David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
The tech titan will be defying recent transportation trends as it rolls out its own ride-sharing service.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Google would be officially joining the ride-sharing fray in the U.S. with a pilot program under its Waze navigation app. The program, which will initially only be available in the San Francisco area, aims to swiftly match drivers and riders heading in the same direction to create a seamless, Uber-like ride-hailing experience. The difference? It will be far cheaper and aimed at commuters rather than barhopping Millennials: Drivers get a small reimbursement of up to 54 cents per mile to cover gas and expenses (that’s the maximum you can deduct for business use of a car, per the IRS), and riders are limited to two trips a day, between work and home.
Waze Carpool, as the program is called, is being hyped as an early blow in the coming slugfest between Google and Uber, two once-friendly tech giants who are battling over who gets to drive people around. And it may well be: Uber’s recent announcement of a pilot program for autonomous cars in Pittsburgh certainly signaled the company’s intentions to get all up in Google’s self-driving grille. But it also represents a new chapter in an older, sadder narrative: the long decline of carpooling in America.
We’ve come a long way since patriotic posters urged motorists to buddy up and share resources during World War II to help defeat Hitler. During the oil-shocked 1970s, ride-sharing again enjoyed a government-supported vogue, as high gas prices, air-pollution fears, and the adoption of the first High Occupancy Vehicle lanes managed to give carpooling a certain John Denver cachet. By 1980, a year after President Jimmy Carter established a National Task Force on Ridesharing, more than 20 percent of American commuters carpooled.
But over the next three decades, gas prices crashed, the economy boomed, and most workers started driving alone again: About 9 percent of U.S. commuters now get to work via carpool, according to 2015 Census data. The average car on the road today holds 1.7 occupants. That’s a lot of empty seats rolling along the highways.
The emergence of smartphones and ride-hailing platforms promised to reverse that decline, and in the last several years a slew of startups, some now shuttered, have tried to bring the fusty notion of carpooling into the 21st century. In the Bay Area of 2015, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, prospective passengers could choose among Carma, Carzac, Duet, Muv, and Scoop. There are also pooling options from Uber itself. (Lyft recently dropped its carpool service in SF.) In addition to the mighty Google brand, Waze Carpool brings a big built-in audience of potential users to this crowded market, thanks to the many millions of members who already use the Waze navigation app.
But this latest effort to revive carpooling’s flagging fortunes faces some daunting barriers, says Steven Polzin, the director of Mobility Policy Research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. “Culturally, a lot of things have changed,” he says. During 1970s, when millions of Americans still labored in manufacturing jobs or at large companies under strict shift schedules, car- and van-pooling could more easily accommodate commuters who left for work and got home at the same times, especially those who, like avid carpooler Dagwood Bumstead of Blondie comics fame, commuted into central cities from the new suburbs. “The sense of place has moved—it’s not so neighborhood-centric anymore.”
Still, Polzin is intrigued by the possibilities of Waze Carpool. “It’s like electronic hitchhiking,” he says. “This ability to do dynamic carpool formation—it certainly beats signing up through a matching-service program and making some commitment to frequency. That’s a hassle.”
There’s also a health and wellness case to be made for the practice. Science seems to have concluded that commuting alone via automobile is officially the most miserable, soul-corroding thing we do each workday, While having some rando eating a cruller in your Kia might not sound like a big improvement, there’s evidence to the contrary: One 2006 study found that our assessment of personal well-being while commuting soared when accompanied by some kind of social contact.
One critical issue may turn out to be safety: Unlike Uber and Lyft, which beefed up their driver screening process following several well-publicized incidents, Waze will not vet participating drivers (or riders); instead, users will rate each other, and the Waze terms of service make it clear that drivers and riders are essentially on their own, liability-wise.
“This is an important experiment to understand how willing the public is to get in a strange vehicle with somebody else,” Polzin says. “What share of the public is willing to do that? The acceptance issue could be gender and culture specific. It’ll be interesting.”