Google’s wayfinding company wants to help drivers and riders find each other on its navigation app—and ease traffic congestion along the way.
They came to our WeWork. And they brought us tacos.
That’s how Waze Carpool convinced just over a hundred mostly young professionals at my shared workplace in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to download their new ride-sharing app. Bearing free lunches and promotional goodies, teams from the Google-owned company have been making the rounds at workplaces and campuses around the country to nudge young people into sharing rides on the way to work. The wayfinding app’s carpooling spinoff service has been live nationwide since last October, but convincing Americans to buddy up on their commute has been something of a challenge.
While Uber and Lyft have made point-to-point chauffeured trips relatively cheap and easy (for now), their shared options—UberPool and Lyft Line—haven’t quite cracked the true carpool puzzle. While those rides allow strangers to ride together for reduced price, they also involve picking people up from different parts of town, a model that isn’t exactly suited for the rush-hour race to work. (Lyft ditched its more traditional carpool option after a Bay Area pilot back in 2016, when Waze Carpool was in its initial pilot). Today, only about 7 percent of American commuters carpool to work. Back in the late 1970s, about 20 percent of American workers shared their ride to work, urged on by OPEC’s gas hikes and a promotional boost from President Jimmy Carter. Now gas is cheap, but cities face some more urgent incentives, in the form of the climate crisis and the congestion costs of ever-spiraling urban traffic.
Waze sees carpooling as a natural extension of its crowd-powered navigation app, which integrates information on traffic and road conditions from users into its directions. And getting more people to pool could help the company build some political goodwill: In some communities, rather than a force for busting traffic, Waze has been blamed for directing heaps of cars down residential streets and for creating every-driver-for-themselves Hobbesian map-made gridlock. “Routing people through traffic becomes really challenging to do when you have this many people on the road,” says Josh Fried, the head of Waze Carpool. “We needed to do something to start taking cars off the road in order to fulfill our promise of helping people get where they’re going quickly.”
Old-school carpooling relies on having several commuters who share a fixed daily routine: You have to have some sort of standing appointment with riders who either work or live relatively nearby. But building a useful network requires having a generously sized pool of users. “Carpool is a very challenging problem to solve because it’s a two-sided marketplace,” says Fried. “You have you need to have riders and you need to have drivers. You have to have enough density in both their work location and their home. If you don’t have enough density, it’s hard to find matches.”
That structural problem has historically limited the uptake on carpooling. One reason it worked well during World War II wasn’t just the incentives offered by gas rationing and beating Hitler: It was pre-suburban residential housing patterns and the proliferation of large industrial employers. But even in carpooling’s heyday, the system had certain innate problems. “When our parents used to carpool, it would immediately break down as soon somebody has a doctor’s appointment, a kid to pick up from school, all those things create friction in the carpool marketplace,” says Fried.
The app smooths out some of those commitment pinch points, to give riders more flexibility for an era in which schedules (and parenting responsibilities) can be unpredictable. To simplify assembling your pool, Waze users set their work and home locations and the app connects drivers and riders who have at least the majority of their route in common. You can see people’s full names, work locations, and schedules to make plans over a week ahead of time. Riders can flag days where a ride is needed and send requests to multiple drivers in a queue to increase their chances and accommodate oddball schedules.
“There’s no normal commute anymore. Everyone’s going everywhere at any time of day,” says Fried. “Employers are coming around to the idea of giving workers a bus pass or a transit pass or subsidizing their parking often won’t work, and they may be happier and more productive if they can get there quickly with carpool.”
This summer, with a partial shutdown of the Metro mass-transit system and rising HOV lane tolls giving drivers sticker shock, Waze sees an opportunity to pick up more users in the D.C. area. This also happens to be a region with its own indigenous carpool culture, known as slugging. Since the mid-1970s, DMV commuters have organized “slug lines” of drivers and riders to take advantage of high-occupancy vehicle lanes. About 42 percent of the 800,000 commuters who head into the city drive alone, while only 5 percent carpool. Waze estimates that carpooling on HOV lanes saves the average commuter 6 minutes per day, and up to 48 minutes both ways for some of the most far-flung drivers. And the app’s drivers can save about 80 bucks a week on average getting someone to pitch in for gas, which the app smooths out through its payment system.
