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Will New Apps Finally Get Americans to Carpool?

It could take a mix of easy-to-use apps and legislation pushing for more incentives to carpool.

(TNS) -- Americans have learned to conserve water, recycle and schlep groceries in cloth bags. But many balk at the one change that would most help the planet: sharing a ride to work. Carpooling is the greatest green idea that hasn’t really caught on.

“Filling empty seats in cars is the best way to use them more efficiently,” said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley. “But not much has changed in carpooling and vanpooling. There hasn’t been a shift in consumer behavior. It’s a perplexing problem.”

Carpool use by U.S. commuters has hovered around 10 percent for decades — half of the 20 percent peak reached during the 1970s oil crisis. Even in the eco-conscious Bay Area, birthplace of cultural change and a vibrant casual carpool system, rates have stayed stubbornly stuck in neutral. Just look at the Bay Bridge any weekday morning with solo drivers backed up at the toll plazas while carpools whiz by in their own flyover lane.

Now a new generation of startups seeks to change that. They’re harnessing an array of technologies and programs: smartphones, GPS, route-mapping, social media, behavioral studies, hourly car rentals and payment processing. But the tipping point may be the runaway success of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, which have gotten people used to getting in cars with strangers and to summoning rides from their smartphones. Besides regular on-demand rides, the companies also offer paid shared trips in which passengers split rides and costs.

Cracking the market

Experts say the companies that survive will be the best at optimizing vehicles, capacity and routes.

“We’re all trying to crack carpooling,” said Paul Steinberg, who goes by the title Captain Carpool at Carma in San Francisco. “There’s a heavy amount of transit experimentation in the Bay Area targeting Millennials because they’re early adopters.”

Carma is the granddaddy of the new generation of carpool apps. Founded in 2007 as Avego, it has 13,000 Bay Area users and contracts with various government entities and businesses. For years it was the only carpool app listed on the Metropolitan Transpotation Commission’s transit website, but the MTC is now opening the site to other apps, including Carzac, Duet, Muv and Scoop for commuting, and Tripda for longer hauls.

Carma arranges peer-to-peer carpools — letting drivers and passengers find other folks going their way. It just teamed up with CityCarShare in a deal that will offer vehicles specifically for carpool trips, with costs subsidized by employers. Trips average 18 miles, and typically go over a bridge to San Francisco or from suburb to suburb, Steinberg said.

Tapping employers

Some other startups, such as Scoop and Hovee of San Francisco and Ride of Philadelphia, take a “closed-loop destination” approach to carpools. These apps work with large employers, office parks or even buildings that encourage workers to sign up as passengers or drivers. All those people are headed to the same area, but the apps still have to handle the logistics of where they leave from and at what time.

Each has slightly different selling points.

Scoop decouples the morning and afternoon commute rides to give carpoolers more flexibility. It recently began a pilot program in Pleasanton, working with companies such as Workday, Kaiser Permanente, Clorox, Roche, Gap and ValleyCare Health, which among them have 10,000 workers. “We wanted a carpooling solution to let people share trips but not give up autonomy or control over their schedules,” said CEO Rob Sadow, who co-founded the company with his brother Jon Sadow, chief product officer. “Most people vary what time they go home from work.”

Hovee taps into social networks so carpool riders and drivers will feel more comfortable with one another. It works with with Silicon Valley companies like Box and Evernote. “Our analog is dating services,” said Paul Kogan, co-founder and CEO. “It helps that people are much more comfortable now using dating services and on-demand services. We stand on the shoulders of giants like Uber and Lyft.”

Ride, which also has a vanpooling service, said it has a unique “dynamic” matching algorithm. Its app looks a lot like Uber’s and in fact was designed by Oscar Salazar, Uber’s first technology chief.

“The space is hot; there are lots of people trying to solve the problem of getting cars off the road,” said CEO Ann Fandozzi. “It’s much more complicated than the paid driver model, because it requires a behavior change and matching up people who are not compensated.”

Even Google is experimenting with carpools. Waze, the popular map app it bought in 2013, is now testing a carpooling service called RideWith in Tel Aviv.

All the apps include cashless systems so passengers can chip in for gas; drivers can recoup all or much of their expenses, depending on the number of riders, while the apps make money by taking transaction fees.

But there are still plenty of obstacles, many of them built into human nature. People like their own cars and want to control their own time.

“Everyone has dynamic schedules,” Shaheen said. “Even with new technology, you don’t have that instant ability to match a ride.”

Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, of course, have averted some of those roadblocks by building critical mass. “They’re able to get three-minute wait times ... and to provide economic incentives to create both supply and demand,” Shaheen said.

Both Uber and Lyft say passengers responded tremendously to their shared-ride options, Uber Pool and Lyft Line, which now account for about half of their San Francisco trips. Both have seen particularly heavy use during commute hours to and from employment centers.

The companies also got people used to the social factor.

“Uber, Lyft and Airbnb changed the ‘stranger danger’ component,” said Scoop’s Sadow.

Major public policy shifts necessary to cut down on commute traffic

Apps can only do so much. Ultimately, to get Americans carpooling en masse, major public policy shifts would be the best catalyst, said Carma’s Paul Steinberg.

“There is nothing a private vendor can do to break our driving habit,” he said.

The government impediments to carpooling start right when roads are constructed with Department of Transportation funds that measure traffic.

“The performance metrics haven’t been updated in decades,” Steinberg said. “There’s no reference to the number of people in any vehicle.”

If those billions of federal dollars were tied to getting more people per car, state and local traffic engineers would figure out how to lure carpoolers with tools such as high-occupancy lanes and reduced tolls.

Another government incentive that’s unlikely to happen: higher gasoline taxes. Europeans, who pay $6 to $10 per gallon for gas, carpool at a much higher rate than Americans. France’s BlaBlaCar, which arranges rides between cities, has $335 million in funding, 20 million members in 19 countries, and plans to expand to Latin America and Asia — but not the United States. It said cheap gas means people here won’t use it.

Even the IRS doesn’t support carpools. It allows pretax paycheck distributions for public transit, vanpools and parking, but not for carpools.

“Changing that would have a really significant impact,” Scoop CEO Rob Sadow said. “Carpools have been difficult to track to make sure people didn’t cheat the system. Now with technology it’s easy to report on data reliably.”

Lots of Bay Area riders have long lamented the patchwork system of carpool lanes that are available only during certain hours and limited in length.

Consider MTC data on the Bay Bridge for the Tuesday after Labor Day. In recent years, about 40,000 cars are crossing during the morning carpool hours from 5 to 10 a.m., a quarter of which use the carpool lanes on the approach to the bridge. During the evening carpool hours of 3 to 7 p.m., about 25,000 cars cross, with about 8 percent in carpools. But looking at the full day — two-thirds of it without carpool lanes — about 125,000 cars cross, and only about 10 percent are carpools.

Donno Scarola of Oakland recently started using Scoop to carry a passenger on her drive to her job at Workday in Pleasanton. But there’s no carpool lane on her way there, just on the way back, so there’s no traffic advantage.

“I still thought it was a great idea,” she said. “I don’t save time, but I save money on gas (because the passenger chips in) and it’s nice socially.”

Of course, even the diamond lanes have issues. A recent Caltrans study found that 52 percent of the Bay Area’s 400 miles of carpool lanes don’t meet federal standards of 45 mph traffic. Experts said many lanes are clogged by solo-driver scofflaws and alternative vehicles that get carpool stickers.

Hovee CEO Paul Kogan puts in bluntly.

“Why the hell don’t we have a high-occupancy lane all the way down 101?” he said. “It’s crazy.”

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.