From PickUp to UPoolS: Creating a Community-Based Rideshare in New Jersey Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Author: NCMM Staff
  • Date: August 30, 2022
A billboard with four colorful characters advertises how to join the carpool program by GMTMA.
A billboard sits outside Trenton, NJ promoting Greater Mercer TMA's PickUP program, using Waze Carpool.

In this story about Greater Mercer TMA (GMTMA), the agency learned many lessons while trying to pilot a community-wide carpool matching app in the midst of the COVID pandemic. The twists and turns of the pandemic and other conditions led them to “pivot” from their original concept into a new direction. In the end, the response they received to their re-designed project was better than expected!

The Beginning

In 2019, a team led by GMTMA, submitted an application for an NCMM planning grant to address the focus area “How the transportation community can become part of the solutions that enable low-income residents to become more fully engaged in economic opportunities in their community.” NCMM’s staff helped lead the team through a human-centered design process for creating responsive, innovative solutions.

The project team included: GMTMA, Mercer County Planning, Mercer County Community Transportation (TRADE), NJ Transit, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, NJ RISE (a social support center), Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and the East Trenton Collaborative (a community organizing and development initiative).

The team’s proposed project, Get Me to Work on Time! Gaining Access to Unserved Employers for Underserved Communities, sought to develop a transportation solution to get underserved, lower-wage workers to the unserved and growing 8A and Route 571 warehouse district in Middlesex County/Eastern Mercer County.

Designing a Solution to Fit the Target Audience

Interviews were conducted with people in the targeted communities to gain additional insight into the population that would benefit from any solution that was developed. The conversations showed the difficulties of not having sufficient transportation options; the majority of interviewees had to rely on a combination of rides from friends or families, taxis or ride-hailing apps, and walking long distances. More than one person talked about turning down employment due to not being able to get to a job.

The insights from these interviews led to the development of three initial concepts: a dynamic ridesharing app, expand and enhance the one bus route serving the area), and implement a microtransit project. The team eventually chose to test the innovative rideshare app option in real-world conditions, with the added feature of a “community car share” program that would allow drivers to use subsidized vehicles for carpooling, allowing them to earn extra income. (This added feature was eventually dropped from the solution.)

Eventually the team chose to leverage an existing, customizable, no-cost app from Waze Carpool. To keep the cost low for the users, the team chose to build in subsidies. The Waze app was already equipped to provide subsidies and incentives as well as “geofence” the area where they would apply. Only riders and drivers making trips with an origin and destination in the team’s targeted area of the warehouse district and Mercer County would be able to gain  access to the subsidies.

Goals of the program included the following:

  • Use a peer-to-peer carpooling app to help serve an industry whose land use patterns are not easily served via traditional transit
  • Provide options for lower-wage workers
  • Implement an affordable, convenient, flexible and reliable option
  • Empower workers to make their own decisions regarding transportation

The solution held a lot of promise and the concept was well-received by organizations that the team shared it with.

Marketing and Testing the Concept in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

The team branded their solution as the PickUP program and arranged to pilot it with a major employer in the 8A warehouse area. In addition to promoting the program onsite, marketing materials were created. However, just prior to launch of the on-site carpool recruiting campaign, the company’s legal team advised against promoting carpooling during Covid. A replacement virtual marketing program hit many barriers as well, and made little headway.

The team forged ahead. Webpages were set up on the team’s website for employees and employers with information on the program. The team worked closely with Waze on marketing materials. With the decrease in office workers going into the office, Waze was very interested in developing their program to work with the essential workers and the warehouse sector.

During this time the decision was made to expand the program to all of Mercer County, rather than just the targeted towns. To encourage signups for the program, the initial cost of a ride was set at $1.00, with drivers still receiving the full fare as calculated by the app.

The PickUP program, using Waze Carpool, finally launched in August 2021 with a wide marketing campaign to support it. Two major employers, UPS and Wayfair, were interested in promoting the program and the team focused the team’s efforts on working with them. Unfortunately, another surge of COVID-19 plus the demands on these employers leading up to the peak holiday season, delayed the deployment.

The largest blow to the PickUP program came in January 2022 when Waze Carpool decided to close the Waze Carpool partnership program in the United States due to the huge impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on commuting patterns and ridesharing. While the Waze Carpool app still exists, the partnership program that allowed for the customization of the app would not be available. Without the ability to customize the app, the PickUP program as planned could not exist.

The Pivot

The team rallied, and pivoted to a more traditional carpool program with UPS, which was still fully invested in promoting carpooling. The team initiated the UPoolS program which used the RidePro platform that GMTMA has traditionally used to set up carpools. Individuals register their commutes on the platform and are informed if there is a carpool match. For the UPoolS program, a custom UPS landing page was set up in RidePro. A gift card was offered for those that fully registered for the program and if a carpool was formed the participants in the carpool received an additional gift card. UPS began offering the program to employees in March 2022, initially starting with just one shift. THE TEAM along with human resources staff tabled several times at the facility as it expanded the program. The program was well received and by early June 54 employees had registered and four carpools were formed. UPS plans to continue to use the platform and is particularly interested in encouraging all new hires to register in the database to create a robust pool of potential carpoolers.

They view this as a good tool for addressing recruitment and transportation issues.

Lessons Learned

  1. You can’t plan for everything! Covid had a huge impact on many aspects of the program leading the team to have to pivot in ways that were totally unanticipated.
  2. The design thinking, and human-centered approach to developing solutions is valuable.
  3. There are still issues surrounding technology solutions; they may not be as intuitive as hoped.
  4. The targeted end users may hold some suspicion of using the app, with some of the employees being concerned the app would be used to track them.
  5. Warehouse and distribution center shift employees have unique challenges related to transportation solutions: they do not have flexible schedules, therefore employees who are driving the carpool are very selective about who they carpool with. They would prefer to know more about the co-workers that they would be carpooling with before connecting to carpool. It seemed that their personal experiences from working in the industry made them cautious about who they shared a ride with, given the impact of showing up late to work.
  6. Carpooling is personal and will need a personal touch to work in the warehouse sector.
  7. Because carpools are often formed with friends and family, it is difficult for carpooling to be a solution for new employees without prior connections.
  8. Employees seem more willing to embrace the program when it’s connected directly to their place of employment and approved/endorsed by their company.
  9. Incentives can encourage employees to register to carpool.
  10. Building a robust rideshare database within a facility will improve the potential for a successful program. A strong internal database offers the opportunity for people to see their matches and know if they want to share a ride, and for employees to find a person to carpool with if their usual transportation isn’t available

We’d love to hear from you!

Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Kirby Wilhelm (wilhelm@ctaa.org).

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