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How Lyft lost the trust of #DeleteUber women who thought it was ‘woke’

Lyft markets itself as a safe, progressive alternative. These women say it’s the same as everything else.

Some riders want Lyft to do more to protect women from sexual misconduct (Video: Faiz Siddiqui/The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — Cristina Vasquez Muñiz felt uncomfortable when a Lyft driver asked for her phone number during a ride. Not wanting the situation to escalate, she obliged.

But when she went on to report what she thought was unprofessional behavior to the ride-hailing company, she was floored by its response.

“You have every right to not give your number out to anyone, but the fact that you did limits the consequences on the driver,” the company wrote, according to an email of the interaction.

Muniz, 24, of Brighton, Mass., described her reaction bluntly: “I didn’t expect to be blamed for the situation.”

Lyft has risen to prominence — including raising billions of dollars by going public this year — in large part by touting a “woke” image. Part of its success has been drawing a contrast with rival Uber, which lost waves of customers after accusations of fostering a “tech bro” culture that enabled misconduct. But now Lyft’s reputation is increasingly under fire from women who say the company often falls short when faced with allegations of sexual harassment by drivers.

In interviews, nearly a dozen women from across the country described Lyft’s response to allegations of sexual harassment as tone deaf and inadequate, especially for the pink app that tries to differentiate itself as more progressive than Uber. Dozens of other women have recounted similar experiences on social media.

Activists also say key aspects of Lyft’s service, including the design of its app, offer fewer safety features than Uber’s, including a labyrinthine series of clicks to file a complaint, compared with Uber’s single click.

“I just kind of roll my eyes, because they do have these billboards promoting themselves as this socially conscious app,” said Emily Ebel, part of a Stanford University group of students who said they were harassed in ride-hailing trips and have advocated for both Lyft and Uber to improve their policies.

She says a Lyft driver once suggested she have his children after a series of inappropriate questions and urging her to convert to his religion. Lyft pledged never to pair her with the driver again. She said this response was inadequate, because it treated her case as a sour personal interaction, instead of saying the company would discipline or better train the driver.

“They’re just another tech company out to get money,” said Ebel, a 29-year-old PhD student in evolutionary genetics, who ended up deleting her account.

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The rider complaints about Lyft reflect a new dynamic introduced into American cities by the arrival of thousands of ride-hailing vehicles, as well as new expectations among consumers about how companies in the #MeToo era should respond to allegations of misconduct.

While passengers have been riding in taxis for decades — also sometimes encountering unprofessional behavior — the problem of sexual harassment by drivers in app-based rides is becoming more visible in part because the sheer volume of trips is growing.

In the past, a taxi company had a trained workforce of professional drivers who also could be anonymous, and the driver was often physically separated by a barrier. Today, with apps, passengers typically ride in the personal cars of drivers, whose profiles are visible on customer’s phones. When drivers behave inappropriately, riders have strong expectations that Uber and Lyft will respond.

Lyft spokeswoman Lauren Alexander said the company’s response had fallen short in some instances, and she acknowledged it could do more in some cases of alleged sexual harassment. “We are always exploring ways to improve the experience for all users, and this includes how we monitor and respond to allegations of misconduct to ensure that our users are supported.”

Lyft declined to address the individual incidents in detail, citing privacy concerns.

Lyft nearly doubled its U.S. market share to about 40 percent over two years by carefully crafting an image as the friendlier ride, compared with Uber.

As Lyft prepared in March to go public, it said in a filing that its reputation is key to differentiating itself from Uber. “We have built a brand that balances our mission-driven ethos with a friendly, hospitality-oriented personality,” the company said.

According to its critics, Lyft has failed in numerous ways in addressing sexual harassment concerns.

Those critics say the design of Lyft’s app makes it too hard to report harassment. They want a “panic button” like the one in place on Uber for more than a year now. A small, shield-shaped symbol stays on the home screen during the ride, allowing passengers to swipe up and click on “911 assistance” to automatically dial for help. In some cities, that option also provides trip information to local law enforcement via the GPS built into the app.

In May, a year after Uber made the change, Lyft announced that it, too, would add a panic button. The company said it would be added later this year.

The women also complained that it took at least three steps to report a driver’s bad behavior on a past Lyft trip. Uber, in comparison, offers a help option labeled “My driver was unprofessional” on the first screen, plus a “Critical Safety Response Line” option that directs passengers to call 911 or Uber’s safety team once they’re out of harm’s way.

Lyft added recurring driver background checks in April, nearly a year after Uber did so — something Uber has said resulted in more than 20,000 drivers getting kicked off its app. Lyft has not provided data on the results of its ongoing checks.

