Wikimedia
Wikimedia

Carpooling in America has been is on the decline since the 1970s, but a new service from Uber could bring it back.

Hiring an Uber to take you to work every day would normally be prohibitively expensive. But what if the driver didn’t need to make much money at all? What if the driver was willing to pick you up for next to nothing?  What if they were on their way to work as well?

That’s one possible use case for Uber’s latest offering, Destinations. It’s pitched at existing Uber drivers who want to earn a bit more by picking up another passenger en route. But it has the potential to greatly expand the carpooling market by enlisting everyday solo commuters as very-part-time Uber drivers. Here’s The Verge describing the feature last fall:

Starting soon, Uber drivers looking to earn some extra money on their commutes to and from home — especially those who drive part-time — will be able to with the ride-hailing app’s new “destinations” feature. Drivers heading in a specific direction can input their destination into the app, and Uber’s algorithm will send them ride requests that appear along the way. Requests that would force them to deviate from their route would be filtered out.

The feature is billed as a way to heighten driver flexibility, but it could have much more far-reaching consequences. Uber loves to talk about how many of its drivers are only part time; 61 percent of drivers in the US have full- or part-time jobs outside Uber, the company says. If you never have to deviate from your route, suddenly anyone has the potential to be an Uber driver, regardless of employment status.

Let’s say you drive from Seattle to the Eastside every day.   Turn on the app, and pick up a couple of commuters who are headed your way.  Even if they only pay you a couple of bucks, it more than pays for your gas and gets you access to the HOV lanes.  Two passengers a day each paying a dollar each way gets you halfway to the monthly lease payment on a new Nissan Leaf.   You get a new car on the cheap, and your passengers get a one-seat ride to the office that’s cheaper than the bus.

This kind of ad-hoc carpooling simply wasn’t possible in the pre-Uber era.  Substantial transaction costs prevent the necessary critical mass of drivers and riders from emerging. While iCarpool and RideShareOnline already exist, Uber could leapfrog them both.  The company would enter the market with a huge install base of users who are in the habit of opening the app frequently and have already uploaded their credit cards. Being on-demand also means you don’t have to commit to a car pooling buddy who will be ready to leave at exactly the same time you are every day.  The timing is good, too, as the proliferation of HOV-3 and HOT lanes incentivize 3-passenger carpools.

If Uber’s serious about this – and to be fair, it’s not clear they are – they’ll need to make it super easy for a SOV driver to become an Uber driver.  The barriers to becoming a driver (background check, incorporating as an independent contractor, paying taxes) are probably still too high for the average 9-to-5 office worker to bother.

Update: via Eric Butler on Twitter: UberCOMMUTE exists in China.

42 Replies to “Uber, But for Carpools”

  1. This sounds like a great way to get a ride up to the mountains to go skiing, A “snowfall” for drivers with AWD. Stevens Pass has a huge parking shortage on weekends. Crystal Mountain has half of their upper lot reserved for paying permit holders. Snoqualmie too has seen a parking crunch that’s especially severe around the snow parks.

    I think this app could definitely get a boost from the regional shift to tolled roads. Now, if ST and Metro would just “get on board” with paid parking.

  2. Sounds to me more like it’s the city & state government that will need to make it super easy, since the obstacles are entirely regulatory in nature.

    1. Are they? If you look at iCarpool (https://icarpool.wordpress.com/driver-requirements/) it looks pretty easy and not much in there looks to be based on government regulations. It looks to be based on what iCarpool thinks is important (e. g. safe driving record, newer car). I don’t see why Uber couldn’t adopt the same policies (or similar ones) for people who primarily share their ride, as opposed to function as taxi drivers.

      1. I’m not familiar with iCarpool but its driver requirements do not seem onerous. I was referring to “the barriers to becoming a driver” mentioned in the article: “background check, incorporating as an independent contractor, paying taxes”. That’s a lot of bother. My girlfriend considered driving for Lyft to make some extra money, but never actually made it through all the red tape – and she’s much more tolerant of such things than I am. So, I would guess that any hypothetical ad-hoc carpooling service would have to require much less of its drivers than the current ridesharing systems do, or it’s simply never going to move past the “what a nice idea” stage. The obstacles that kept my girlfriend from becoming a Lyft driver were not obstacles inherent to the business; they were regulatory obstacles. Thus, I guess that the primary roadblock to making an ad-hoc carpooling system work would also be regulatory; it can only be practical if it can be done without requiring participants to fill out a lot of forms and get special inspections of their vehicles and all that sort of thing. Otherwise, people simply aren’t going to bother.

