John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, which continues to pursue ride hailing giant Uber.(Photo: Martin E. Klimek, Special for USA TODAY)
SAN FRANCISCO — During World War II, the U.S. government tried to guilt commuters into carpooling.
Its weapon: A poster that showed a driver at the wheel and, riding shotgun, a ghostly Der Fuhrer. "When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler!" blared the black type. "Join a car-sharing club TODAY!"
Lyft president and cofounder John Zimmer, who researched such posters for a Medium blog post Tuesday titled "The End of Traffic: Increasingly American Prosperity and Quality of Life," thinks that the nation needs to develop that same sense of collective mission in order to defeat the foe of every American commuter.
"Carpooling was the pinnacle of being patriotic during the war, but now people think about it very differently," Zimmer tells USA TODAY.
"That was a time when we were using collective action for a bigger purpose," he says of the mid-20th century effort to promote ride sharing. "Why not use that same mentality again?"
In the essay, co-written with co-founder Logan Green and a follow-up to a 2016 post that predicted Lyft vehicles would be self-driving by 2021, Zimmer appeals to consumers' pocketbooks in arguing for shifting our car culture habits from solo to group travel.
"Today, Americans spend $2 trillion every year on car ownership, making transportation the second highest expense in American households, second only to housing. Yet on average, each vehicle is used only 4% of the time," he writes. "This is massively inefficient, not only because it’s a waste of money, but also because the majority of our cities’ land has been paved over with infrastructure built for parked or slow-moving cars."
Lyft is in a battle against market giant Uber for dominance of the U.S. ride-hailing market. Both companies are pitching younger consumers on both the cost effective and moral imperative of group travel, Lyft with Lyft Line and Uber with UberPool.
Zimmer says that about a third of all Lyft rides are booked with Lyft Line, and that jumps to 50% in urban centers such as San Francisco.
Not only does traffic cost money in the former of repeated gas fill-ups, but it also cuts into family time and work productivity. Americans spend 5.5 billion hours in traffic each year, costing families more than $120 billion in extra fuel and lost time, according to a 2014 White House report.
It's slightly more inconvenient to use various companies for the same service. It's worth it. (Photo: John Locher, AP)
President-elect Donald Trump targeted the nation's crumbling infrastructure during his campaign, and has vowed to allocate government funds to rebuild roads and bridges.
While Zimmer applauds the notion of fixing existing arteries, his take is that we should not add new lanes and highways but rather rethink the way our roads are deployed during high traffic times. Specifically, Zimmer suggests adopting a system of "smart lanes" that incentivize drivers to travel in groups.
These are similar to existing carpool lanes, except that they'd charge non car-poolers a fee during prime-time traffic.
"The solution involves a simple three step process," Zimmer writes in the post.
First, "based on local traffic data across the country, city and regional governments should classify specific streets and highways as smart lanes.
"Next, a federal infrastructure fund should be created to provide grants to those cities and states that establish eligible smart lane infrastructure sufficient to eliminate traffic.
"Last, the recipients should re-invest all funds generated by these smart lanes back into hard infrastructure like roads and bridges, creating jobs, as well as into public transit, using the smart lanes to give buses faster travel times and further increase accessibility."
Lyft's new dash-mounted device, called Amp, is aimed at making the pick-up experience more streamlined. Amp replaces Lyft's Glowstache. (Photo: Martin E. Klimek, Special for USA TODAY)
Zimmer notes that smart lanes would generate revenue from those not carpooling during rush hour, and then return to being non-fee lanes in off-peak hours.
"The smart lanes will be 100 percent free for any vehicle with three or more people and have a market-based price for vehicles with fewer than three people," he writes. "This gives consumers a choice in how to move around more efficiently.”
The idea of charging motorists for what once was considered the presumed right to commute to urban centers has already gathered steam.
Cities such as London, Singapore and Milan — whose inner-city congestion is legend — already employ systems that asses fees to drivers who venture into downtown areas in private cars.
London's Congestion Charge of $13 is in effect from 7 am until 6 p.m. A similar approach taken by Stockholm saw traffic decrease in the Swedish city by 22%.
"Logan and I have been together for 10 years, and we’ve been obsessed with same themes," says Zimmer, whose first company ZimRides, helped college students connect with riders traveling to the same destinations. "We’ll continue to push for change, and we think we can have a big impact at Lyft, but also takes collective action and policy."
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