Friday, January 8, 2016

Want to Start Carpooling? Pick Up Your Phone and Get Going

Originally published by Mobility Lab.

Nearly half of all car trips in the U.S. can technically be defined as carpooling. But that’s because we often travel together with our friends and family.

Besides those joy rides, sharing a car has had a troubling recent history – mainly when it comes to the ways we get to and from work. Carpooling for work has dropped from a high of 20 percent of all commuters in 1970 to only about 10 percent as of 2013.

We simply prefer to drive alone – whether it’s because we think we need a lot of personal space or because we’ve simply fallen into a habit.

How do I get started carpooling with my phone?
Surprisingly, the only really true, widespread carpooling app out there is Carma. Nobody else has been able to make it work. After Sean O’Sullivan, the founder, succeeded in Cork, Ireland, he was determined to make Carma work in other places. It’s currently available in the U.S. in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, Houston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, and Chicago.

Carma appeals to commuters for a number of reasons. It’s almost like playing a game – a game of commuting. Organized entirely through the app, drivers earn 17 cents a mile and passengers pay 20 cents a mile (the IRS reimbursement limit). Drivers are incentivized to pick up more passengers because they gain access to HOV3 fast lanes. When going through tolls, drivers in some places will get a message that they have been charged then soon thereafter get a message that they have been rebated the full amount. This makes it feel like they’re beating the system more, and that’s a real thrill for people, according to Paul Steinberg, Carma’s chief business officer.

Why app-based carpooling?
There are definitely traditional carpooling options available in cities across the country. But most of those programs require a lot of the offline work – like exploring spreadsheets, filling out paperwork, and making regular phone calls to fellow carpoolers – that is a big contributor to why carpooling has become so rare.

Tech-enabled carpooling is no doubt the next frontier. There is Carma, but there are also many others at various stages of development and, most importantly, at various stages of building sustainable user bases. Some of the ones that pop up in app store searches include SplitDuet Commute, ViasRideScoop, and Carpool-Kids.

Also, cities sometimes have good one-stop web resources for various ridesharing options. One example is Arlington, Va.’s ride-sharing page for the entire Washington, D.C., region.

Why has Carma been one of the best resources so far?
One reason Carma is succeeding is that it gets that a company or start-up can’t just put an app up and get people to use it. Carma has worked extensively with local governments and employers to make sure they can get enough drivers and passengers and reach the same kinds of critical mass that Uber and Lyft have been able to pull off.

Another general advantage is that we’re getting closer to not having such “dumb wallets.” Carma and other transportation apps are starting to get more integrated. It won’t be too long before we’ll have all our transportation needs in one app so we can find routes, all the options, real-time ride information, and pay for it all in one spot on our phones.

If an app can take all the payment and communication hassles out of sharing a ride, then the elimination of often awkward processes will be attractive to people willing to try carpooling.

What still needs to happen to really make carpooling big time?
Carpooling apps currently have three major disadvantages:
  • There is not enough promotion, education, and awareness that they exist.
  • More local governments and companies need to be using them.
  • Parking is still incentivized way too disproportionally in America. Parking should be something we pay for, like other goods and services in a market economy. That would be the American way. One way to fix this would be to have fewer incentives for “monthly parking prices,” according to Howard Jennings, managing director of Mobility Lab. If we made the incentives for “daily parking prices,” people wouldn’t feel so pressured to have to drive every day to get their money’s worth and they could break it up and take their bike one day, the subway the next, and maybe drive fewer days each week. That daily parking could then easily be paid through an all-in-one app.
What is the latest research on technology enabling carpooling?
There’s not a lot. But the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute notes that:
  • Improving awareness, trust and willingness to ride with strangers, and flexibility in scheduling may increase carpool use.
  • Incentives such as free or decreased toll rates and reduced parking prices for carpool or rideshare vehicles may also increase use.
  • High occupancy vehicle lanes (HOVs) may increase carpooling and ridesharing in some circumstances; local context strongly influences the success or failure of HOVs as well as other carpool or rideshare programs.
Still, there is little to no research exactly about modern carpooling app trends. If people are becoming more accustomed to riding with non-taxi-driver strangers via Uber or Lyft, this could mean good things for carpooling programs. A National Academies study lays out that with a better and more predictable system in place, with better awareness and advertising, many drivers would be willing to try it.

