Which is the better ride-share service, Lyft or Uber? To find out, New York Times lead technology writer Brian X. Cheng spent a week using one or the other to get everywhere he needed to go, and comparing their prices, service, and availability. He declared a winner. It was Uber.

The timing couldn't have been much better for Uber, which filed for its initial public offering just a week ago. But the timing was on purpose, Chen wrote, noting that Lyft's recent IPO and Uber's upcoming one are proof that both companies plan to stick around for the long haul. 

Why did Chen prefer Uber? Here's a quick look at his most important criteria:

1. Availability

This is a no-brainer: Uber is available in many more places than Lyft. To begin with, Uber operates in 63 countries, while Lyft only works in the U.S. and Canada. For this reason alone, Chen suggests keeping the Uber app on your phone in case you need a ride while traveling abroad, even if you routinely use Lyft at home.

Within the United States, the picture may be murkier. As of 2017, Lyft says it offers 100 percent coverage in 40 U.S. states. That includes Alaska but alas, not Washington, where I live. And indeed, while at a party recently, I had to use my Uber app to summon a ride for a friend who only had Lyft on her phone and discovered that Lyft didn't serve the suburbs-of-Seattle area where we were.

It turned out that Uber did. And though it's hard to tell from either company's publicly offered information, other observers also found that Uber is available in more locations within the U.S. than Lyft is, although Lyft may be in some places Uber is not.

2. Features and options

Here again Uber wins, first and foremost because it offers wheelchair-accessible rides in about 15 cities, Chen writes. Lyft has a much more limited wheelchair-accessible program.

Beyond that, both services offer a variety of vehicle choices and allow passengers to share rides with strangers who may be going the same way they are. Uber also offers something called Uber Express Pool which allows you to treat it almost like a bus service: You walk a short distance to a convenient location for the driver to pick you up, and then you get dropped a short distance from where you're going, for a lower fare. Chen notes that this service doesn't seem to be widely available yet.

3. Pricing

Uber and Lyft, being fierce competitors in most markets, charge pretty much the same during normal times. But both also charge higher prices in high-demand situations so as to bring in more drivers when they're needed. Uber calls this "surge pricing" and Lyft calls it "prime time."

Both Chen and other observers have noted that Uber's surges can lead to higher prices than Lyft's prime time. But, Chen notes, Lyft also wins this category on transparency. When its prices are increased due to high demand, it shows the rider what the percentage increase is. Its receipts also include the time spent on the trip and mileage traveled, making pricing easier to figure out. 

Uber, on the other hand, has gone out of its way to make its pricing less transparent. It used to alert passengers to surge pricing with a multiplier, for example if it was raising fares 50 percent, that multiplier would be 1.5. But it's removed that information from its app, so that now the only information you have is the total price of the trip.

4. Rewards programs

In this area, Uber really outshines Lyft, so if you're a frequent ride-share user, this could be the deciding factor. Uber offers a points system where you mostly get two points for every dollar you spend.  At 2,500 points (i.e. about $1,250) you reach platinum level which gives you benefits including priority at airports, which could come in very handy. But lower levels get rewards too, ranging from a $5 credit to free cancellations within a 15-minute window. And at a higher level you get free upgrades to Uber Black, the company's black car service with professional drivers. Since Uber also has the restaurant delivery service Uber Eats, you can also earn Uber points when you get food brought to you. In addition, Uber offers Uber Cash, which gives you a discount when you pre-pay for future rides.

Lyft has a points-based rewards program too, but only in a few cities. And to participate, you need an invitation. The program was launched last November, so perhaps it will be available to more people once it's more fully rolled out. In the meantime, Lyft has partnered with some other companies, so you can earn one Delta mile for every mile you ride in a Lyft car, and 30 JetBlue points for Lyft rides to an airport. And if you have a World Elite MasterCard, you can earn a $10 credit a month if you take five Lyft rides.

Asked to comment on the comparison, a Lyft spokesperson pointed out some ways that Lyft distinguishes itself. Its rides are 100 percent carbon neutral, which makes Lyft a very large purchaser of carbon offsets. It offers riders the option to round fares up to the nearest dollar amount and donate the difference to a range of charities. And Lyft provides free or low-cost rides to people who need them most, including hospital patients, low-income seniors, and those in "food deserts" who need help getting to grocery stores.

All of these are very good reasons to choose Lyft, if you live somewhere it's available and aren't using a wheelchair. It's always a great idea to patronize companies that are working to make the world a better place. But in a straight comparison of one service to the other, Uber still wins.

Published on: Apr 19, 2019
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