Is “on-demand” the missing ingredient in carpooling?

New app RideFlag seeks to make carpooling instantaneous

The jury is still out on how much traffic is being alleviated by ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

But we’ve known for decades how much carpooling and vanpooling programs cut down on road congestion. About 11 percent of U.S. commuters pool on their way to work, helping make everyone’s driving trips a little less painful. Still, 11 percent is hardly a critical mass. So how could the needle be moved to get more people into the habit of carpooling?

Stepping up to the plate is a Canada- and Florida-based company called RideFlag, whose founders think they have the answer with a self-funded app that enables what they call “carpool on demand.”

Mike Papineau, one of the cofounders and a self-described marketer and investor, recently presented the product to Mobility Lab and a team of D.C.- and Arlington, Va.-based transportation-demand experts. He said he was inspired one day driving on Interstate 95 when he looked around and wondered why everyone in the traffic jam was driving alone.

What a great idea it would be to optimize this excess capacity by filling up the empty seats of these cars as a way to help get rid of traffic jams once and for all, he thought.

From there, he did some research and found some Metropolitan Washington Council of Government 2013 findings noting that:

  • 66 percent of D.C. commuters drive at least 16 miles alone one way to work
  • 34 percent would use instant carpooling if available, and
  • 47 percent don’t carpool because they don’t know who to carpool with or think they have different hours than others.

What separates RideFlag

Most carpooling has been something people need to plan out days or weeks ahead, in obscure databases and systems that are difficult to reference regularly. But there are many features of RideFlag that give cause for optimism:

  • Trips are on-demand, so while users can plan out commutes weeks in advance, many will likely use it for when they need a ride in that moment. Or, for that matter, when they want to give a ride immediately.
  • With one tap, users can switch between being a driver or a passenger.
  • App users can set up groups – referred to as “Circles” – of people with similar routes or, for example, teachers who live in the same neighborhoods and teach at the same schools. Trust builds as users take more and more trips and driver ratings, much like in the Uber and Lyft apps, are also compiled.
  • Drivers set their own prices, which could even be nothing. Pricing is typically set at about 40 cents per mile, and the passenger pays the driver that amount digitally through the app. But even if a rider and driver agree to a free trip, and RideFlag doesn’t get any money, the company benefits because that ride is still helping to expand its network, which is crucial in the long term.

But perhaps what’s most intriguing is RideFlag’s business model. Much like Carma, which has held a pretty legitimate claim to being the carpooling industry leader for the past several years, RideFlag knows it can’t reach critical mass by publicizing itself directly to the mass public. Papineau acknowledged its plan to work through transportation agencies and groups, like our friends at Arlington Transportation Partners, that liaison across local governments, businesses, and property managers to make sure everyone has a better understanding of their transportation options.

A list of drivers as they appear to riders. Picture by RideFlag.

A list of drivers as they appear to riders. Picture by RideFlag.

“We’re creating marketing strategies by market. To get critical mass, this is no one global strategy,” Papineau said. “This is not about putting signs on roads. It’s more about strategic partnerships and identifying [strategic] origins and destinations. The best way for us to do that is to get a story behind it, to get media coverage, and to gain social acceptability.”

He noted that companies like American Airlines, Uber, and Lyft are putting most of their money into gaining market share and saturation through incentives and free rides rather than the old model of TV advertising.

When and where to find RideFlag

Anyone can use the app anywhere, but because of the critical mass required to form the carpooling network, RideFlag is starting in very concentrated areas to build localized network volume.

“It is similar to a telephone network. If you are the only one who has it in the area, it is not a network,” Papineau said. For this reason, RideFlag is focusing on areas where many commuters have a common destination – to increase the percentage of match probabilities for overlapping routes.

RideFlag’s first beta version was released last summer in Montreal, working in consultation with the region’s transportation department. The app is currently launching in parts of southern Florida – taking advantage of HOV lanes in the region. Starting in late May, the Florida Department of Transportation is testing specific local carpooling initiatives with RideFlag by providing a $100 cash incentive for those willing to use the RideFlag app.

In the D.C. region, Papineau has been meeting with a number of regional and federal agencies to gather information on how the “on-demand carpooling” function could work with transit systems and support environmental goals.

The company is also working with the University of New South Wales in Australia, which is researching predictive analysis of carpooling, offering insight into how RideFlag can serve as an even better partner. Their study is creating heat maps showing where drivers commute and will offer predictive modeling to see how the app can change social behavior around carpooling particular with RideFlag’s “Circles” feature.

“Carpooling has got to be more dynamic and forward-thinking,” said Mark Feltham, RideFlag’s chief technology officer. “We’ve already spent several years developing this; sometimes the easiest ideas aren’t always the easiest to implement.”

Towards an easier carpooling process

It’s actually not too difficult to imagine carpooling becoming one of the simpler transportation options. Look at Uber and Lyft: they’ve made what is essentially a taxi trip feel easier and more hip. And look at Via, whose bus/Uber hybrid just received a $137 million boost from venture capitalists.

Papineau, for his part, is very enthusiastic that sustainability and affordability factors will play into a very bright future for carpooling on demand. “I wouldn’t discount how fast this can grow in the market. Also, carpooling is forgiving. If nobody else is available for the ride right then, you can always take another way to get where you’re going.”

Photo, top: A packed highway in Northern Virginia (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

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