Carpooling Apps Won’t Save The Planet But May Help Us Save Each Other

By Michelle Quinn
The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) With apps like “Scoop”, technology is matching people and routes, facilitating communications between drivers and riders going to the same destination. Best of all, in Scoop’s case, the company handles the financial part of the transaction.

SAN JOSE, Calif.

All we had in common was that we were going the same way.

“Veena?” I called through my window, as I pulled up outside a condo where a woman stood waiting. She hopped into my Mazda’s passenger seat. “Veena?” I asked again. She nodded, and we took off for her office.

The Bay Area’s commute is well-known for its soul-crushing backups, its sea of cars, and the unpredictable nature of traffic and accidents. Encased in our metal boxes, we are in our own worlds, slogging to work and home. On any day on our highways, it’s possible to cycle through dread, impatience, resignation and existential angst.

With a bit of perseverance, you can sometimes get where you want to go a little faster while reducing, at least by one, the number of cars on the road.

Carpooling has long been promoted by cities and counties, but it wasn’t until apps such as Scoop arrived on the scene and Waze, the Google traffic app, began offering a carpooling service that sharing a commute started to seem possible for me.

With technology, these services match people and routes, facilitate communication between driver and rider and handle the financial part of the transaction.

But for most of us, the biggest challenge to carpooling is not technical. It’s cultural. Seventy percent of Bay Area drivers commute solo, according to a recent poll. What incentive do they have to share a ride and coordinate their schedules with total strangers?
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“You almost have to unlock what would cause people to change their behavior to want to help each other,” said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. “The social piece is primary.”

And that’s not easy.

To change behaviors, Scoop, Waze and others try to build a sense of community among users. Scoop’s model focuses on creating partnerships with employers and cities, tapping into existing geographic and work communities.

Cisco was Scoop’s first San Jose partner. Now, the carpooling app is part of the tech firm’s new employee process, said Rob Sadow, CEO and co-founder of Scoop Technologies. “Using Scoop helps employees meet people inside Cisco faster,” he said.

That’s great for Cisco and its workers, as well as other companies that have signed on, but what about the rest of us?

I want to use the HOV lane for more than a few miles. All I need is one passenger. But of the four rides I’ve given, three with Waze and one with Scoop, I only got to cruise for more than a few miles in the carpool lane twice. The other two times, my passengers’ journeys from home to work were too short to enjoy the commute lane for more than a few miles. (Scoop won’t release stats about the number of Bay Area participants, but the more people who sign up, Scoop says, the better the matches will become.)

True, I earned about $8 per ride. Scoop on average keeps $1 per trip. Riders provide Scoop with a credit card, which is used to pay drivers’ Scoop accounts for each completed trip. After five trips, drivers can claim their earnings by providing bank account information.

The cash was appreciated, but for me, beyond use of the HOV lane, carpooling’s other chief benefit is intangible, sharing the road with someone else. That can make one of the most awful parts of many people’s day into something far more pleasant and at times, more meaningful.

One of my passengers was a young student from India, interning at a San Jose company before going back to college in Dallas. He talked about how improved internet access would change his country for the better.

Another was a Google worker, not located in the right place to catch one of the company’s ubiquitous shuttles, who wanted to be home for dinner with his two small children. And another was a French accountant at PayPal who talked with me about the upcoming French election and Polish politics.

With each ride, the initial social awkwardness quickly dissipated. We were road warriors sharing a mission, after all. (Scoop gives regular etiquette tips to users, such as advising passengers to always sit in the front seat, not the back.)

During the 30-minute drive to Veena’s office, I learned about her job and her family, and told her a bit about me.

Veena had turned to carpooling out of a sort of desperation. She had been driving alone each day and hating it. She was losing her temper more with her two children. She knew she had to change something. In the fall, she heard about Waze’s new carpool service.

When she started using Waze, she and her husband were both nervous. He waited outside with her, making eye contact with her drivers as he said goodbye. But after 20 rides, Veena wasn’t anxious, as her quick hop into my car attested. And things got better at home.

I took a wrong turn and pleaded with her to give me a good rating. Don’t worry about it, she laughed. I dropped her off at a nondescript office building, waved and went on my way. My day had warmed up a bit thanks to Veena. She helped me feel less alone on the road.

I don’t think carpool apps can save humanity or even the planet.

But I’ll keep using them. Selfishly, I want a shot at that HOV lane. Yet there’s a bigger reason, it’s about making things a little bit better for everyone.
Michelle Quinn is a business columnist for The Mercury News

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