    2. The regulations exist for safety, tax equity (between Uber drivers and other workers), and regulation equity (between Uber drivers and taxi drivers). It’s not fair to give Uber a loophole just because it’s smartphone-based. If it were a volunteer network like an open-source project for ridesharing, without exchanging money or just defraying gas/car expenses it would make sense not to regulate it. But somebody is making big money off it and it’s not the drivers. And at the same time the drivers are making a little money off it so they’re not volunteers, and some drivers are trying to do it as their sole job. So it sounds like a business all around and should be treated like any other business, not given special loopholes.

      However, this carpool-sharing idea sounds promising, so maybe it needs a unique regulatory structure. If Uber drivers are creating carpools that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and they would drive the trip anyway even without passengers, then that potentially is a benefit to society, as evidenced by the fact that society created the HOV lanes to encourage carpools and wave them through. The existing carpool ridematching systems have been failing their goals, so maybe this points to a more effective system, or the “What to do when everybody is not going to Boeing at 7am?” So I could see an ultra-light regulation of carpooling-for-profit.

      However, how do you distinguish genuine carpooling from gaming the system? If somebody drives a carpool twice a day, that’s probably genuine, and we could raise that to four or six times a day to allow for natural variations and creative niches. But what if somebody punches in a dozen popular trips all day he has no intention of taking alone, to see if any passengers bite, and if not he cancels the trip. That’s not really carpooling, it’s regular Uber driving. So it would be unfair to let it into the carpooling loophole. Although I could see a case that if he’s driving multiple passengers, even if he wouldn’t make the trip alone, it’s still better than those people driving separate SOVs. But then that gets into the impact on transit ridership. Suppose all these carpoolers would otherwise take transit? Then is this carpool service really a social benefit or a social detriment? In some cases the carpool may avoid a long transfer or an unreasonably circuitous bus trip. But in some cases a bus or train goes practically door-to-door yet still people drive or carpool. Should there be extra-light regulation/tax status for that carpool?

    3. You would think that, BUT in apparently as long as what you charge the carpooler is the IRS standard milage you don’t need special insurance, permits, or status.

  3. Cost consideration for prospective Uber drivers: Do you think I’ll pay money to get into a car with a stranger who considers a background check, a business license, and paying taxes a burden?

    Worst fear is that this driver will be so absorbed listening to the latest stock market reports, and excited over the latest financial industry sucking-up on National Public Radio he’ll take us off a bridge.

    Put that in your portfolio and blow it!

    Mark

    1. And this is different from sticking your thumb out and hitch hiking everywhere for cheap?
      I’m giving my age away now, but it was common to pick up people wanting to go the same place you do generations ago. Now it takes a background check, compatibility check, payment account and wifi to make the connection for essentially the same service. Of course we didn’t have random crazy people back then, or maybe we did, but just didn’t realize the danger was nil, so drivers didn’t mind pulling over.
      Anyway, filling seats in cars mostly empty, that only roll down a road 4% of the time is a good thing.

      1. Yeah, it isn’t like hitchhiking has gone away. I see a fair number of people on highway 2. I used to hitchhike up to Bellingham when I went to school up there. I don’t know if lots of people still do that (kids might have more money now — I don’t know).

        The background check and all that is simply icing on the cake for Uber in the first place. I’m sure security was one of the first things they thought about when they decided to start having cab drivers operate like pizza drivers.

      2. Hitchhiking still exists but mostly online. I’ve used craigslist to find rides. I went from Toronto to Montreal a few years ago – we met the driver at a gas station and there were maybe 10 other people there waiting for cars. He took 4 of us – we paid a few bucks and got there faster than any bus or train would have.

      3. I was thinking the same thing. In particular a couple of years ago I met a woman im the San Juan Islands who said her primary way of getting around up there was hitch-hiking. She said most residents don’t do it that way during the main tourist season as there are too many unknown people on the islands, but with next to no transit service and next to nothing within slaking distance of the ferry at Lopez or Orcas, and with housing costs being horribly expensive so that certain expenses have to be done without, some residents don’t have much choice.

      4. Carpooling apps could also be very attractive for airport trips. I have long dreamed of being able to pull out my phone, while waiting for my bags, to arrange a carpool with a person 20 feet away from me, headed to a nearby destination, also waiting for bags. Even if that person also doesn’t have a car, just being able to split an Uber ride(*) would save a lot of money, in and of itself.

        (*) An UberX ride, split between two people, is actually significantly cheaper, per person, than UberPool.

