Ride Now!

Pilot Tests of Dynamic Ridesharing

The document Pilot Tests of Dynamic Ridesharing contains a thorough description of the system and attempts to implement it.

Here is an extract:


Ride Now is a computer- and telephone-based system for “dynamic ridesharing,” which allows commuters to make one-time ride matches close to their departure time. The Ride Now system is different than most in that it assigns people to car pools (that is, makes matches to form car pools), rather than having people choose their match partners (say, from a list).

I developed the Ride Now software systems, and I conducted or was closely involved in three pilot tests of the Ride Now system.

None of these pilot tests were successful. The requirements for success appear to include: (1) an institutional sponsor committed to the project; (2) sufficient incentives (for example, scarce parking spaces provided to project participants); and (3) sufficient marketing (including start-up incentives to create “critical mass”). This world does not seem to offer a reasonable chance for these factors to coincide.


Dynamic Ridesharing. There are obviously plenty of empty seats going plenty of places. Can’t modern communications exploit this opportunity? “Casual car pools” – in which riders and drivers queue at established locations to take advantage of car pool lane timesavings – demonstrate that under suitable conditions people will participate in an analogous scheme. I created web- and telephone-based systems that enable people to make “ride match requests” close in time to when they want to travel, finds the best matches between riders and drivers that meet certain criteria (such as no detour greater than 10 minutes), and provides automatic notification of the matches to riders and drivers. I was successful in working with a transportation agency in the San Francisco Bay Area to get a Federal grant to conduct pilot tests of dynamic ridesharing.

Interstate-80 project. There were many delays in implementing such a pilot test. I decided to implement a project on my own in the Interstate-80 corridor where there was already significant casual car pool activity. This was not successful. It turned out to be very difficult to get to the necessary critical mass. My primary market – existing casual car pool users – turned out to be fairly suspicious of a new, competitive, and (potentially) priced service. Most likely, incentives to use the new service were not sufficient, and there was no way to build volume gradually to sufficient levels. This is because there is no reward available to someone who tries the service and is not matched. Only when there are sufficient numbers of users will there be enough matches so that the likelihood of reward – time savings in the car pool lane – will make it worth continuing to use the service.

BART Dublin-Pleasanton project. The local transportation agency was in charge of the pilot test at this BART station. A number of things did not go well. The incentive for users to use dynamic ridesharing at the station – parking spaces reserved for users – was flawed from two directions: at first, parking spaces in the regular lot were not scarce; when parking there became scarce, then there were not enough parking spaces available for program users (only 10 spaces with – more critically – no enforcement, so the spaces were generally unavailable to legitimate users). While supplementary incentives were available – in the form of BART tickets given to users – I did not feel these were effectively used. Overcoming problems like this depends on the commitment and flexibility of an agency such as BART – such commitment and flexibility was definitely in short supply in this case. The program never reached a point where participation was at a level to encourage further growth in participation. The pilot test ended at the conclusion of its planned six-month duration.

Marketing efforts. While awaiting the much-delayed implementation of the Dublin-Pleasanton pilot test, I attempted to seek other entities that could potentially be interested in trying a dynamic ridesharing program. Prospects included universities, transit systems, and large employers. My pitch was that we (an independent, non-profit corporation, which I hoped that prospects would not realize consisted so far of a single person) would operate the dynamic ridesharing system at their site for six months at no cost to the participating institution. I eventually contacted and followed up with 34 different entities during a three-month period. It was very difficult to translate initial interest into anything concrete. “We don’t have parking spaces available.” “We’ve got more than enough parking spaces.” “Where is this working already?” “We don’t have money to pay for it after six months.” The closest I got was with a major Silicon Valley company, whose transportation manager said, “yes, let’s do it.” It turned out that their security department did not want to monitor the car pool parking spaces; nor did they want someone else to do so, either. The transportation manager tried to “escalate the issue,” but it ended there.

West Oakland BART project. While the Dublin-Pleasanton pilot project was still in progress, I decided to try one more time at a location where I thought there would be a sufficient incentive. At West Oakland , parking spaces in the station lot cost $5 per day. Spaces in adjacent, privately-operated lots cost either $5 or $6 per day. The natural outcome of a carpooling program would be parking for half price. While this – $2.50 per day – is not a lot to work with, I thought that an initial incentive of free parking for one month – a $100 value – would certainly be enough to elicit interest. I could then gauge whether and to what extent to modify that incentive. My experience this time was that there didn’t appear to be any monetary incentive that could move people into the program.

My minimum goal at West Oakland was to have 100 registered users before starting operations (out of 3000-plus people entering that station daily, the vast majority of them drivers). I hired a student to assist. We handed out approximately 700 flyers with an offer of a $10 BART ticket for registration on-line. Two people signed up. We increased the offer to $30 and handed out another 300 or so flyers. Two more people registered. I guessed that people just didn’t understand the program. We then conducted a “survey,” which was really just an excuse to engage commuters, explain the program, and ask a key question: “what dollar amount per day would get you to participate in the start-up of this program?” This showed that people indeed previously didn’t understand the program. With the explanation, about half of those surveyed said they’d be willing to participate, and named a “price” most commonly around $5 per day (which is the incentive I had planned). People received a $10 BART ticket if they took the survey and responded to a follow-up email that confirmed their email address. Approximately 60 people did so who had also said they were willing to participate in the start-up of the program. These people were offered a $20 BART ticket to take the next step: register on the web site. Eight of them did so. After a month of effort we had 12 registered users. I gave up.

I believe a key missing ingredient in the West Oakland case was the imprimatur of an established organization. “Who is Ride Now?” was a common question. That the marketing effort was limited to one avenue – a couple of people handing out flyers – probably emphasized the less-than-solid appearance of the enterprise. I realized within the first few days that the marketing effort was impossibly more difficult than I had anticipated. I approached/begged BART to run messages promoting the dynamic ridesharing program on the train-announcement signs, as they had done at Dublin-Pleasanton, but they were unwilling.

Conclusion. I still retain the hope that dynamic ridesharing will work, given the right combination of circumstances. But I have very low expectation that the necessary ingredients can actually come together.