News & Politics

Why You Shouldn’t Call Uber and Lyft “Ride-Sharing”

There are better terms to describe the popular apps.

This California car wins the triple crown of ride-sourcing. Photograph by Flickr user The TruthAbout.

The Associated Press, keeper of journalism’s lexical bible, notes on Twitter today that services offered by companies like Uber and Lyft are often described incorrectly.

The rule was actually introduced in January ahead of this year’s AP Stylebook update, but it bears repeating regularly as stories about digitally sourced transportation and the so-called “sharing economy” continue to proliferate. Case in point: a feature published today by New York that peels back the rivalry between industry-leading Uber and second banana Lyft. The article, by Annie Lowrey, is a fine explainer of a Silicon Valley feud that has visible ramifications in cities across the country (and the world, in Uber’s case). But it uses the term “ride-sharing” eight times.

Whether it was the author’s or editor’s choice, the heavy use of “ride-sharing” is a misnomer. Most of what Uber and Lyft offer is not, technically ride-sharing. That term implies that at least two people (often counting the driver) are in the same car—possibly with multiple, but proximate, destinations—to conserve resources or save money. Most trips booked through Uber and Lyft are taken by individual passengers, while all trips in most of those companies’ cities end at a single destination.

Uber and Lyft’s distant third-place competitor, Sidecar, has offered shared rides with multiple pick-ups and drop-offs in Washington since last December. The big two are testing similar platforms, but they are currently limited to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York (plus Paris, in the case of Uber’s Pool service).

AP’s suggestions for the bulk of Uber and Lyft’s services are “ride-hailing” or “ride-booking.” They’re fine, but an even more accurate term is “ride-sourcing,” according to Susan Shaheen, a transportation researcher at the University of California, Berkley who has published papers on transportation apps and car-sharing services like Zipcar.

“The concept of ridesharing has been around for a long time,” Shaheen said in an interview with Washingtonian last year. “It starts with the [World War II] effort to save tires and really evolved. Historically, the term has meant car-pooling, van-pooling.”

But as direct competitors to traditional taxi fleets, Uber and Lyft provide on-demand transportation for commercial purposes. “Ride-sourcing drivers usually do not share a destination with passengers; instead, the driver’s motivation is fare income,” Shaheen and her fellow researchers wrote in a paper last August establishing the differences between “ride-sharing” and “ride-sourcing.”

Apps like Uber and Lyft fit the latter term because their main function is to compile users’ requests for immediate transportations and dispatch—much like a taxicab service—a driver to pick up the fare.

“It’s thinking of, ‘How can you source rides through this app-enabled service?'” Shaheen said.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.