Lyft said on Tuesday that it was introducing a feature that would help match female drivers with female passengers on its ride-hailing app, in an effort to improve safety and encourage more women to drive with the company.
The feature, Women+ Connect, will allow women and nonbinary riders and drivers to make being connecting with each other for trips a priority by toggling on a setting in the app. They could still be matched with men when no women or nonbinary people were available nearby.
The goal, Lyft said, is for women to feel safer using its platform, and to increase the number of female Lyft drivers. About half of Lyft’s passengers but just 23 percent of its drivers are women, the company said.
“Women drivers tell us it’s hard to drive at night,” said Jody Kelman, Lyft’s executive vice president of customers. “We need to remove a barrier for women drivers today.”
For years, advocacy groups and regulators have questioned the safety of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft that pair strangers with each other, especially as reports of sexual assaults, murders and lawsuits have piled up.
In 2019, Uber said nine murders, 58 fatal crashes and more than 3,000 sexual assaults were reported during Uber rides the previous year, a small fraction of all the company’s rides but numbers that its executives described as “jarring.”
In a follow-up report last year, Uber said that sexual assaults had declined significantly but that 3,824 were still reported in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, Lyft said there were more than 1,800 reports of sexual assault during Lyft rides in 2019.
Labor groups say the drivers who work for Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash are also at risk. At least 50 drivers were killed on the job between 2017 and 2022, one report found, and 31 last year.
Gig platforms have said they have taken steps to improve safety, adding easier ways to contact emergency responders, record audio of rides and ensure passengers are getting into the right car.
Still, Ms. Kelman said, there is “just this sigh of relief” when a woman sees that her driver is another woman.
Kym Craven, the executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, which advised Lyft on the new feature, said she believed it would reduce violence against women who used Lyft.
“If you look at the number of sexual assaults in society of women on women, it’s a very small number compared to sexual assaults of men to women,” Ms. Craven said.
Lyft said it would introduce the feature in five cities with a higher proportion of female drivers — San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Chicago and Phoenix — to see how it was used before broadening it across the country.
Uber has a similar feature, called Women Rider Preference, that started in Saudi Arabia several years ago and has since expanded to several dozen other countries, though not the United States. It allows female drivers to prioritize female passengers, though not the other way around.
Mimi Fan, a Lyft driver in San Francisco who has been an unofficial ambassador for the company in the past, said she might choose to turn on the Women+ Connect feature when she was in a less familiar area or driving late at night.
“That level of comfortability is a little bit higher if it was a female rider versus a male rider at 2 in the morning, going to a really remote area,” Ms. Fan, 43, said.
David Risher, Lyft’s chief executive, said he hoped the new feature would spur more women to drive for Lyft. He said he had heard from female passengers saying they “would just prefer to be picked up by a woman” and from female drivers saying, “If I could drive women, I would drive more.”