VERGE

The conundrum of pooled ride-hailing

uber pool on phone

This article is adapted from our newsletter, Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here.

I have a confession to make: I rarely opt for Uber or Lyft's pooled ride service. If you use ride-hailing regularly, you've seen the option before — "pooling" could be half the price, but might take longer and could involve picking up another passenger that may or may not be a pleasant ride companion. 

I know I should use the pooling option when I ride-hail much more often. The evidence that carpooling reduces fuel use and carbon emissions is clear, and it likely reduces congestion, too. A couple of weeks ago, European carpooling biggie BlaBlaCar released a report that found that 1.6 million metric tons of CO2 were saved by BlaBlaCar’s community of 70 million users in 2018 (check out a clip from our podcast with BlaBlaCar's co-founder and CEO Nicolas Brusson here).

But that's in Europe (and parts of Latin America, too). Brusson told me earlier this month that the company never had focused on bringing its long-distance pooled rides to America because the lack of density of public transportation makes the first and last mile of shared trips very complex and onerous for the driver. Remember that Lyft originally began life as a long-distance carpooling service and had to pivot to ride-hailing after it failed to gain enough traction.

Many have confessed to the pooling aversion, including — surprisingly — some C-suite transportation leaders I've spoken with recently. The pain point just isn't high enough to force us to avoid the greater convenience of booking the vehicle alone. 

That's why policy likely will have to play a major role in boosting pooling services, noted transportation expert Daniel Sperling, director of University of California at Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies, last year. We need bigger subsidies for pooled rides from places such as airports, or bigger tolls on single occupancy rides.

For example, later this year, the city of San Francisco might vote on tacking a 3.25 percent tax on single ride-hailing rides and only 1.5 percent tax on pooled ride-hailing rides (paid for by Uber and Lyft). The fees could raise $30 million to help fund the city's transportation infrastructure. In addition, the companies themselves could do a lot more to make the pooling experience more appealing. 

One of the more interesting Earth Day PR moves this week came from pooling ride-hailing company Via, which deactivated all of its privates rides Monday. Because a lot of Via's community has been built around pooling, the company says passengers already take pooled rides over 85 percent of the time during peak travel hours. But still, it's a pretty bold one-day move that helps shine a spotlight on the environmental importance of pooling.

Not to mention, ride-hailing will need to become much more about pooling by the time self-driving cars get here in large numbers, whether that's a decade away or more. A vehicle driven by a computer and powered by electricity eventually could become so cheap to operate that it could lead to a massive rise in the use of these services. That would be bad news for traffic in urban areas if all of these cars have just one person riding in them. 

I largely use public transportation for commuting these days, but for Earth Day this week, I pledge that the majority of my ride-hailing experiences in 2019 will be in pooled services. It's a small step, but hey, it's something.