Lyft and Uber are somewhere in between cruising with your pals and a chauffeur. How do you navigate the social norms of the on-demand driving economy?

Harry Campbell is used to people throwing up in his car. He's also shuttled around amorous couples who were going at it in the back seat. The Los Angeles-based Uber and Lyft driver says there's not much he can do. As a driver—especially working the post-bar crowd—you've got to be ready to pull over, look for warning signs (like a user who can't drop a pin properly to save his life, or an especially belligerent person) and keep Ziploc bags handy.

Really, the onus is on the passengers to stop behaving badly. But ride-hailing services have complicated what used to be a notoriously impersonal dynamic. It's no longer as simple as hailing a taxi, sitting in silence, and hopping out.

The social dynamic is amplified. There's the potential for greater accountability; if a driver's ratings dip too low, he could be out of a job. Since drivers and passengers both have profiles and ratings, there's a unique etiquette involved. Here's how to avoid being your driver's nightmare customer throughout your journey together.

The pickup

Riders are often rude before the trip even begins, drivers told CityLab. Campbell says he constantly has to wait on passengers at their pick-up point.

“They'll take forever to get outside, and they shouldn't because there are all of these signals that I've gotten there. They can see with GPS with the car is and they'll get alerts when I'm pulling up,” he says. “And drivers don't get paid for that waiting time.”

Technically, drivers could start the meter right then, establishing a slowpoke fee, but most don't out of fear that it'll anger the customer, Campbell explains.

Assuming, though, that user and driver find each other in reasonable time, the rider's next issue is figuring out the right place to sit. There can be some awkward second-guessing and tangible differences between the services.

Lyft's claim to fame used to be that passengers hopped into the front seat, fist-bumped their driver and rode off. The fist-bump has pretty much gone the way of the now-defunct fuzzy pink mustaches formerly on drivers' dashboards. But the front seat placement is still the agreed-upon rule of thumb, Campbell says.

Uber, on the other hand, is “cabbier” in that the expectation is to get in the back seat. That's how Washingtonian Scott Stead, a five-star user of Uber and Lyft, rolls.

Geographic differences add to the murkiness of this distinction. Austin-based entrepreneur Ryan Farley, who takes Uber to and from work daily, always hops in front. “It's a more social thing here,” he explains.

Ask the driver before packing Fluffy into the backseat. (Little Moon/

The only time Farley doesn’t sit in the front seat is when he's traveling with his 60-pound dog, Trevor. Farley says he doesn't know if this would fly outside of the super dog-friendly Texas capital but that most drivers are fine with a human and pooch passenger. The way to not piss anybody off is to immediately call the driver and ask permission.

“Seventy percent of the time it's OK,” he says. “The rest of the time they'll say, 'I don't want to get hair on the seat.' I don't try to convince them; I just get another Uber.”

Farley sits in the back with his canine companion—who frequently tries to lick the driver.

The ride

How to pass the time?  Conversation is a meaty enough issue that Campbell—who has a podcast and consulting service for drivers— has blogged about it.

Stay away from religion, politics and other touchy subjects and stay on small talk, he says. “Treating it like a first date is a good way to go.”

Just how much talk is expected? That, again, differs by service. Sitting in the front seat requires more banter. When in the back, Stead takes his cues from the driver, and they generally chat less.

Farley acts in the same way he would with a friend providing a ride. For instance, if they're mid-conversation and he has to respond to texts or emails, he'll explain or apologize.

Campbell's favorite line of conversation steers toward where the person is headed, especially if it's a restaurant or nightspot that he can then learn about and recommend to other customers. This works because it's a safe subject and it helps him with one common criticism of rideshare drivers: they don't know the city in which they're driving.

The worst offenses

During his six months as a Lyft driver in D.C., Peter Marshall's biggest gripe was when customers would try to persuade him to do illegal things.

“People have tried to bring their beers with them or squeeze five people in where there are only four seat belts,” he says. ”The first one could get the driver arrested and the second puts passengers in danger.” (Big groups should be aware that UberXL and LyftPlus can accommodate more passengers.)

Unless a driver works exclusively during weekday daylight hours, he or she is bound to have to deal with out-of-control behavior. After all, bar pickups are a lucrative part of the gig and something drivers enjoy because they're keeping drunks off the road, Campbell says.

The exit

Sometimes a conversation starts to feel meaningful, especially on a longer ride. What's the right way to say goodbye?

Campbell's been known to trade business cards, though he's never actually hung out with a former passenger later on. “But it felt strange for them to just leave abruptly,” he says.

The other big pointer from frequent riders and drivers is to not overlook a basic service step: the tip. With Lyft and Uber, a tip is not automatically included; the user has to punch it into the app. A good rule of thumb: tip the same way you might in restaurants.

Bottom line: Getting into someone's car and sharing time with them in a confined space is an intimate experience. You're trusting the driver to get you somewhere safely and (relatively) quickly, and they're banking on you not being an insufferable jerk. “The best way I can think about how to be a good passenger is think of it like you're riding in your family's car rather than a taxi,” says Marshall. “Just try to be polite and don't make a mess.”

Top image: Kzenon/

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  2. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  3. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  4. Equity

    The Problem With a Coronavirus Rent Strike

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  5. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?