‘Lyft carpool’ launches in San Francisco today

The ride-hail service Lyft is venturing down a new road: carpooling.

Lyft Carpool launches today, in partnership with the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission that operates the carpool service 511 Ridematch.

The three are carpooling with 511 on this new effort, so to speak.

“This is a very exciting step forward” in Lyft’s mission, Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft, told the San Francisco Examiner.

The product allows drivers to sign up to be carpoolers for Lyft, and set their route with the app, explained Lev Popov, a product manager at Lyft. Up to 24 hours in advance, a rider can set their own departure point and destination, and Lyft will match them with a carpool driver.

It’s as easy as selecting a Lyft mode in the same menu users already use to select “Lyft Line,” company officials said.

“The driver gets a little extra cash, and they’re on their way,” Popov said.

At launch, the first routes will be along U.S. Highway 101 between San Francisco and Palo Alto, according to Lyft.

The new service also aims to reduce traffic congestion, Lyft and MTC said.

In the Bay Area, two thirds of commuters drive alone – leading to even more congestion as the local population booms, officials have noted. Only 10 percent of the Bay Area carpools, according to data from the MTC.

“The biggest transit resource across the Bay Area is unused cars,” said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the MTC. “The peak year for carpooling was 1960.”

Lyft hopes to improve those carpool numbers.

“We already have thousands of signups,” Popov told the Examiner. “We don’t have projections for post launch, but we are extremely excited.”

There are regulatory questions involved in the partnership, however. The California Public Utilities Commission regulates Lyft and other “rideshares,” which are called Transportation Network Companies in California.

The CPUC categorizes Lyft as an “on-demand” form of transportation – which may bar the company from offering “pre-booked” rides.

When asked if this 24-hour advance “pre-booking” violates those rules, Castor of Lyft said, “This product has been carefully structured to make sure it complies with those rules.”

In particular, she said, carpool drivers are only allowed to be reimbursed for the cost of the ride, 54 cents a mile, which is a limit set by the Internal Revenue Service.

“Passengers will only pay $4 to $10 for that ride,” she said.

A public/private partnership with MTC isn’t exactly new, Goodwin said, as they’ve partnered with some corporate rideshare companies before – but it is promising.

Castor also said this may not be the end of their partnership.

“We’d be interested in seeing other ways they can use Lyft in combinations with public transit,” Castor said. Perhaps that means a “unified” payment option on public transit mobile applications, so one could pay for local transit, like BART, and then also pay for Lyft, she said.

Whether Lyft’s famous pink mustaches will appear on public transit remains to be seen.

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