Carpool parking sign

Many years ago, when I had more free time than money, a friend and I mused about a scheme to charge people commuting across the 520 bridge $20 to sit in their car from Redmond to Montlake in the afternoon.  This way they’d get access to the HOV 3+ lane, and we’d make some cash on the side.  This turned out to be wildly impractical, and we never made it work.

I was reminded of this old scheme recently while reading about a new service from Uber.  For a while now, Uber has had a feature called “UberPool,” where they let you carpool with someone else to save money.  Recently, the company began testing “smart routes” which let you save even more money if you get on and get off on a major arterial street.  Many people snarked that this was essentially describing… a bus.

Snark aside for the moment, UberPool seems to work best when there are lots of people headed roughly in the same direction at the same time, like a traditional carpool.  One reason I suspect carpooling is on the decline in America is that it reduces flexibility.  If you have a job that’s a guaranteed 9-5, carpooling can work, but if you need the flexibility to stay late or come in early once in a while, carpooling starts to break down.  UberPool could offer the best of both worlds: an on-demand carpool that leaves when you need it to.

Taking it one step farther, the writer Ben Thompson has argued that the driver of the UberPool might one day be another commuter headed to work, and not a “professional” Uber driver. This person is going to work anyway, so they probably don’t need to be paid that much to pick up a couple of other close-by riders.  That could make the service far cheaper than any current Uber offering – perhaps even cheaper than a bus pass.

I actually wonder if they would need to be paid at all.  If it gave them access to the HOV lane, they might offer to pay the rider instead.  This would also create a much larger and more vocal constituency for free-flowing HOV lanes.

Who knows, maybe someday my dream of getting paid to sit in a car while crossing 520 will come true.

31 Replies to “Uber and the Future of Carpooling”

    1. True, but that’s the interesting thing about the commute use case – there doesn’t need to be a profit at all. The driver is already headed to work. The challenge is to get everyone on the same platform to coordinate, which requires Uber-like scale. And if it means you can ditch your car and use “paid” Uber in the evenings and weekends, that’s a win for Uber as well.

      1. There has to be some profit in it for the driver to justify the hassle of setting up the account, plus the marginal time cost of picking up and dropping off passengers. Currently, gas is still cheap enough that simply diving the cost of the gas evenly between passenger and driver is not enough.

        The problem is that, as soon as the driver is allowed to make any kind of profit beyond gas+wear/tear, even a very tiny profit, it triggers all sorts of legal and insurance problems that bump the price considerably in order to address. For example, the driver’s personal insurance suddenly becomes void, and special insurance required, even though he’s making the exact same trip he’d be making alone, anyway. The driver also suddenly becomes required to report his rideshare income to the IRS and keep a careful accounting of the number of miles driven under the rideshare system to deduct the “business expense” of gas+wear/tear (and probably buy a more expensive version of Turbo Tax the following April).

        In other words, there’s the catch 22 that zero profit for the driver doesn’t produce enough drivers for the system to scale, but any nonzero profit for the driver, even just one penny per trip, opens up a bunch of legal issues that require a significant amount of additional money to solve.

        For better or worse, Uber is at least equipped to deal with the tax and insurance issues that come with drivers making a nonzero profit off their trips, and has the best chance I’ve seen so far of producing a system that attracts enough drivers to provide a service that is actually useful to passengers.

      2. Ha ha ha, did you say Uber is equipped to deal with the insurance issues? That’s one of the argument against it, that it carries insurance only for itself, and the driver has to pay their own commercial insurance which doesn’t exist and would be expensive if it did.

    2. You could ask at what point would point-to-point car or van service become part of a public transit mix. (This is the system I advocated back in the early 1990s…computer dispatched publicly subsidized taxis with ride sharing.)

      I believe you can run the numbers even now, with current taxi fees, say if a cab could pick up four or five people at a bus stop in Kent, and make the trip to Seattle (sans fees for waiting) it would be competitive with an unsubsidized bus trip for them as individuals.

