Recent trends in multi-modal planning seek to make our passenger transportation systems more efficient. What role might smartphones have in how people get where they’re going? An experiment sponsored by the United States Federal Highway Administration is underway to find out.
What is real-time ridesharing?
Real-time ridesharing (or “dynamic ridesharing”) apps match carpool partners at the time the trip is needed, or scheduled for a specific time and place. New technologies working with GPS help advertise spare seats to match drivers and potential riders. Users can share the cost of their commutes, and potentially get to work faster when used with express lanes managed for high-occupancy vehicles.
The current pilot project in Central Texas integrates one ridesharing app called Carma on two active toll road corridors: 183-A in Cedar Park and Leander, Texas and the Manor Expressway in Austin, Texas. Carma provides an estimate of the cost of a trip for riders currently at $0.20 USD per mile (1.6km), and offers drivers the option of charging riders this rate, subject to the restriction that the total charge from multiple occupants cannot exceed the current Federal approved motoring rate of $0.565 USD per mile. Alternatively, drivers can offer the rides for free. In other words, drivers cannot profit, which distinguishes this app from some others that may be competitive with taxi services.
Ridesharing systems are not confined to smartphones, however. Most systems include a website for access on any computer with Internet service. ‘Real-time’ ridesharing can include a range of different services that have an updatable database of drivers and riders.
Why toll roads?
Texas, like many other places, struggles with vehicle congestion and funding roadway improvements. The development of toll roads in Central Texas provided a new mobility option, and this study is testing how the combination of real-time ridesharing technology and offering toll discounts for carpoolers verified through the Carma app may affect travel behaviour.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority operates the two facilities used in the study, and the agency’s Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein is a key partner. “This technology allows us to test the impact of specialty pricing as an incentive to drivers to use a toll Expressway, and may provide a way to verify the number of passengers in a qualifying carpool.” This project is focused on encouraging drivers and riders to try this technology out, and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) is measuring results from how the public responds to real incentives for real-time ridesharing.
Tolling Integration Concept
Participants in this pilot program register online and download the Carma app, and then they can list their common start and ending locations and times. The Carma app will suggest riders or drivers that are not far out of the seeker’s way, and they can send a private message to others to confirm trips. Once registered participants take a trip with at least one rider, their information is matched to the toll transactions so that the discounts can be processed before the next month’s bill arrives.
For this test, drivers with one rider get a 50% discount on the toll, and trips with two or more riders (3+ total) get the full toll waived. Even though most drivers commute alone, the additional value from toll savings will be evaluated in terms of actual trip behaviour. So, this process of rider pickup, toll transactions and drop-offs verified through ridesharing technologies may provide valuable information for improving transportation planning, but the extent of the data is dependent on an adequate number of participants.
Without the participant having to facilitate, Carma and toll operators coordinate datasets to ensure that the correct trips are properly discounted. Participants simply receive a discounted toll bill according to their carpool coordination in the program. Drivers save money on tolls, riders get there faster using the toll road, and the whole roadway system could be less congested if enough empty seats are filled.
How can real-time ridesharing grow?
In the United States, about one-tenth of adult work commuters regularly carpool with others. The vast number of empty vehicle seats represents an opportunity to improve efficiency from the transportation agency’s perspective, and also to make personal expenses incurred on driving more productive.
In order for people to be able to predictably find a ride (or passenger) who happens to be going the same direction at the same time, there needs to be a large number of people using the service. The limited research that has been done on encouraging carpooling indicates that large employers are an excellent place to start facilitating ridesharing. Co-workers already share a workplace destination, are likely to inherently trust each other and have a ready-made communication system through office e-mail or information in common areas.
Since this project offers discounts along specific tolled facilities, Carma has expanded from employer-based coordination to recruiting in specific neighbourhoods along those roadways through special events, information hung on doorknobs, and even billboards. After launching early this spring, there are currently over 1,000 users of Carma in Central Texas, and about a quarter of them are active participants in the toll discount program so far. As commuters continue to learn about the option of coordinating trips with real-time ridesharing, transportation agencies and vendors need to expand work to ensure this option can be utilised.