How Google could bring back old-school carpooling

Your next Uber could be a self-driving car
Your next Uber could be a self-driving car

The traditional carpool -- like when a neighbor offers to drive you to work -- has become a fading trend in the U.S. But the old-school concept appears to have fresh hope.

Waze, the Google-owned directions app popular among commuters seeking the fastest route, is launching a carpooling service in the San Francisco area later this year. The company has been piloting it since May.

Called Waze Carpool, you can use the app to carpool with people nearby taking similar trips. In exchange for picking up passengers, drivers receive a small reimbursement from whoever is in the car to cover fuel costs. The news was first first reported by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

While ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft and Via are now pushing the concept of carpooling, Waze Carpool doesn't rely on professional drivers. Instead, the average commuter can pick up a neighbor who might work in a similar location.

Transit experts have long encouraged carpooling to help cut down on city congestion. Traditional carpooling peaked in 1980 — with 19.7% of workers embracing the concept -- but in 2013, only 9% of commuters carpooled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Related: Is Uber's push for self-driving cars a job killer?

"[Many companies] have tried to solve the carpool problem, but it's been very hard," said Gabe Klein, the co-founder of CityFi, which consults on transportation issues.

Just earlier this month, Lyft shuttered its carpooling feature that let drivers pick up riders along their commutes.

Carpools with professional drivers have fared better. UberPool makes up 20% of Uber's trips globally, and about 40% of trips in San Francisco. Via, which operates its service in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., has given 5 million rides in its four years.

Klein thinks Waze and Google (GOOG) have a unique opportunity to succeed given how many commuters already use their products -- and it will be accessible to anyone across the U.S.

"There's a perfect storm to get suburban and ex-ubran commuters -- from a cultural and social standpoint -- to acclimate to the idea of letting someone jump in their car," said Klein.

Because those drivers are already familiar with Google, Waze and other ride-sharing services, hopping into a car with a stranger isn't as worrisome to some as it would have been just a few years ago.

However, Google and Waze will handle crucial details such as security will be critical, Klein said. Ride-sharing services have at times been criticized for not properly vetting drivers. Waze hasn't yet disclosed how it will ensure both drivers and passengers are safe.

Klein doesn't expect overnight success, but could see the service growing with government support.

"This is a perfect example of public policy and the private sector converging and realizing maybe there's a more utopian idea here if we can get people to change their behavior," Klein said.

Some transportation experts caution Waze to be careful about the impact its carpool service has on public transit. With extremely low prices -- Waze is charging $0.54 a mile in its pilot -- riding in a Waze carpool may be more appealing than taking a bus or train.

"If we start moving people off of crowded buses or trains into dense cities [and into carpooling vehicles], there won't be room on the streets for all those cars," said Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant and author of the Human Transit blog. "That increases congestion and emissions."

Walker recommends Waze focus on the suburban business park market, where public transit isn't common.

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