Lyft and Uber Won’t Be Happy Until They’re Your One-Stop Transit Guide

Lyft is buying the parent company of CitiBike and other bike-sharing programs.CreditGabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

By Michael J. de la Merced July 3, 2018

Uber and Lyft came to prominence with their ride-hailing services. But increasingly they’re betting on other modes of transportation — with the aim of becoming the only service people need to get around cities.

Lyft on Monday struck a deal to buy the core parts of Motivate, the parent company of CitiBike in New York and seven other bike-sharing programs around the United States. At first, that acquisition may seem puzzling — why would a ride-hailing giant want to get into the far smaller market for bicycles? — but there’s a bigger idea at work here.

While Uber and Lyft have raised tens of billions of dollars to change the way people travel in cars, the future of urban transport doesn’t revolve just around automobiles. Bike-share programs have been popular in cities around the world for years. Shared electric scooters have become huge business, as providers like Bird and Lime have gained in popularity. And millions of people still take buses or trains. (Some even still walk.)

Lyft and Uber are well aware that one doesn’t need to summon a driver to travel 10 blocks. Lyft’s deal for Motivate follows Uber’s takeover of Jump, a company that rents dockless electric bikes in six American cities, including San Francisco and Chicago. And both companies are experimenting with their own scooter-sharing programs.

But they have bigger ambitions than just filling in gaps in their transportation networks. They want people to use their apps for navigating around cities, period. Uber’s C.E.O., Dara Khosrowshahi, explicitly spelled this idea out earlier this year:

“Whether it’s taking a car, whether it’s taking a pooled car, whether it’s taking a bike, whether you should walk or even now we want to build out the capability for you to take a bus or subway. We want to be the A-to-B platform for transportation.”

There are already apps like Citymapper that help commuters figure out the best way to navigate between two points in a city. But Lyft and Uber have the advantage of actually running some of the transport networks that can be used to make those trips happen, and would like users to never leave their platforms.

One of the keys to making that dream a reality is linking their privately run businesses to public transit — something that both companies are working on.

Uber struck a partnership with the start-up Masabi earlier this year to let users buy public-transit tickets through its app. That means that if the fastest way across town involves a car and a train, Uber could earn money from both parts of the trip.

It isn’t clear what Lyft’s plans with Motivate are yet. But the acquisition buys it relationships with eight U.S. cities that could prove helpful. And while many in Silicon Valley tout the benefits of the dockless bikes and scooters that Jump and Bird offer, Motivate’s bike docks are also useful real estate, providing central locations for bikes or scooters that tend to be around public transit hubs. That could make it easier for users to take public transportation and then switch over to a bike, all while staying in the Lyft system.

Of course, both companies face plenty of barriers. For one, while Lyft says that it expects Motivate’s contracts with cities to roll over, that may not be guaranteed. And while Uber has worked to recast itself as a friendly partner to local governments, many may remain wary because of the past frictions with municipal regulators.

But becoming what Mr. Khosrowshahi has called the “Amazon for transportation” could be incredibly lucrative. That could keep a fight between Uber and Lyft going for years

Follow Michael J. de la Merced on Twitter: @m_delamerced.