  1. “If you have a job that’s a guaranteed 9-5, carpooling can work”

    If there’s another person in your neighborhood going to the same company or a nearby company at the same time. That’s almost impossible with small businesses, which are most of them. When I’ve worked at 10-20 person companies or branch offices in Ballard and Licton Springs, one person comes from Ballard, one from the U-District, one from Des Moines, one from south Everett, one from Marysville, etc. How could they ever find a carpool?

    1. Well I don’t think they intend to handle every use case but help those they can from it. My biggest complaint with vanpools is all of the existing ones are full for my situation and setting up a new one is an exercise in bureaucracy and time. UberPool removes the problem of a difficult setup, however I’m under the assumption that UberPool is on demand which makes it less reliable because it’s not permanently scheduled.

      Actually the biggest issue I see right now is that I have no idea how to use it. I don’t see it in there app unfortunately.

    2. “When I’ve worked at 10-20 person companies or branch offices in Ballard and Licton Springs, one person comes from Ballard, one from the U-District, one from Des Moines, one from south Everett, one from Marysville, etc. How could they ever find a carpool?”

      By sharing a ride with someone else who works in Ballard for a different company. That’s the big advantage of dynamic carpooling. You’re not limited to the small group of people you “know” personally to share rides with.

      “Actually the biggest issue I see right now is that I have no idea how to use it. I don’t see it in there app unfortunately.”

      UberPool does not currently exist in Seattle at all, which is why it’s missing in the app. If you visit San Francisco, you will see it then.

    3. But that’s the point. What’s the chance that somebody else in a nearby location in south Everett is going to Ballard at the same time? Probably very small.

      1. What’s the chance that someone is going close enough that you can get from their nearest point to Ballard on the bus?

        I think the biggest limitation is the fact that most places advertise their carpooling organization by having a blue sign next to the highway. The more people involved the more places and times you have available.

      2. For trips home from the airport, the odds are actually quite good due to the shear number of people coming out of the airport at the same time. FWIW, to this date, I have twice attempted to arrange a ride home from the airport from a person sitting next to me on the flight, and have succeeded both times. If appropriate technology resulted in you having the whole plane to choose from, rather than the one or two people sitting right next to you, the odds of finding a reasonable ride match would be near certain. Even if the match is with another person looking for a ride, it just means you ride home in a taxi and split the cost.

  2. In principle, I really like the idea of dynamic carpooling, and if done right, could be a mobility game-changer in the city by acting as an “express” layer on top of Metro buses for relatively cheap.

    Already, there are several origin->destination pairs within the city where the standard fare on UberX, split among 4 people, is within pennies of King County Metro on a cost-per-person basis (assuming nobody in the group is able to cover the transit trip with a pass, transfer, Orca Lift, or some other transit-specific discount). If the service could eventually transform into a mode where the driver is an ordinary commuter, it could get even cheaper.

    Currently, UberPool doesn’t operate in Seattle, but I think it would have no trouble attracting riders for trips that are popular and King County Metro is notorious for poor performance. For instance, I’m sure they would have no trouble filling up cars with nonstop service between Ballard and downtown or between Fremont and Capitol Hill at $4-5/person.

    Other interesting markets would be trips home from the airport and trips home from special events that let out at a time when Metro service doesn’t provide the passenger capacity to handle more than a tiny fraction of event-goers.

    Of course, the problem with any dynamic carpooling market is getting that critical mass of drivers and riders. Riders won’t bother with the system if they can’t find drivers and drivers won’t bother if they can’t find passengers. Drivers also won’t bother if there’s not enough money in it for them to make it worth the time and trouble of fiddling with the app (except in special cases like 520, where picking up passengers would provide access to the HOV lane). In fact, I would argue that one of the biggest reasons for failure of existing dynamic carpooling apps is that they are too cheap for the passenger, and don’t provide enough of incentive for the driver. The number of drivers who are willing to participate for purely altruistic reasons is not enough to scale to a system big enough to actually be useful for passengers.