Both Lyft and Uber have promised transparency reports outlining behavior by drivers in multiple categories of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment, but neither has scheduled those reports’ releases. Now, members of Congress are taking steps to obtain the data on incidences of assault and abuse reported on the companies’ platforms.

Women who say they experienced sexual harassment in a Lyft describe an interaction that left them feeling unheard by a faceless entity when they complained to the company about situations that made them feel uncomfortable or even in danger.

The women said their complaints were initially routed to a chat app — powered by artificial intelligence and not a real human. To find the safety hotline number, customers had to exit the app and manually search for the hotline number.

Lyft said this spring it would eliminate its chat bot. Lyft also says there are multiple avenues inside and outside the app for riders to report a bad experience.

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After a ride, passengers are asked to rate their drivers with a star system. Lyft says it uses this system to help determine whether rides have gone awry. If a ride gets fewer than four stars, the app asks passengers what went wrong and Lyft monitors responses for allegations of harassment or assault. Those are routed to teams inside Lyft for a follow-up. After a ride, passengers get receipts emailed to them with links to find help, and Lyft’s online support page includes an option to be contacted by its safety hotline. The “Ride History” category in the Lyft app also includes the option to “get help.”

“Change isn’t happening fast enough,” said Allison Tielking, a student entering her senior year at Stanford.

She chose Lyft for rides last summer during an internship in Boston, thinking it aligned better with her social values. But, she says, three drivers made sexually explicit comments and inappropriate advances.

Tielking started a social media campaign known as “Take Back the Ride,” collecting stories from more than 40 women who faced harassment in Ubers and Lyfts. She has also campaigned directly with Lyft executives to ask them to make changes, both during a tour she took of the company’s headquarters and then after, when they agreed to meet with her in October.

In a 60-slide presentation to the team in charge of safety, Tielking recommended a clearer navigation system to report harassment within the app, as well as improved driver training and better transparency on how the company addresses harassment.

During the presentation, Tielking showed Lyft executives how much easier it was to report harassment in Uber’s app, which included multiple, visible help icons and a dedicated safety “toolkit.”

“Lyft constantly says that safety is its number one priority, but I think in reality image is its top priority,” Tielking said. “I think all these reports are treated more as inconveniences where the news needs to get brushed under the rug."

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Mary Kobayashi, 35, of Seattle, in March complained to Lyft that a driver proposed to her twice and offered to fly her to Las Vegas.

After Kobayashi, a Web show co-host, said no to being his girlfriend, he asked to be her godfather. She says he also rejected another rider planning to join the trip and insinuated he knew when Kobayashi got off work, all during a 10-minute trip to meet a friend at a bar.

“It sent a chill up my spine,” she said. The company told her she wouldn’t be paired with the driver again.

That’s the same response Tielking received each time she reported her harassment. It’s part of a standard response the women say is inadequate — though Lyft said recently it has stopped using that language in its automated and email communication with riders.

In the case of sexual harassment, it is better for victims to receive a more personal response that conveys the company hears them and believes them, said Alexandra Zeitz-Moskin, a spokeswoman for the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.

“I think those words are really meaningful and powerful,” Zeitz-Moskin said. “One acknowledges that the experience was real for the survivor, and the other avoids the conversation, which can make someone question the validity of their truth and feel potentially re-traumatized.”

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Kiani Whitehorn says she opened the door and jumped from her Lyft after a driver, who was complimenting her looks, veered off course and wouldn’t stop. She suffered bruises and cuts. She reported the incident to Lyft and to police, she said. A Lyft representative told her the company would open an investigation and ban the driver, and Lyft confirmed to The Post that it had banned the driver.

Whitehorn said she was still charged for the ride, however.

“That’s super annoying that I had to pay 10 dollars to jump out of a car," she said. “It’s kind of funny, because I deliberately chose Lyft because I thought it was a safer app."

Liz Soehngen, 32, said a driver last year offered her and another passenger a free ride. He told them that it was in honor of a holiday, and asked them to cancel their trips on their phones so they wouldn’t be charged. But she became alarmed once the driver draped a towel over his phone covering the navigation map.

She and the other passenger exchanged messages on their phone screens and asked to get out. They stopped at a house where strangers were gathered on a porch and arranged new rides home.

Lyft has said little to her about what action it took, other than to specify she wouldn’t be paired with the same driver again.

“I just freaked out, and I was crying,” said the former sexual assault crisis counselor with the YWCA Silicon Valley. “This was a guy who was planning to do something; all he needed was opportunity. … The idea that he was out there and could have just picked up somebody else was intolerable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Kiani Whitehorn’s first name.