      5. It’s nothing like hitchhiking. You don’t pay to hitchhike. That, right there, is a huge difference.

      6. Canada and the San Juans are the places I regularly hitchhike. It’s a combination of less crazy people and more people willing to pick you up. I’d hitchhike more around here, but no one ever seems to want to pick you up.

      7. It’s nothing like hitchhiking. You don’t pay to hitchhike

        It’s usually polite to offer a bit of cash to help spread expenses.

      8. Hitchhiking fell victim to the American paranoia that most strangers are murderers or rapists. And it’s prohibited at freeway entrances which were the most reliable place to find somebody going your way. It’s probably still common in isolated rural areas. I didn’t see any hitchhiking on Vashon Island when we went there regularly, but there is a sense that everybody goes to the same school and is in the same boat, and all the neighbors are nice, and transit is practically nonexistent, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s hitchhiking.

        It’s also worth asking how the millenial/Internet generation has affected areas like Vashon and Bainbridge. It used to be that you had to have a car to get to any entertainment or land a date. But now people are more content with entertainment at home, shop online, meet their friends in less car-dependent situations, etc. So do fewer young people on islands have cars than used to? Or does everybody still get a car anyway because it’s a mile to the store and five miles to the next town?

        There’s also a difference in money. Hitchhiking is either free or a small payment to defer gas/inconvenience. You might get a couple dollars for an extra dessert, but it’s not enough to live on or base a second job on. Whereas this Uber-carpooling thing will get some drivers who are just passing through anyway, but other drivers who want to make it their sole job, either because they can’t get another job or they don’t want another kind of job. Which in turn means the fees will have to be high enough to support that.

      9. “Hitchhiking fell victim to the American paranoia that most strangers are murderers or rapists.”
        At least we didn’t have people running for President on that assumption of anyone that didn’t look like us. Times have changed!

      10. Automated local hitch-hiking is exactly what this sounds like to me. I’d be happy to participate; my car has three empty seats most of the time, and I enjoy the opportunity to meet new people. If all I had to do was poke some app to announce the availability of a ride heading in a certain direction, and then get a notification that thus-and-so neighbor and such-and-such address wanted to come along, I’d be happy to give them a lift. Why not? This is more or less the same experience I already have as a Lyft rider today. Perhaps it wouldn’t be for everyone, but I bet there are a lot of people who would be happy to participate in a system like this but who would never have the time or inclination to take up UberX or Lyft as a part-time job, like it works today.

  4. And for prospective drivers who are not also Uber company executives, you’re also probably so anxious to save weight, and fuel that you don’t mind the public seeing the fibers that have replaced the tread on your tires.

    Which other regs shouldn’t be there, Mars? The ones demanding that brakes be able to interfere with the speed of your car? Or the one mandating a gas-cap instead of a rag? Or the cost of learning the contents of State highway regulations, at the exorbitant price of nothing?

    Tell you what. I’ll get into the first defiantly unregulated car when I see you get out of it alive.

    Mark

  5. For three decades San Francisco has had an ad-hoc carpooling program called the “casual carpool.”

    Drivers go to designated spots park and ride lots to pick up passengers in the morning and in the evening there’s a street in the City with destination signs where passengers line up to keep it organized.

    Drivers get to cross the bay bridge in the carpool lane and pay the lower carpool toll, passengers get a cheap ride ( it’s considered polite to offer the driver a couple of bucks ).

    uber is simply adding a layer of technology to this idea… which is great because it takes a lot of the uncertainty out of it.

    Metro has also dabbled with this idea of app based casual carpooling… they’ve launched a service in Kirkland called icarpool where drivers can offer up rides. Riders pay 26¢ per mile and drivers receive 17¢ per mile per rider.

    1. Wow, 33% off the top to connect two people going to the same place. I’m in the wrong business!

    2. Belfast started something like that when the Troubles disrupted bus service between the sectarian neighborhoods and the rest of the city. It wasn’t carpools but black taxis that waited at designated stands; these essentially replaced part of the bus service.

    3. Moscow in the 90s essentially had Uber without the central app. There were always people driving around who would pick up people who stuck out their hand, and they were called “taxis” and you were expected to pay a few dollars per trip. I had one acquaintance who was a driver, and he said he just chose to spend some Saturday nights driving around taking people to clubs for some extra money.