To lure riders, Waze is offering $2 a ride to anywhere in D.C. until the end of June, and it’s focusing its marketing attention on the city’s burgeoning youthful workforce. In addition to handing out free tacos at my WeWork in exchange for downloading the app, the company also threw in a $20 bonus to all the people who joined the coworking space’s carpool group. It’s sweetening the deal with similar offers on visits to employers, schools, and other coworking spaces.
So far, it looks like I’m the only one in my Metro-adjacent workplace that’s taken Waze Carpool up on the free rides. (The app’s group function works as a kind of carpool leaderboard, showing how many rides each person has taken.) After a few days of road-testing the service I can report that the app-ification of carpooling has not entirely eliminated the innate inflexibility of this mode. Just the fundamental commitment factor brushes against my fickle Millennial mobility habits: Wait, you want me to make a plan to meet someone at a specific time and place?
Taking a walk over to someone who is parked two blocks over from my apartment or waiting at a gas station down the street from the office in a drizzle is not something a lot of people would do for a ride-hailing service they’re paying full-fare for, but it’s not a big ask for those who are used to taking public transit. And carpool offers some psychic benefits that conventional ride-hailing doesn’t: You’re not contributing to traffic congestion or emissions, you can say, since your driver’s going to be on the road anyway.
As I take my first few morning test rides, it’s easy to see to how carpooling could become a regular routine—if you make a friend. A few of my ride requests just get unceremoniously turned down without explanation, but the app allows you to queue up four different ride requests, with an acceptance canceling out subsequent options. My first driver, Jerome, is pretty low-key: He dutifully parks his Subaru Forester ten minutes early at our meet-up spot and we listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast while I quiz him about his day job (accountant for a political organization), how he found the app (Spotify and radio ads), and why he wanted to try it (resolving to get to work a little earlier).
My other driver, John, is a hardcore Wazer—someone who relishes the app’s Chaotic Good ethos to “outsmart traffic.” In John’s zippy Audi A3, my home and work locations in D.C. line up nicely with his reverse commute from Maryland to Virginia to work as a government construction contractor. He knows the city well enough to defy the app’s instructions and blaze his own shortcuts and sends me jovial texts via the app to update his progress or decline my ride requests (“sorry bro, morning meetings”). And his navigation hacks are indeed speedy. “My grandma used to say I should have been named Mario,” John says. “For Mario Andretti.” (Not, as I assumed, for Mario Kart.)
After this month ends, the ride fee will go up to about a dollar a mile, enough to cover gas and service fees so that drivers can get paid the IRS-limited mileage reimbursement (up to 54 cents a mile). That’s not enough to turn pool-driving into a side hustle, but that’s not the point: Fried compares app-enhanced carpooling to the early days of Airbnb, when the point was to activate vacant bedrooms and unused spaces in homes, not make big profits. Here, it’s all about putting butts in all those empty seats rolling around American cities. “Ten years ago that sounded crazy—to let someone stay in your home, and now we can absolutely do it on the carpool side,” says Fried. “It’s not an overnight stay; it’s just an hour.”
Will that communal ethos lure more young urbanites to share their commutes? The transportation researcher and consultant Bruce Schaller, who’s been very critical of the traffic-snarling effects of new ride-hailing services, says he’s hopeful that true carpooling can do something Uber and Lyft haven’t: take cars off the roads. “Carpooling won’t reduce traffic delay but can offer people a faster trip and, most importantly, increase people throughput without adding highway lanes,” he says. “We have to see through experience what works. I’m hoping Waze, Scoop, and other carpool apps can figure it out.”
Waze is also banking on the idea that the same sense of civic duty that encouraged people to flag speed traps and potholes will motivate users to share their rides, too. “We have half a million users around the world that are editors of our maps, and they spend countless hours volunteering their time to make the Waze map great,” Fried said. “You need that to make a carpool service work, because you’re basically creating community among people that could be selfish, but you’re asking them to be a little selfless.”
In my little experiment, I’ll have to see if I take John up on making this a regular commute after the promo ends. But if I’m inclined to keep carpooling, it will be for perhaps less high-minded reasons: He seems like a genuinely cool dude, and we beat the hell out of the rest of the traffic. If anyone else in my office wants a ride, he’s got three extra seats to fill. I bet we could stop somewhere for tacos.