Contra Costa County, Calif., hasn’t found a resolution yet to the workweek gridlock that snarls highway traffic across the Bay Area, but one of its public agencies is in the early stages of another pilot aimed at convincing commuters to become part of a potential solution.
On Monday, May 22, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) began a new partnership with San Francisco-based Scoop Technologies Inc., during which it will spend $2 per ride to incentivize residents to use the carpooling application during weekday drive times.
CCTA, a stand-alone district, is the county's designated Congestion Management Agency and is tasked with maintaining and improving its transportation system.
Scoop, which was founded in 2015 and centers its ride-finding efforts on major job sites, isn’t yet working with any major Contra Costa employers, so CCTA is backing outward-originating trips for residents, but not inbound trips for non-residents.
Through 511 Contra Costa, CCTA's transportation demand management program, the agency will cover a portion of Scoop users’ costs. The agency will pay $2 per ride each way for Contra Costa commuters who leave their vehicles at home and, instead, ride with a stranger.
The effort is funded by $30,000 from Measure J, the county’s half-cent sales tax for transportation, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Transportation Fund for Clean Air, and will last until those monies run out. Riders in Seattle, The Seattle Times reported in April, pay $2 to $10 depending upon the distance.
This isn’t CCTA’s first time partnering with an app. Peter Engel, Contra Costa Transportation Authority director of programs, said the agency worked with carpooling app Carma, formerly Avego, but was unable to stimulate shared commuting.
When Scoop reached out about a collaboration, Engel said officials were impressed with its consistent growth, uniform product and membership. Since 2015, commuters using the company’s app have taken more than 650,000 trips, eliminating nearly 1.8 million travel miles and lowering carbon emissions by 1.3 million pounds.
“We’re looking for any solution we can find to get people out of their single-occupant cars and take advantage of some of these extra seats in people’s cars,” Engel told Government Technology. “With this technology, we feel like we can get away from the promises and surveys and provide incentives based on actual trips that are saved by carpooling.”
Scoop, which focuses its efforts in Northern California and the Seattle area, offers morning and evening commute ride-sourcing in more than 15 cities and has partnered with Foster City, Pleasanton and San Mateo on pilots similar to Contra Costa. In 2016, Santa Clara County and Palo Alto also subsidized carpooling through Scoop.
For drivers, Scoop conducts vehicle history checks through Checkr, the online background check service used by ride-share service Uber. It connects passengers based on destination, chiefly their workplaces, and location — with matches typically including neighbors and co-workers.
The app separates morning and evening trips — the former booked the night before, the latter booked up to an hour before the departure time — and features a so-called “guaranteed ride home.” Payment, directions and contact details are also handled in the app.
Data on Contra Costa County users won’t be available for weeks, but David Clavens, Scoop’s director of marketing, said ridership tends to rise when agencies provide a subsidy. “The reason people use Scoop most times is the time savings and the social benefit. This is modernized carpooling. Our most popular routes are 15 to 20 miles where folks get into the car, meet somebody new and take the stress off,” Clavens said.
The agreement between Scoop and CCTA comes as officials are realizing that carpool lanes — designed to encourage ridesharing — are often underutilized. They hope the app may help reverse that trend, motivating riders to do a better job of filling empty seats in high-occupancy vehicle lanes on interstates 80 and 680, and Highway 4, and, when it opens in the next year, in the new express lane on Interstate 680, which will feature tiered pricing by number of passengers.
Corinne Dutra-Roberts, program manager at 511 Contra Costa, said her agency already offers financial incentives to drivers who agree to try alternate means of transportation, but many “in the past were honor-based.” She would like the partnership to generate lasting commitments to keeping vehicles off county highways during peak driving periods and yield verifiable results.
“So far, we only deal in carrots. We don’t deal in sticks. The carrot is ‘Try something else, drive less,’” Dutra-Roberts said, referring to previous incentives. “But we would look at how ride-sourcing can basically change the landscape and the mechanics of offering carrots.”
Like modes of transportation, Engel acknowledged some subsidies and online apps will make a stronger connection with commuters than others; but the county, he emphasized, will continue evaluating solutions to find the ones that work best.
“The incentive is the same, to get people out of their cars, so we’re going to be agnostic to the software,” Engel said. “We won’t just do the same thing. Unless it works. We’ll keep that and maybe try something else."
Editor's note: This article was updated to more accurately reflect Contra Costa Transportation Authority’s role in the partnership.