    One big word of caution, though, with dynamic carpooling, is that that the system must be designed to minimize the time overhead of picking up passengers along the way as much as possible. I have several times carpooled with friends to various places around the city, and the number of intermediate stops it takes before the car becomes slower than a Metro bus is a lot smaller than one might think. Once, on the way to a trailhead, me and 5 other people piled into a SUV, each person getting on at a different stop. One person got on in Northgate, me and one other at Green Lake P&R, two in different parts of Capitol Hill, and one in Factoria. By the time we got to Issaquah to meet the rest of the group, the trip was, door-to-door (including walking time to Green Lake P&R to make it easier for the rest of the group), no faster than if I had taken the 71/72/73 downtown on a good day and transferred to the 554 (although it was certainly a lot more fun).

  3. Sounds like slugging, which is pretty much this, but established organically rather than by a company (Uber) or by your local transit agency (vanpools). A driver pulls up to any of the well-known terminals, and shouts their destination. Anyone going that same direction can get in until the car is full. Off they go.

  4. I remember reading that as more ordinary people started getting automobiles, which really precipitated the decline of street rail, a business developed called “jitney”- essentially a line-haul taxi service.

    Once or twice, I’ve heard older cab drivers talk about “running jit”- meaning simply staying on the same arterial, about like what the car-sharing companies are proposing. In places like Africa and Turkey, there are van services doing same thing exactly.

    The streetcar companies seriously objected to the new industry’s practice of stopping at streetcar stops to board and deboard passengers. I’m pretty sure that the carlines’ legal monopolies started being enforced. In the end, it wasn’t the jitneys that took down the streetcars- and same force took down the jitney.:

    Everybody got a car. And soon, more than one. The rest is history- whose next chapter unfolds with every car in the country being stuck in same jam. So: new service develops.

    Trapped motorist calls “Car-Evac”, whose driver meets him at nearest exit he can crawl to. The Car-Evac driver drives the customer either to work, using satellite navigation and his own intensive knowledge of side streets- or to nearest transit station.

    The car spends the day in a safe, warmed garage,which can also perform standard maintenance, until customer needs it. The Car-Evac driver then meets the customer either at work, or the transit system. Or delivers the car to the customer’s home. Or anyplace else the customer needs the car, without personally having to drive there himself.

    I’ve read that these services exist in France.

    Two problems I can see with this posting’s car-share idea. One, insurance for a private car carrying passengers for money could be either expensive or impossible. And two, the more passengers you carry who aren’t your own friends or family, the more wear and tear, inside and out.

    Even with a mustache on the grill, a cab is a cab.

    Mark Dublin

  5. I wonder if dynamic carpooling could be used as leverage to ask Metro to create a new bus route. For example, a while back on this blog, there was a post about people doing this sort of thing from the neighborhood directly east of the Issaquah Highlands P&R. If a carpool “route” can get traction by looping through the neighbor hood, that may be the starting point for Metro to begin to operate a peak-hour bus route there. No longer would the proposal have to be “we think there are a lot of people that would take this route,” but they could say “we have two vanfulls of people every morning and afternoon, and they would all ride a new route if it were to be created.”

    Similarly if there was a carpool from, say, the Federal Way TC to downtown Bellevue. Not only would it give some traction to start a ST Federal Way-Bellevue express, but it would also move along the ambitions for a Tacoma-Bellevue express with a Federal Way stop in the middle.

    1. Have you seen the TripPool program from Metro? Link is here: TripPool is a program that utilizes a Metro van and the iCarpool mobile app to facilitate instant carpooling for the commute trip. A TripPool has a commuter driver just like a vanpool driver and through the app they offer rides along a route with stops. If the vans start getting full, Metro has a number of options at its disposal including:
      a) Keep the TripPools along the route going.
      b) Convert some of the TripPools to Vanpools.
      c) Check ridership levels and feasibility of a transit route.
      I am the founder of iCarpool. In addition to dynamic carpools with commuter vehicles, the iCarpool app can also be used to complement public transit scenarios with a peer-to-peer model and the TripPool pilot from Metro is along those lines.

  6. Great comments and great post. I’ll admit, when I first heard about “car sharing”, this is what I though it was. It makes sense, really. A modern version of carpooling, or slugging, or whatever you want to call it. This makes perfect sense in the modern age. You can combine mass transit (to get from one general place to another) along with the specificity of a driver that just so happens to be heading your way. Perfect.

