Opinion

The next step in ride-hailing?

Sergey Nivens

Ride-hailing services like Uber are trying to bring a more formal version of “slugging,” or casual carpooling, by pairing riders and nonprofessional drivers digitally. In New York City, Uber has recently proposed a pilot of this service as a way to help ordinary, nonprofessional drivers find carpool matches during the coming shutdown of the L train in 2019. While the city should not favor any one company, it should consider testing app-based “slugging” by ordinary drivers in New York.

Contemporary commuter ride-hailing has two distinct forms. On the informal end is slugging, arguably most developed in Washington, D.C., for which the only compensation to the driver for a pickup is high-occupancy vehicle status. According to Slug-Lines.com, a de facto homepage for the D.C.-area phenomenon, slugging may have begun in the District as early as 1975, shortly after the HOV lanes in the area were opened to car- and vanpools. This matching began spontaneously at naturally obvious physical pickup points, like commuter parking lots, without digital assistance.

At the opposite end are the formal app-based car services whose main innovation is to bring Manhattan-level taxi availability to less-dense urban areas. These apps have added pooling services that allow multiple riders to share and split costs, but they’re still a lot like taxis driven by professional or semi-professional drivers.

Google’s Waze Carpool in San Francisco and Uber Commute in Chicago are piloting efforts to blur the line between formal services and informal carpooling. Instead of depending on a physical pickup point, slugging drivers would find and match with carpoolers on an app. Drivers receive the IRS reimbursement rate of 54 cents per mile for car travel in both pilot efforts. Waze Carpool is limiting drivers and riders to two trips per day, taking an extra step to emphasize the strict commuter carpool role of its app.

Ride-hailing services, especially the pooling options, are rightfully praised for their potential to reduce congestion and parking constraints in areas with weaker transit coverage and high private car ownership. But in America’s densest few urban cores with very low car ownership, traditional ride-hailing services (even with pooling) could increase congestion in principle if they draw transit trips into car trips on net.

Maximum congestion reduction relies on a delicate motivational balance: convince existing drivers to pick people up, without also drawing many extra drivers onto the road. Washington’s informal slugging system has successfully struck this balance because of its extensive HOV and high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lane routes. Slugging saves toll money and commuting time, but these are only valuable to a driver who already wanted to make the trip.

Would existing New York drivers be willing to make a pickup and drop-off during their commute for just $5 to $10 of gas money? Surely some would, but it’s an open question until the policy is tested. On one hand, Lyft recently discontinued its San Francisco Carpool pilot, claiming difficulty in quickly attracting sufficient drivers. On the other hand, D.C.’s experience shows that even clunky, pre-digital commuter carpooling can succeed with a boost from HOV lane time saving.

This is where the Uber Commute proposal for New York City’s L train shutdown becomes interesting. HOV restrictions will be needed once again on the Williamsburg Bridge during the post-Sandy tunnel repair, plus dedicated bus lanes. Uber Commute, Waze Carpool, and other equivalent apps could help drivers access the carpool lanes in exchange for helping to solve the commuter crunch.

Better yet, these apps would make the strictest feasible carpool requirements more palatable, and thereby more politically sustainable when the L train shutdown brings Northern Brooklyn into crisis. Transportation reforms to reduce congestion make city life better on the whole – including for people who really need or really want to drive – but get bogged down when influential drivers feel persecuted. This is an opportunity to offer drivers both carrot and stick.

Accordingly, the city should try allowing ordinary drivers to more easily comply with expanded HOV rules using digital tools. Drivers would match carpoolers through app platforms for minimal reimbursement – hopefully enough to attract drivers already on the road, but certainly not enough to incentivize extra trips. With enough participation, this will make emergency HOV restrictions more effective for passengers, and soften the blow for drivers to boot.

Alex Armlovich is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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