Your Private Driver: The Carpool Lane is Now Open

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for transportation network company (TNC) platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

Carpooling remains the holy grail for transit planners trying to relieve congestion on overtaxed roads and highways. It’s inexpensive, it’s faster than public transit in any American city not named New York, and it’s the most effective method of actually taking cars off the road during rush hour. It can frequently be much faster than driving solo as well, thanks to HOV lanes in major cities. In San Francisco for example, carpoolers can save a whopping thirty minutes or more commuting from the East Bay to the city center. 

Despite the advantages, carpooling currently makes up only about 15 percent of commuter traffic in the most congested American cities. The low adoption rate is blamed mostly on the difficulty to set up; you need not only people who both live and work near you, but you need them to have a similar schedule as well. And let’s not forget about the common situations where a late meeting or an after-work errand can throw everything off. Casual carpools have attempted to make this process easier, and plenty of apps have tried to do the same recently, but the adoption rate still remains fairly low.

The transportation network companies (or TNCs, aka Uber, Lyft, and the like, since the term “ridesharing” doesn’t really apply to them anymore) have to date had the most success in carpooling with their UberPool and Lyft Line services. Despite the unpopularity of the service with drivers, passengers who would normally take their own Uber or Lyft vehicle have little issue with sharing the ride with a stranger to get a fare discount. The caveat is that Pool rides are, at least in Los Angeles, used mostly by budget-strapped college students going a few blocks from their lecture halls to their off-campus apartments. Pool requests from actual home-to-work commuters are rare. They may also be unnecessary; a solo UberX ride becomes an instant 2-person carpool once you add the driver, allowing the perks of HOV lanes without actually taking another vehicle off the freeway.

Into this environment Waze has decided to expand its Carpool app across the state of California, after operating for a year or so in the Bay Area. Unlike other carpool apps, which try to pair up commuters, Waze allows people to register as either riders or drivers (or both) and then attempts to match up drivers with riders that happen to be going in the same direction. Waze will also charge a small fee to riders–the IRS standard mileage rate of 54 cents per mile–which gets paid to willing drivers without any sort of commission; Waze makes its money from in-app adds.

The headlines are all talking about how Waze Carpool is a competitor to the TNCs. Personally, I don’t think they fill the same niche; you won’t be using Waze to get a ride to the airport in the morning or a ride home from the club on Saturday night. Waze drivers won’t make any profit off the service either; that 54-cent reimbursement will likely only cover gas and maybe an oil change, and drivers only get paid once a month. On the rider end, their driver could be literally anyone; the only verification drivers go through is attaching a Google account. However it will cost about half as much as an equivalent Uber or Lyft, and if nothing else commuters are motivated by cost.

Despite the similarity of an app-based interface, it’s obvious to me that Waze Carpool is in no way attempting to compete with Uber or Lyft. It’s instead going into a much more difficult area of transportation, and there’s no guarantee that it will succeed at all. Even Lyft failed with their attempt at carpooling. I guess I’ll have to try it out for myself and decide. I’m currently signed up both as a driver and rider for Waze Carpool. More impressions next week after I’ve had a chance to use it. Stay tuned.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!