    For example, if I’m headed to Fife this afternoon, chance are, I won’t find someone going from my neighborhood (Pinehurst) to Fife. But if I can take mass transit from Northgate to Tukwila (or Federal Way) then I am half way there. I just need a ride from Tukwila (or Federal Way) to Fife. I’m guessing there are hundreds of people headed that way, and one of those people might be able to give me a ride. In some cases, it means we ride in the carpool lane. Everyone wins!

    Coordinating such a trip requires information — but that is what computers are good at. They can easily figure out who is going where, and (hopefully) set me up. It makes sense for them to integrate mass transit information, because that isn’t very difficult. So now the driver knows when he can expect me — of course, if I miss my bus (or train) then it will tell the driver that as well (and maybe I ride with a different driver).

    This is real “car sharing” as opposed to Uber, which (so far) is essentially a taxi cab company by another name. They use the Dominoes model of service — the low wage worker sacrifices his or her car to make a few extra bucks. I’ve been there — but my recollection is that you are better off using the company vehicle (as I did at Pizza Haven). Then there is the fact that these cab companies (by another name) are also skirting the rules, regulations and fees put in place a while ago. So, while I think this is a good thing, I would rather go with a company a little less shady (like one of those mentioned by ronp) instead of Uber.

    1. Sometimes, it feels like Uber is being subject to a double standard regarding its labor practices. Many of the same people who righteously say they won’t ride Uber because it doesn’t pay their drivers enough have no qualms about shopping at Wal-Mart, eating at McDonalds, or patronizing any other business that pays their employees minimum wage. Of course, the irony of such righteousness is that any Uber driver would much rather be carrying a passenger and getting paid than sitting around waiting for a passenger and not getting paid.

      Saying that Uber should simply pay their drivers more is a also a little bit simplistic. If prices went up, fewer people would want rides, and more people would want to drive. The result would be a supply-demand imbalance, which would result in a lot fewer drivers having jobs altogether. The traditional assumption that demand for a taxi-like service is inelastic (because you only use it when you’re desperate) is flat-out not correct. Often, taxi-like trips have alternatives, such as using a friend or family member as a “volunteer taxi”, waiting half an hour for a bus, walking a mile to the nearest Car2Go, walking a couple miles or riding Pronto for several miles in pouring rain, or driving downtown and paying through the nose for parking. Granted, alternatives like the above may be either ugly or expensive, but it is not all crazy for the difference between a $10 fare and a $20 being a significant factor in whether or not to take one of these alternative options.

      1. People who “righteously” say they won’t ride Uber yet will shop at McDonald’s and Walmart? Like who? This is an incredibly specious argument. I could just as easily argue that your hypocritical straw man applies to absolutely nobody.

        Your further arguments seem to assume the only important factor in transportation is keeping costs low, externalities be damned. Well you can’t ignore externalities, people like me who unwillingly subsidize the likes of Uber will have none of it (it is my taxes that pay for the benefits that Uber executives are unwilling to give their drivers, and their drivers cannot afford themselves). I would agree with RossB’s description of that company as “shady”, and this ultra-exploitative model, the “gig economy”, will only be the future when thugs are in charge.

    2. That gets into the general issue of minimum wage. On the one hand, why shouldn’t people be able to drive around picking up people for $3 if they want to? On the other hand, it’s unconscionable that people are stitching together multiple part-time jobs to reach 40 hours and they still qualify for food stamps. At some level the wage is exploitatively low and those jobs probably shouldn’t exist if they can’t pay more, so what level should that be?

  7. Mark Dublin’s right; the smart routes idea is not carpooling, it’s a jitney. Private jitneys compete with buses in many countries, but they’re illegal here.

    But illegal has never stopped Uber! Putting illegal services on the ground and creating a constituency to keep them is the business model. Taxis could have done this, but — their business model has always been to stay *within* the law, which gives them a natural disadvantage in the face of disruption and failure of public sector regulators to notice what’s going on.

