Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Who will build the great disruptive carpooling app of the 21st century?
During World War II, workers knew that carpooling was a patriot’s way to the office. “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler,” one government promo poster famously declared. By the 1960s and mid-1970s, one in five employed Americans (mostly men) hitched rides with fellow-workers on their way to the office or factory.
After the 1980s, as fuel prices declined and workplace trends shifted, carpooling began to lose favor—currently, only about 9 percent of commuters are sharing the ride. But this fading mode has been primed to make a technology-fueled comeback. Apps like Carma, Carzac, Duet, Muv, and Scoop have been building small carpool communities in various U.S. cities, all with slightly different strategies for handling rider-to-driver matches and payments. Both Waze and Lyft have launched their own peer-to-peer twists on ride-sharing over the past year, and Uber has begun piloting a similar service in China, which could very well translate stateside.
A return to the golden years of carpooling could save Americans tens of billions annually, according to an analysis by Governing magazine. But the services that so far exist haven’t had the earth-shattering effect on mobility patterns that, say, regular ride-sharing has had. For all its potential, it seems the great, disruptive carpooling app of the 21st century hasn’t yet arrived. The technology exists. So what’s missing?
One scientist has a few ideas. James Glasnapp, a user-experience researcher with Xerox’s R+D firm, PARC, spent the summer and fall accepting rides as a driver for three carpooling systems in San Francisco: Lyft Carpool (which has since been discontinued), Waze Carpool, and Scoop. Glasnapp, who holds a doctorate in social science, recorded his observations as part of Xerox’s work developing apps that combine local transportation options. It was hardly a true scientific experiment, but Glasnapp did come away with a few key points that might help carpooling succeed in the future, which he shared with CityLab.
The driver is not your driver
Back in the 1960s and 70s, people understood the joys and absurdities of carpool culture (see the comic strip Blondie as one point of reference). But there are no longer accepted norms for how to treat fellow carpoolers in 2016. Thanks to ride-sharing apps, folks may no longer have qualms about sharing strangers’ cars, but that’s created an odd dynamic: When Glasnapp accepted rides for Lyft’s carpool service, he was struck by how many riders simply treated him as if he were a regular Lyft driver, not a fellow pooler. “There was no acknowledgment that I was also on my way to work,” he says. During a trip with another service, a rider bustled in with her breakfast in progress; others chatted loudly on their phones.
Maybe carpooling apps should let drivers set clear terms about the kind of behaviors they expect and encourage in their car, says Glasnapp. Maybe they permit conference calls and snacking, or maybe they’d prefer friendly, food-and-phone-free conversation. (Or total silence!) Riders should have the option to choose specific types of in-car experiences, too, with the understanding that the lower cost they are paying to carpool comes with a different set of expectations than does ride-hailing.
Both riders and drivers should have just enough logistical control
Technology has simplified the logistics of the rider/driver experience, says Glasnapp, but that sometimes comes at the expense of control. Most carpool apps offer specific time brackets during which drivers and riders can schedule rides—for example, on Scoop, morning trips have to be solidified by 9 PM the night before, and evening trips by 3:30 PM the same day, and matches are made after that deadline. That clarity is nice, says Glasnapp, but it’s almost too inflexible, since the system penalized him for making changes afterwards, and didn’t notify him if his ride offer had been accepted until after the cut-off. On the other hand, Waze operates its carpool system at any time of the day that drivers are on the road, which can be somewhat chaotic for riders’ expectations, says Glasnapp. The best carpool app will find a balancing point between structure and flexibility.
Only Scoop allowed drivers to pick-up more than one riders at a time—Lyft and Waze only did one-to-one matches. Since filling more seats should mean a more lucrative pay-off for drivers and lowered costs for passengers, drivers should have that choice.
A golden price point
Finding the sweet spot for payment might be the most elusive goal for a great carpool system. Each app Glasnapp tested had their own approach to setting prices and payments for passengers and drivers: On Waze, riders pay a price that reflects the federal mileage reimbursement rate of $.54 per mile; this money is transferred directly to the driver. Lyft took the approach of setting flat fares, where carpool drivers earned up to $10, and riders paid anywhere between $4 and $10. Scoop pricing follows a similar model, and it also partners with local employers to provide discounted trips for riders, Glasnapp says. So long as drivers are still getting their cut, that’s an attractive strategy for all parties.
Even if the mileage rate is attractive on its face, though, the length of the journey has to match up to the driver’s expectation of fair compensation. If you’re already driving 40 miles to work, a request from a rider who is 17 minutes out of the way might require a pretty healthy compensation for you to accept—more than, say, the $10-and-under that a standard Lyft or Waze trip paid. “I think there is a magic number for every driver based on amount of inconvenience,” Glasnapp says. This is also sort of a chicken-and-egg problem—if there were more carpool drivers on the road, they wouldn’t be receiving such far-flung requests. But a great carpool app will need to nail the (highly individual!) question of pricing, so that more drivers want in.
Apps won’t bring back carpooling on their own, of course. As in the Carter era, government has a role to play today: Tax benefits, HOV lanes, and partnerships with transit agencies could all stand to nudge more Americans into their neighbors’ backseats. One wild card factor is the advent of autonomous vehicles, which may end up being used as shared robo-poolers that ferry ever-shifting bands of humans to and from work. Will the U.S. ever see a return to the one-in-five carpooling heyday of the 1970s? That may be unlikely, barring a technological leap (or 70s-style gas crisis): contemporary work schedules are probably too erratic and non-standardized. But there does seem to be a 21st century carpooling code to unlock. The company that hits it could win big.