A new program helps late-night workers in Boston get subsidized Lyft rides
Last call may signal the end of the party for Greater Boston’s nightlife revelers. But service workers — those who tend bar or run restaurants — still have a long night ahead of them to close the establishments. And without reliable late-night public transit options, getting home is often a difficult and expensive endeavor.
For several months, though, the ride-hailing service Lyft has been piloting an effort to help service workers save money on fares. Since mid-April, in a first-of-its-kind partnership, the company has teamed up with restaurateur Garrett Harker to test a subsidized ride program at three of Harker’s restaurants. About 70 employees at Eastern Standard and the Hawthorne in Kenmore Square and at Branch Line in Watertown pay a base fare of $3.50 for a shared ride home from work. The restaurant group and Lyft subsidize the rest.
(Regular riders in Boston pay a minimum of $5 per ride, including a base fare of at least $2.10, plus time and mileage charges.)
This summer, the ride-hailing service is expanding the program citywide on a trial basis, in partnership with restaurants.
“Our employees come from all over the Greater Boston area, most often by public transit,” said Eli Feldman, the project manager at Branch Line who first approached Lyft about creating a partnership. “Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges we face with restaurants is helping our teams get home late.”
It’s long been a challenge for workers like Amanda Saladino, the manager and senior bartender at the Hawthorne. It’s often around 1 a.m. when she finishes crafting cocktails in Kenmore Square. For the next few hours, the 31-year-old oversees her team as they clean and restock the bar. It’s 2:30 to 4 a.m. by the time Saladino steps out onto the street to make her way home.
Typically, Saladino takes the T to work, but since the MBTA shuts down at about 12:30 a.m., she often uses a ride-hailing service to get home. There aren’t usually many cars on the road in the wee hours, so a shortage of drivers might mean she’ll face surge pricing. So she’ll wait till prices come down.
“I just want to go home at that point,” she said with a sigh.
If it’s really late, she might face a long wait for a car because early travelers are booking rides to the airport. At a minimum, a shared ride to her home in Newton Highlands costs about $16.
And lately, as the MBTA has faced service interruptions, she’s been using ride-hailing services to commute to work as well as to get home. The spending is adding up fast.
So Saladino was delighted when her bosses offered to sign her up for the Lyft pilot program. She loaded her phone number into Lyft’s database, and now the program kicks in on the app between midnight and 5 a.m. It is “geofenced” to her location — meaning she has to be in or near the bar for the discount to apply.
If she books a shared ride home, she’ll pay a $3.50 base fare, with the restaurant group paying 66 percent of the remaining fare and Lyft chipping in 33 percent. If her ride ends up costing more than $14, she’ll pay the difference. (For a $15 ride, for example, she would pay $4.50: her $3.50 flat fare plus $1.)
Drivers get the same fares that they would get otherwise.
Saladino said she’s now paying “a substantial amount less” than before to get home, and that’s allowing her to save.
“The fact that they’re putting this out there for team members is amazing,” she said, “and something that I really respect.”
Hospitality industry specialists say subsidized rides may help restaurants provide better service. Having employees worried about getting home is “a bad problem,” said Henry Patterson, a consultant with Delta Foodservice Group.
“You don’t want them to rush though a closing; you want them to put away their mise en place properly. You don’t want them to say ‘I got to leave,’ ” he said. “People have enough obstacles in staffing at the moment.”
The program is an excellent option for restaurateurs who want to keep and retain talent in a competitive industry, he said.
Tyler George, Lyft’s New England director, said he’s eager to learn from the pilot as it expands throughout the city in the next two months.
“Restaurant workers are 8 percent of the total working population of the city, and a lot of them have to leave work after the T closes,” he said. “It’s expensive to own a car and park downtown, so we can offer this ‘second trip’ program for third-shift workers in a way no one else can.”
After the pilot, he said, the company will probably look for a partner to expand it further. And while he hasn’t spoken with MBTA officials yet, he pointed to the successful partnership between ride-hailing services and the MBTA’s paratransit program, The Ride, for people with disabilities.
“For us, it’s an obvious-use case with so many applications,” George said of the new program.
In June, Lyft began piloting a subsidized program with Washington, D.C.’s transit system. The Metro is providing late-night workers a $3 subsidy per ride if they travel home between midnight and 4 a.m.
Jarred Johnson, the chief operating officer of TransitMatters, which advocates for fast, reliable public transit in Greater Boston, said that while subsidizing service workers’ rides can be beneficial to employees, he worries about whether Lyft will continue to pay its share as more people take advantage of subsidized rides.
“Unlike a bus, or any kind of shared-transit mode, the cost of a Lyft with the restaurant program doesn’t decrease as more people use it,” he said. So it may not be sustainable for Lyft if it becomes too popular.
He also noted that there are equity issues with this kind of service: Deep-pocketed restaurant groups might be able to help subsidize their employees’ transportation, but how many owners of small businesses would be able to?
“The fact that there is a demand for this shows that there is a demand for late-night service,” he said. “While initially this is great, long-term it doesn’t solve what we need: a service that is available to everyone.”