Smartphones have accelerated travel information…notifications of real-time traffic, on-demand transit, and, of course, rideshare. But, can a smartphone app crack carpooling? Waze, a Google subsidiary, developed a carpool app that will look familar to rideshare users, with features like driver name, cost, and arrival time. Waze is now taking that app nationwide and providing incentives for new signups.
Carpooling has been the transportation “nut” that smartphones have not pried open. In Los Angeles and most other US cities, only about eight or nine percent of commuters choose to carpool despite numerous campaigns. I personally worked on TDM (transportation demand management) in Los Angeles and observed carpools to be the “high hanging fruit.” (editorial note: nuts can be fruits)
CARPOOLS: THE HIGH HANGING FRUIT
Why? First, the ‘real’ number of carpools is inflated and considerably less than the census numbers state. Today’s carpool count includes drivers who ride with a family member, or drop their children off at school. The drivers can legitimately say that they have a passenger, get counted in the surveys, and gain access to faster carpool lanes. But, they are not picking up a casual acquaintance or stranger.
Carpooling can be inconvenient for a driver who might have to detour during peak-traffic to pick up or drop off passengers. It has been awkward for the driver and passenger to set a price and exchange fees.
HOW WAZE COULD HELP:
In principle, a Waze app could shift the balance.
The missing component for carpooling is the ability to establish trust between strangers. Hitchhiking fails because strangers meet up with no prior information. An app can close the gap by providing a strongly enforced rating mechanism, like the one pushed to riders and driver after each trip on Uber or Lyft.
Prior to smartphones, there was no systematic, real-time way for riders and drivers to establish trust. Taxi drivers were considered trustworthy because they were screened through livery boards and medallions. Limo drivers and mini-cabs in the U.K. were subject to similar checks. It is important to note that taxis, limos, and mini-cab drivers all have commercial insurance. Uber and Lyft drivers do too once they secure a passenger trip.
To establish similar levels of trust, a robust carpool app may need to certify that the driver’s DMV driving record and insurance information check-out. Then, passengers will know that they will be riding with a responsible driver in a safe vehicle.
TIME IS OF MATTER AND MORE:
Both time and distance matter for would-be carpools. Here, Waze travel information could play a crucial role. Although detouring to pick up a rider a few blocks away might seem simple there could be significant delays for the driver depending on the roads, time of day, and traffic. The algorithms used by Uber and Lyft account for these issues when they match a driver and passenger. Carpooling apps can use the same tools to minimize the inconvenience for the driver, and keep the passenger informed as the ride approaches.
Second, smartphones plus credit cards solve the monetary transaction that needs to take place between driver and passenger. The passenger does not have to “split the gas” or “share the tolls.” No cash needs to be exchanged. Having a pre-established billing system reduces the uncertainty between strangers and builds trust (#1).
Something that is exogenous, future increase in gas prices, may serve as an incentive to carpool. However, transportation researchers have found, that the travel time saved by using HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes is also an incentive, and as more users carpool, these designated lanes became less productive.
PLUSES OR MINUSES?
That said, will the Waze app become as popular as Uber or Lyft, or will there be drawbacks?
- Unless drivers arrange the carpool before they get in their vehicle, there will be even more reliance by casual drivers using smartphones in traffic. Mobile phones are an increasing source of driver distraction, and there is mixed evidence, pro and con, of whether hands-free devices are safer. Potentially, vehicle accidents could increase, but the app can help identify the safest drivers.
- The argument could be made that if carpooling grows in numbers it will continue to siphon riders from public transit and induce a downward spiral as ridership declines. In an earlier blog we take issue with this. In most larger cities, the demand for public transportation has increased but the transit supply has remained fixed, particularly during commute hours.
- In a personal vehicle, the norms are fuzzy: Some drivers may have difficulty speaking up about the house-rules and some passengers will flaunt them anyway. A carpool rating system may restore the balance, but because the rating system will be slower (a given driver makes only two or three trips a day) the driver might exit the entire system before there is an adequate feedback loop.
- Finally, this may be the most important reason why the carpool app will need time to grow: “Drivers are turned inward”. The driver is transporting strangers in their personal car. For many, this vehicle is their largest purchase and most prized possession. Millions of dollars have been spent on advertising to remind car owners that “vehicles=freedom + identity + well-being.”
So, until further notice, the decision to carpool could be overruled by the opportunity to make unannounced stops, do a drive-through for food, and have a sanctuary between the home and office. It will just depend!
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