Driving the New Economy

Photos: Senny Mau

Lyft’s Director of Transportation Policy, Emily Castor, Revelle ’05, aims to change more than how we ride.

Emily Castor, Revelle ’05, has a vision for the future, and it involves you—the way you live, the way you work, the way you get from point A to B. This vision may begin with her role as director of transportation policy at Lyft, a powerhouse ridesharing company using technology to reshape transit, but Castor foresees cascades of change, making for a radical shift that could benefit the economy, the climate and even the quality of life in our communities.

Castor has always had a desire to affect sweeping change, yet early on focused that drive into a more traditional channel: politics. An avid student politician at UC San Diego, Castor applied her double-major in critical gender studies and political science to internships with Congresswoman Susan Davis and Senator Barbara Boxer, ultimately landing her a full-time job with Davis’ office in D.C. “That’s where I really got an opportunity to start working on policy,” Castor says. “I definitely had exposure to transportation policy and environmental policy issues.” The experience served her well thereafter, through graduate school and upon returning to California for a new career in public finance, working behind the scenes of state and local projects in San Francisco.

“Between that and my prior federal experience, I had a really good look at what traditional infrastructure finance looked like,” Castor says. “And yet I felt like it was so removed from all of these new technologies that were starting to come online that allowed people to make use of existing technology in smarter ways.”

This was in 2011, when something was truly brewing in San Francisco. A new sort of marketplace was taking shape, and Castor found herself on the cusp of it all. Dubbed the “sharing economy,” this burgeoning form of commerce was facilitated through online communities and allowed for peer-to-peer collaboration and mutually beneficial exchanges of resources—from living space and labor to sharing travel and transportation.

Castor entered this world as a user, but quickly fashioned herself an advocate. Using her self-described “workhorse initiative,” she created and moderated Collaborative Chats, a monthly event series that provided a platform for leading-edge entrepreneurs to speak about their outlooks for the future. The series would eventually lead to her intersection with the founders of Zimride, a budding ridesharing service that came to rechristen itself as the pink mustachioed brand known as Lyft.

Months later, Castor was deep in the heart of the sharing economy, having left her job to become the newly-launched Lyft’s community manager—as she puts it, the “jack-of-all-trades” position. Castor did everything from creating trust and safety protocols, to managing marketing efforts and negotiating a new regulatory framework for a never-before-seen service.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Castor says, recalling those early days. “Lyft feels like my baby because I was there on the day we launched. We used to know all the drivers by name. They would come into the office and eat snacks and use the bathroom.”

Lyft’s explosive growth was a challenge for Castor, who had to professionally grow as quickly as the company in order to operate at such complex scales. Now as Lyft’s director of transportation policy, Castor leads partnerships with transportation agencies to solve transit issues in cities nationwide. And with legislation gradually adjusting to the times, she can sense the shift of air in those meeting rooms.

“There is a desire and enthusiasm on both sides for us to identify ways the public sector can leverage Lyft to reshape transportation behavior and make cities more sustainable,” Castor says.

Those are the benefits that comprise Castor’s vision for the future. By expanding access to mobility on-demand, Castor believes Lyft could massively reduce the need for car ownership. And with electric, self-driving cars on the horizon, factoring ridesharing into the equation allows for even greater efficiencies. After all, Castor points out, cars sit idle for 95 percent of their lives, and 80 percent of their seats are empty when they’re on the road.

Resolving these issues could greatly reduce our environmental impact, curb traffic, and alleviate the eternal struggle of parking (something most Tritons will know well). More dramatically, Castor believes this innovation could transform the physical landscape of our communities. “The need for people to live in this suburban form that we currently have, where you need a two-car garage and wide roads where you can’t have walkable streets—that will change,” Castor predicts. “We’ll be able to live in more livable communities that are oriented around people, instead of around cars.”

While Lyft and the sharing economy may change communities in the future, it is currently having an impact on individuals’ lives. “It’s equally important to look at the income opportunities on the driver’s side and see how that is transformative—because it’s really so different than the traditional model for work,” Castor says. “When you look at the way that people have had access to income opportunities
in the past, it’s been  structured and rigid, in 40-hour-per-week packages and long-term commitments.”

Castor cites how the sharing economy instead allows for a “democratization” of the work experience, a concept she ardently believes in. As Lyft drivers and others in the sharing framework can work when they want, however long they want, this financial leeway allows people to pursue their passions or take entrepreneurial chances. An aspiring photographer, for instance, has a fallback when clients are running low—she can parlay her car or apartment or other pre-owned resources into a dependable income stream.

“That just wasn’t possible before with traditional forms of employment, where you were mandated to be present for a rigid number of hours,” Castor says. “I think that serves as a new form of safety net for people in the modern economy.”

As shifts like these begin to happen small and large, culturally and institutionally, economically and conceptually, the only sure thing is that even bigger changes are coming. And it is up to Tritons like Castor to see them, inside Lyft and other companies in this young, robust market where the possibilities appear endless. By the next decade, maybe only half of those reading this article will own a vehicle. Perhaps we will call on an automated car whenever and wherever one is needed. There’s no telling how different our world might look when an unprecedented economic form is introduced. But when we look back once it’s said and done, we can say that Castor had a hand in making it all happen.