  6. The graph was pretty discouraging looking at the entire US as a trend. Locally, the latest information I could find is much more upbeat. “Comparison of Household Travel Surveys for 1985-1988, 1999, and 2006 in the Puget Sound Region [PSRC,2006]
    Graphs in Fig 4-5 and 4-6 show mode of transport by commute and all-day travel times, by essentially ST subareas. SOV and HOV account for over 80% of all travel and HOV nearly equal to SOV for all day.
    Transit usage is under 5%, with the exception of N-Sub in King County having much higher rates of transit and walking. We’re actually improving in other modes usage, not declining as the US graph indicates, which is a good thing.
    The implications for ST3 could be going after the low lying fruit in the suburbs to increase transit usage, or the flip of that is to not ignore your present market, chasing down the transit few existing riders in Everett and Tacoma.
    I wish there was more current information as to where to plop down future transit infrastructure.

  7. It always struck me as weird that carpooling has faded out over the years. I thought it might have something to do with gas prices, but there appears to be no correlation (http://inflationdata.com/articles/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Inflation-Adjusted-Gasoline-Jan-2016.jpg).

    When I first heard about car sharing, I assumed that was what it was all about. Anyone who has ever worked with computers, or just thought about the possibility, figured it was a matter of time before it occurred. Whenever you drive somewhere, you know someone is driving the same general direction, even if it is only for part of that trip. Plug all the data into a computer, and next thing you know, you have a ride. Not necessarily the whole way, either. For example, if I’m trying to get from Northgate to Kent during commute hours, it is very difficult. But I can take a bus, then the train down to Tukwila, and get picked up there, by someone headed from Burien to the same place in Kent. I hope the programs incorporates public transit in the mix, as I think it would greatly expand the possibilities.

    Of course, most of these “car sharing” companies are just cab companies, using the pizza delivery model (let some guy wear down his own car). The iCarpool and Rideshare thing is what I had in mind. But I agree, Frank, I could easily see how Uber could lead to a big increase in this sort of thing. It reminds me of when laser disks and video tape came out at about the same time. People weren’t that interested in laser disks, because it didn’t allow you to record. A few years later, most movies were coming out on VHS, and few came out on laser disks. Next thing you know, a lot of people stopped buying video recorders, but simply bought VHS video players (it turns out they didn’t need to record that much after all). I doubt that will happen here — there will always be a market for cabs. But I could see the car sharing thing really taking off, because a lot of people are used to driving or taking Uber.

    1. To some extent, the decline in carpooling, at least, in the Seattle area, may be, in part, due to improving transit service. There are lots of people I could carpool to/from work with, in theory, but the transit service is good enough that there’s no reason to do so – it’s easier to just ride the bus.

      1. I think it may have more to do with the changing nature of work, which corresponds with the decreasing influence of unions. My guess is it would correlate with that chart fairly well. Fewer people work 9 to 5. They work 8:30 or so until whenever they finish that report. This makes a regular carpool very difficult to manage.

        The work places might be more dispersed, as well. If you work at Boeing, then Boeing might have a great carpool system that encourages you to share the ride. But if you work for a Boeing supplier, they only manage their own business. As more and companies sub-contract, fewer and fewer people are connected. Hell, Microsoft doesn’t allow their contractors (who work side by side with the employees) to ride their vans. My guess is those contractors aren’t encouraged to carpool by their contracting agency either.

      2. Casual carpooling might be in decline, but Metro’s vanpool ridership continues to grow each year.

    2. I think there are a lot of potential causes that may be working alongside one another to decrease the appeal of carpooling:

      1) Cheap yet reliable used cars are more available. Automakers have dramatically improved build quality over the past 20 years. For less than $10k you can buy a car that will run for 7-10 years with basic maintenance.

      2) Working from home is much more common now. If you had a brutal commute (and thus a strong incentive to carpool) it makes much more sense to WFH as much as possible.

      3) Many more shift-work jobs are nights/weekends instead of the traditional 8-5. Variable shifts make carpooling next to impossible.

      4) There are more well-off people who don’t need to save a few bucks by carpooling.

      5) Jobs are slowing migrating back to cities and areas with better transit options.

    3. “It always struck me as weird that carpooling has faded out over the years.”

      It’s not that surprising; the whole concept was somewhat futile to begin with. It’s not very often that people happen to be going between similar places at the same time. Think of yourself and your neighbors. How often does it occur that you work at the same place, or work at nearby places, and your shifts are the same? How often do you want to go to QFC or the mall at the same time they do? How often do you have doctor’s appointments at the same place and time? You could say, “I’m going to Bellevue Square Saturday morning at 10, who wants to come?”, or QFC Tuesday at 7pm, or Costco Sunday afternoon, and some people may be able to generate a small carpool sometimes, but in most cases it won’t. Carpools work best when people are going to a large institution or ballgame, because then a lot of people are going to the same place at the same time. It doesn’t scale well beyond that.

