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The Demise of Carpooling

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Google’s Waze is officially shuttering its carpooling service due to shifting use patterns brought on largely by Covid.

For three years after 2016 when the Israeli start-up Waze launched its carpooling service in the Bay Area it grew quickly. Waze had steadily grown from its 2006 inception, building navigation services with crowdsourced data. In 2013 it was purchased by Google to the tune of 1.1$ billion. The app provided intelligent, traffic avoiding, information targeting commuters. Waze didn’t provide ride-hailing services, but in 2018 it launched a standalone carpool app, ostensibly not to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft, but instead to “get more people sharing rides in the interest of reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road.” Not a bad idea!

Carpooling hit its peak, at least in the USA, in the 70s due to the gas crisis. At the time around 20% of Americans were utilizing the extra space in their cars to take neighbours, co-workers, and friends to and from work. As gas prices decreased the economics were less incentivising and people reverted increasingly to single-car trips, until just before Covid. The major ride-hailing companies and Waze had all been experimenting with carpooling and there was an uptick, if not massive, in carpooling. Then came covid.

Covid stopped travel in general, but especially travel in close quarters with colleagues and neighbours. The consequence has been that today more people work from home. A lot more.  This transition reduces the consistent flow of people in and out of places of work. Either people work full-time from home, or they are home between one and four days a week, increasing the challenge for carpooling. Despite the hike in gas prices lately carpooling seems to have lost its lustre.  

Waze was never primarily a carpooling app, and so this shift is by no means the end of Waze. Instead, the company has seen a move in users toward planning trips and errands instead of commutes. This seems reasonable given that more people than ever are not commuting with the same regularity as they used to. This leads to new ways of traveling, which Waze hopes to capitalize on.

Personal Comment:

Strictly in terms of energy efficiency for transporting people from point A to point B carpooling makes perfect sense. A vehicle with four or even six empty seats is such a wasted opportunity! The energy savings are massive if you can reduce five vehicles to one. Efficiency, however, isn’t the only relevant consideration, as covid made abundantly clear. Safety and public health are concerns that trumped the efficiency gained by sharing a vehicle. There are other relevant considerations, such as convenience, status, stigma, comfort, and more.

What this means, I think, is that suggested policies for reducing emissions, congestion, and all the other negatives associated with cars must be realistic about the complexities that go into car ownership and use. Increased carpooling can produce significant gains, but it also leads to sacrifices and losses that might not be as easily measured as five cars to one, but are real nonetheless.

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems