Why you should care

Because the genius of carpooling apps is born of America’s superbroken transit system. 

Martine Powers is a journalist and Fulbright fellow currently based in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

On-demand carpooling is but the latest, greatest and buzziest innovation by U.S. ride-sharing companies. Uber and Lyft are betting big on it, while a whole new outfit, New York-based Via, just scored $27 million for a smartphone app that would offer shared rides in central Manhattan.

When Trinidadian transport engineer Rae Furlonge heard all the hubbub, he wanted to know just one thing: What took so long?

Throughout the developing world, analog carpooling systems have existed and prospered for more than a century, from West Africa’s bush taxis to the carros públicos of the Dominican Republic and the route taxis of Trinidad. All of them enable strangers to crowd into taxis that ply predetermined routes. “We call it something different, but it’s the same concept,” says Furlonge.

Similar raisons d’être, too. Public transportation spending in the developing world is usually strained — and it is becoming so in the United States. Private entrepreneurs are trying to fill the gap, and as more of them do, options in upscale American neighborhoods may look a lot more like the average commute in the Caribbean, Latin America or Africa.

Indeed, the circumstances leading to America’s growing interest in carpool ride-sharing aren’t all that different from the process that happened in Trinidad, says Furlonge. Shared-ride taxis started to appear in the 1930s, when residents began moving out of urban centers and into the villages that snake through the island’s lush valleys. These remote communities weren’t served by the nation’s trains, streetcars or buses, so private-car owners offered rides for a small fee. They created their own routes where they saw fit, and they evolved not just independently from the government but also over its objections.

Eighty years later, there’s a bit more regulation — drivers must carry “for hire” licenses, and their vehicles are outfitted with special license plates — but the practice remains largely unchanged. Customers stand at any point on the route to hail a pickup; they gesture with their hands to indicate whether they’re headed downtown or to another neighborhood. When the cars turn around at their downtown terminus, the drivers can wait for their car to fill with passengers, or depart with only one passenger and hope to pick up more along the way.

There’s no timetable, no schedule, no predetermined headway between cars running around the route. Drivers begin and end their day whenever it makes sense, and they choose to drive on whatever route they feel will be most lucrative. As housing and commuting patterns change, drivers test out new routes.

Does this sound familiar? Drivers for Uber, Lyft and others already set their own schedules, driving when it makes economic sense. For consumers, too, on-demand carpooling has perks: It’s more frequent and flexible than public buses, and cheaper than private taxis. All of this poises carpooling to take off in America’s trendiest neighborhoods, just as it has in low-income communities in New York City, where historically bad access to public transit has led to jitneys and off-the-grid dollar vans that ferry riders between boroughs.

Even so, there’s a real concern among public-transit advocates that these kind of piecemeal commuting options might not be a good thing in the long run: They could allow cash-strapped legislatures to pass the buck to the private sector. The rise of carpooling apps in the U.S. could relieve political pressure to make trade-offs in strapped state budgets, or to address the looming insolvency of the federal mass transit fund, or to have to make compromises around the gas tax.

There are two ways to look at that prospect, says Christopher Zegras, associate professor of transportation and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yes, the government could use private carpooling services to “abdicate responsibility for public transportation.” But maybe, he adds, Americans have become too entrenched in the attitude that public transit must rest entirely in the hands of the government. “We don’t want to pay more for anything — roads, transit, et cetera,” Zegras says. But it turns out there’s no such thing as a free ride, no matter who’s paying.

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