  8. Why would we feel good about loosening regulations on these?

    With taxi and for-hire drivers earning there’s a public interest in regulating safety beyond that of other drivers: when you profit from driving you have an incentive to drive as much as possible, so safety defects in your vehicle, or poor driving habits, expose the public to elevated risk. Spontaneous carpoolers are a bit different: as long as they aren’t reimbursed beyond their actual costs they won’t drive just to pick up passengers. So there’s less public interest in regulating their safety beyond that of other drivers, just as there’s less public interest in regulating “slugging” — safety concerns are between passengers and drivers, and Uber is in a decent position to help with that by exposing passenger ratings.

    1. Interestingly enough, iCarpool requires the driver to work or go to school in the area they travel to. This is no doubt meant to reduce risk, even though it cuts down on drivers (e. g. someone who happens to be headed that direction for social reasons).

      1. One downside of a carpool is that it’s completely inflexible. There’s no such thing as “there’ll be another one along in….” until exactly 24 hours.

        Mark

  9. One situation where this kind of app-based ridesharing could have enormous potential is getting people between suburban homes and the nearest regional P&R lot. As we have discussed many times, trying to build a separate parking space for every weekday commuter into downtown is enormously expensive and futile, but with ride-sharing apps each parking space could potentially serve 2-3 weekday commuters, rather than just one. With a small monetary incentive from the agency (say, $5/day to park your car, waived if you transport at least one passenger with you), I could see this taking off. One could even imagine a world where the free parking is enough of an incentive for the driver in and of itself, allowing the passenger to pay nothing for the trip (which would eliminate the overhead of payment collection and spare the driver from having to deal with more complicated taxes come April).

    One could imagine that, at first, since everybody has a car, everybody would start driving, find no matching riders, and pay the $5. After a few days of this, people would start to realize that if they just log into the app as a passenger and leave their car at home, they can avoid paying for parking, while also saving on gas/wear/tear on the car. Eventually, one could imagine a world where enough people would do this that the riders and drives start to balance out.

    1. I agree. That sounds very plausible.

      In general I could see this as complementing transit use, if done right. I said as much up above. Whether for work or pleasure, it is pretty common to drive right through the most congested part of our state (downtown). Taking a bus or train and sharing the ride on either end would make a lot of sense. I don’t know if the apps are smart enough to incorporate this into their software, or if you have to do this manually.

  10. Carpooling died down because you have to make a date with someone regularly, or it doesn’t work. With variable schedules, it’s impossible to carpool. I would like to carpool one way only but haven’t found anyone who will do it.

    I too would prefer Lyft to offer the service as I do not use Uber due to the horrific way they treat women. I don’t drive Lyft because as a business owner I would be expected to keep my car clean, my trunk empty (i have to carry work boots, hard hat, jumper cables, etc. for emergencies), and cater to the requests of the passenger in terms of radio stations, eating/drinking in the car, etc. With a carpool service charging the IRS rate, I would be happy to take on customers, provided that they follow my car’s rules, don’t complain about the mess in the back seat or the dirt on the carpet, and don’t change the radio station.

  11. How’s this different than Lyft’s “Line” service that’s been going for a while? It sounds like this involves Uber drivers just picking up multiple people en route and then dropping them off as they go, and not for an Uber driver who is doing it as a spare-time thing in addition to a job they’re commuting to, so it doesn’t seem all that revolution ary to me.

    Of course I vastly prefer Lyft over Uber just because they’ve historically been way more ethical and better to their drivers.

  12. My understanding is that carpooling was most common to industrial worksites, to factories. Workers often knew each other, weren’t usually high income, and didn’t necessarily have access to decent transit. According to this idea, carpooling has faded as fewer Americans work in industry.

    There’s a company called Carma which is trying to get this high-tech hitchhiking concept going in the Bay Area. The casual carpooling over the Bay Bridge is very well-established and very safe, perhaps because it’s people commuting to the same place every day.

    1. An important component of carpooling by factory workers is that they don’t (or didn’t) have flexible hours. Shifts started and ended at the same time; if there’s someone in your neighborhood that’s reliably going to the same place at the same time and the same applies to the return trip, it’s more sensible to ride together. In fact, it could be a prod to keeping you on schedule.

Comments are closed.