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Oct 21, 2019

Waze wants to make carpooling a thing

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The mapping app is encouraging people who really, really don't like traffic to ride together. Drivers get some gas money.

Cars and trucks are the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. As we figure out tech to help us adapt to climate change, one obvious solution is to have fewer cars on the road. After a decade of trying to improve traffic, the real-time mapping app Waze has spent the last year trying to get its users to carpool. 

The app hooks riders up with drivers who are commuting in the same direction, and the riders pay a small fee that goes to the drivers. Waze said it’s gotten about half a million people using the carpool feature, but it’s not an easy sell. 

I spoke with Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze, and he said everyone knows traffic is bad for your health, your life and the environment. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Noam Bardin: The government has been trying to convince people to carpool since the Second World War, and it makes complete economic sense. But it’s a hassle, and a lot of people won’t do it. More than that, we’ve been told by billions of dollars of advertising money that our car is our identity, that this is who we are. We’ve been told by our parents not to get into a car with strangers. So I’m asking you to forget everything you’ve been told and everything you’ve learned. This is the No. 1 challenge to get people to take their first carpool. What we try to do is limit the friction, make it as easy as possible to you. We give you all the information on the people. You can see who they are. You can decide, “I only want to ride with someone from my gender. I only want to ride with someone from my company.” We’ll give you all the tools to make the decision, and you’re in control. At the same time, these are people that live next to you and work next to you — they probably have a lot more in common with you than you think.

Molly Wood: You said down the road you would have to look at turning it into a business, and I wanted to clarify, would that be ad based? Would a rider ever potentially be charged to use Carpool theoretically?

Bardin: Today the rider actually pays a small fee, and that goes to the driver to cover the costs. Right now we’re not taking any piece in that. Even more, sometimes we’re subsidizing, sometimes we’re paying more to the driver than we are to the rider to create the density and get people to try it for the first time. Long term, we will take a piece of that transaction as some fee off that money that’s going in and out of our system.

Wood: Is the key going to be, though, in the future that it would have to be cheaper than Uber?

Bardin: That’s always the case. We price ourself much closer to public transit than to taxis. That’s the core of how we view — we view this as community-based public transit. It’s a way for masses of people to cost effectively move to the suburbs and the cities.

Wood: The obvious pushback is that four people in a car is better than one person in a car. But 400 people on a train or 40 people on a bus might be better. Should you be pushing to public transport?

Bardin: You’re absolutely right, but let’s be realistic. America does not have public transport, and it’s not happening. We can all say it should happen, and it would be great if it happened, but it’s not. That’s an important point: No one is coming to save us when it comes to traffic. We have to do something about it ourselves, because there’s no technology that’s going to solve it, there’s no government agency that’s going to solve it. No big brother is going to come and save us. We have to take control of our destiny and do this ourselves.

Wood: Because Waze is owned by Google and Alphabet, you have the luxury of introducing this product into a mapping app. Would it otherwise be at all a natural outcropping of the app that you originally created?

Bardin: Our mission from Day One was about fighting traffic. This is definitely an extension of our mission. We look around today, everybody feels that traffic gets worse — we see it statistically. There is no massive amount of infrastructure being built, and there really is no infrastructure that can solve these demand challenges. This is a natural progression for Waze in terms of where we’re going. We have about 130 million drivers every month that come in and use our service. If a fraction of them will leave their car at home, we can make a huge impact. But you’re right, Alphabet gives us the capability to do things that are more longer term. We don’t need to raise around next year — and I’m not a public company myself that has all the constraints of a public company, and that we can make these longer-term investments. If you look at Alphabet, their investment in Waymo, for example, the self-driving car is the same kind of a thing. It’s a long-term investment in things that most companies can’t afford to do. That’s the great side of being part of Alphabet.

A how-to on ordering and scheduling a Waze carpool, which helps share the cost of gas with the driver and other passengers. (Photos courtesy Waze)

Wood: Do you think you’re also capitalizing on a cultural shift? It feels like millennials, and even people younger than millennials, are a little more community minded? Are you finding a more receptive audience than you might have with people my age, who just want to be alone in the car?

Bardin: That’s interesting. Personally, some people always want to be alone in the car, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re very much alone today. It used to be that you knew your neighbors, you knew people at the store, you knew stuff. Today you are at home and Amazon delivers everything to your house; you don’t know who your neighbors are; you drive to work by yourself in your car. We don’t really have interactions with people. This is the most interesting thing that happens with carpooling. People take their first ride because they want one of the hard values, but they stay for the soft values: for the people they meet, for the friendships, for interesting conversations they have, for the first time I’ve ever met a Chinese person and I can have a discussion with him, or in India, I never had Indian food before and my rider now brings me Indian food, and we talk about it. These interactions used to be the way our society was built. We’ve forgotten about it with our screens. Yes, we’re tapping into this feeling that millennials have about community or the need for community, but it’s much wider than millennials. That’s what you really see when people start using the service. They create friendships, they create these micro-communities, they take responsibility for each other in a way that’s actually natural, but we forgot it in our world of screens.

Wood: One of the standing criticisms of Waze, because the focus is really on finding a better route and a quicker route, is that it’s funneled traffic onto side streets, or there’s the Waze left where you’re in LA, and you suddenly have to make a left turn where there’s no stoplight. Is removing more cars from the road also a way to counter that problem, which is that there used to be streets that nobody knew about that all of a sudden everybody knows about thanks to Waze?

Bardin: We’re branded as the problem here, but the problem was not really us. The problem is the fact there aren’t enough roads. We can see the data itself, and there are multiple apps that provide routing now. Everyone’s going on surface streets, but really is people that attempt to do something about the fact that their commute is so terrible, and it’s continuing to get worse and worse and worse. Our commitment has always been whatever the municipality decides, we’re going to follow the laws. If that road is open and you’re allowed to drive through it, we’ll route through; if not, we won’t. To put the onus on us is interesting, but I would say if it’s a legal street to drive through, we’re going to take advantage of it and help everyone. You hear a lot of people complaining about driving through their neighborhood … but they’re happy to drive through someone else’s neighborhood. As a society, we need to take advantage of all the infrastructure that we have. These roads are there. Carpooling is obviously the next step about removing the cars. Long term, if we don’t do that, then no amount of surface streets are going to help because we just have too many cars and not enough roads.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Maybe Noam Bardin should call up the Port Authority of New York. While researching this story, I discovered that the Port Authority is canceling its carpool discount at the George Washington Bridge, the Holland Tunnel and the Lincoln Tunnel, which funnel traffic into New York City. 

AAA said that about 8,000 cars a day use the carpool lanes. Last week, I hosted “Marketplace” while Kai Ryssdal was gone and interviewed Nadja Popovich of the New York Times graphics team about the Times’ detailed map of auto emissions across the United States. It’s an interesting map to play with, and, at least in the Bay Area, makes it really obvious how people fleeing the high cost of housing are now ending up with really long commutes from other parts of the region, which you can see reflected as rising emissions from cars and trucks. 

And apparently climate change will not be on the agenda at the G7 meeting in June that’s being held in Miami, which is currently sinking. But central bankers are talking about climate change. On Thursday the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco published a document warning about serious financial risks from climate change. It recommended adaptation, better assessment tools for things like flood risk, insurance innovation and much more, including, interestingly, podcasts. I’ll assume they mean ours.

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Molly Wood Host
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