacks on hand and greets all passengers warmly. He’s happy to talk if the passenger wants to but said he can tell within the first few minutes whether it will be a quiet ride, or whether he’ll hear the passenger’s life story.

“More people want to talk than don’t,” O’Sullivan said. “I kind of think of myself as the modern day hairdresser or bartender; we’re in that role where people get in your car and they just open up. They know they’re not going to see you again so sometimes they tell you things they’re not telling anyone else.”