And the rest of the world is already ahead of the slow curve we’re on. BlaBlaCar is available in Europe, Russia, and Mexico and lets anyone ride with anyone. It is glorified hitchhiking – with the kicker that drivers and riders have in-app reputation rankings attached. Israel-based La’Zooz is launching in the U.S. soon, with designs on becoming “the utopian hippie Uber.” And Google, on its path to driverless vehicles, is working on ride-sharing tech.

What are the latest predictions about the potential for carpooling?
Given its well-documented decline as a commuting preference over the past three decades, carpooling has a lot of potential to attract new drivers and riders, especially across suburban households not well served by transit.

It’s not entirely clear what factors are discouraging commuters from carpooling, but lower barriers to entry through app-based services would certainly help introduce new people to the mode. Additionally, as mentioned above, carpool-like ride-hailing services from familiar brands such as Lyft and Uber provide a natural jumping-on point for many people who already have those apps on their phones.

What’s behind this potential?
People are looking for ways to take the hassles of a personal vehicle that sits around and gathers monthly bills and parking and speeding tickets out of the equation. That bodes very well for the carpooling and ride-sharing industry.

One potential fix for carpooling might be the creation of a major publicity campaign. And now is the time because young people are begging for transportation options that allow them to be productive, healthy, environmentally conscious, and less stressed.

Are carpools safe?
Millennials especially have much different assumptions about safety than older generations. It all depends on trust. We trust the Ubers and Lyfts of the world because they have tech-enabled data and GPS tracking on everything: where and who the drivers are, who we are, and all the payment information. As passengers, we feel that if something happens to us, at least it’s all right there in the database and anything bad can be tracked.

And one must remember that we truly are living in a very different world nowadays. The city council in Austin, Texas just passed an ordinance that tries to regulate Uber and Lyft drivers the same as traditional taxi drivers. That would mean fingerprinting all drivers before they can work. The Austin council seems to be missing the point that app-based GPS tracking is the new fingerprinting. Meanwhile, those companies are now threatening to cease operation in the city.

As for traditional carpooling, Uber and Lyft should be given credit for starting to introduce their respective carpooling variants uberPool and Lyft Line in some cities. Those services have a real chance to take trips off the road and ease traffic for all of us. Both Uber and Lyft say that 50 percent of their trips in San Francisco are now made with their carpooling services, which should start to produce some interesting data on traffic levels.

It would be great to say that the regular Uber and Lyft services take trips off the road as well, but because there is still always a driver making trips even without customers at times, much more research needs to be done to figure out that impact.

Cities – including Austin – should be focused on making these types of carpooling services work better and improve congestion rather than making it more difficult for them to operate in the first place.

A “slug-line” of riders waiting to be picked up.
Are there backup options if I commit to carpooling?
Other than any available transit options, or simply loading a few different carpool apps onto your smart phone, slugging, also known as casual carpooling or instant carpooling, is a neat option that not a lot of people seem to know about or understand. Average people get on the side of the road in designated locations and share rides. Right now, it only happens in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Houston, Pittsburgh, and a few other cities, but has great potential to expand with the help of technology.

Slugging in most of these places began after the oil embargo in the 1970s led to higher gas prices and HOV lanes, and it just stuck. People who “slug” swear by it. It works in these cities because there are HOV3 lanes that serve as an incentive. Usually, drivers will only take a maximum of two passengers.

And while slugging may, at first, seem scary, it’s really just out of the ordinary to us. In fact, according to Carma’s Steinberg, there have been zero crimes in the decades-long history of San Francisco slugging, other than one robbery of someone waiting for the ride.

What to expect in the future?
“The challenge is not the technology. The challenge is human behavior, and people don’t want to share a ride,” Steinberg said. “When drivers are driving their own car, they control the whole situation. Once you move to an autonomous vehicle and you take that control away and put it in the vehicle’s hands, you will start filling up cars immediately1.”

Steinberg said that 85 percent of the cars on the highway today have one person in them. That takes up an extraordinary amount of space, which is obviously a huge problem and why we need carpooling to work.

Steinberg noted that another challenge is that practically “1 percent of the population” has access to transit options. “The rest of America is still living in old times, where we live in suburbia and the car is the only option most of the time.”

He said a multitude of things can be done to change the way people in the U.S. think about carpooling and driving in general, including:

Paul Steinberg video courtesy of Chilton Media Group for Mobility Lab.

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