    Having said that, there is a lot of theoretical value to jitneys; they are cost effective for sure and in most places compete on price – but I’ll bet in Seattle they’d compete instead on luxury and freedom from the teeming masses. Where they compete with buses there can be operational issues, and in some countries the competition is cutthroat and downright dangerous. Here the jitneys would probably just skim passengers off the Metro routes that actually break even now, increasing the cost per passenger. But Uber’s riders would find value in the better service. Hard to know whether it nets out to be a good thing or not.

    Also, I like AlexKven’s idea.

    1. Operating a business “within” the law, how quaint?

      I wonder when this turn towards the unethical in business practices will fall out of fashion, it used to be a given that in the end we are all worse off with this kind of rot running out of control. I wonder how far we all must sink before we collectively come back to our senses?

    1. The Bay Area has what’s called casual carpooling across the Bay Bridge. I drive up to a spot where people customarily wait, and pick up somebody who’s waiting to cross the bridge. I get a cheaper toll across the the Bridge (it used to be free), you get to cross the Bridge without paying a BART or bus fare. Nobody’s making money, but people are saving money.

      What do the Seattle transit agencies think about Uber getting into the transit bus business?

      1. Metro is already switching to “alternative service delivery” in the lowest-density areas. Essentially, Metro provides a van and a nonprofit operates it. The one I’ve used is Snoqualmie Valley Transit between North Bend and Duvall. It’s run by a senior center and charges a $1 donation for unlinked trips, or free to transfer to/from Metro. It runs approx. every two hours weekday daytime.

        For-profit companies would go after the highest-volume commuter routes for well-paid jobs, and ignore everything else. They could supplement Metro and provide routes similar to the Microsoft shuttles, which go directly to places that Metro requires a transfer or makes a lot of intermediate stops. But they wouldn’t be interested in off-peak or residential-only neighborhoods, which is where our biggest transit holes are. Perhaps an enlightened company could start a pilot project in Rainier Valley or Issaquah. Remember that the won’t take transfers, so that would depress ridership. I would like to see subsidized taxis in limited service areas (e.g., Rainier Valley, Issaquah, northeast Seattle) for last-mile trips.

  8. I would love to see uberpool in Seattle. I’ve asked uber several times within the last year, when the service would pop up in Seattle. To date, they haven’t confirmed a start up date. I suspect uber ridership in Seattle is not as great as San Francisco or NYC, where there is enough critical mass of riders to support uberpool.

  9. Sounds similar to metro’s new Trippool program. I think they are rolling it out on mercer island and SE king county.

    1. What’s is Trippool?

      TripPool is a pilot program providing flexible rideshare options in select areas with King County Metro commuter vans. Vehicles make one round trip each work day to a Park & Ride or transit facility, with volunteer drivers [… riders use a mobile app called iCarpool].”

  10. “One big word of caution, though, with dynamic carpooling, is that that the system must be designed to minimize the time overhead of picking up passengers along the way as much as possible.”

    This is one of the most important points for dynamic carpooling. Even if it’s near your origin or destination, would commuter drivers who are carpooling on a non-profit basis drive around and “out of their way”? I live in Issaquah and work in South Lake Union. A 1 mile deviation in either places would put me through multiple stop lights, one-ways and at peak hour would be frustrating at both ends and I wouldn’t do it. I would absolutely carpool if the carpool is “on the way”.

    I’m the founder of iCarpool. We are working on making flexible “instant carpooling” a reality and starting out in Seattle. Unlike taxi and ride for hire apps, the iCarpool rider doesn’t summon a driver to their location. Instead, once riders book their ride, riders walk up to a stop along the driver’s route and carpool with the driver. Drivers do not need to drive around or make detours – pickup and drop-off is at locations on the way of their choosing – for example, at a Starbucks or a park and ride. Drivers carpool for many reasons – environmental, social, taking the HOV, offsetting their commute cost, etc. But as there is only a partial cost recovery of driving costs, there is no motivation to do extra driving and drive people around.

    There’s more information available on our site []. We have partnered with City of Redmond [] and King County Metro [] who also have some information on their site.

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