Lyft President John Zimmer laid out an ambitious vision Tuesday for solving the traffic woes of the nation’s cities.
In a Medium post penned with co-founder Logan Green, Zimmer said companies like Lyft can work with the federal government to adopt a series of initiatives aimed at staving off gridlock — starting with congestion-priced roads.
With congestion pricing, seen in places such as London, Stockholm and Singapore, and more recently adopted through “high occupancy toll” lanes in Virginia, the costs for driving on roads adjusts in real-time based on traffic volume. Traveling in such “Smart Lanes,” Zimmer says, would be free for any vehicle with three or more occupants. Others would be tolled at a market-based rate, similar to Virginia’s the HOT lanes.
“This is an example … of the type of policy that would drive good behaviors that would allow cities to not be entirely paved over, to have higher occupancy in vehicles, to get rid of traffic,” Zimmer said in an interview.
He acknowledged how such a plan could be lucrative for Lyft, though he said that wasn’t the aim of his proposal. Through Lyft Line, the company’s lower-cost ride-splitting service, carpool rides make up more than a third of Lyft trips in large cities.
“Lyft line is like slugging,” Zimmer said. “You don’t need that physical infrastructure, you can make it incredibly convenient for people that are looking for that ride. You don’t have to wait out in the cold, you don’t have to set up different stops, you don’t have to delineate different zones. You can bring this everywhere.”
It’s not a new idea. In his book, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)”, Tom Vanderbilt hails congestion pricing as a potential solution to urban traffic.
“Congestion charging … has been shown to work because it forces people to make a decision about — and gives them a precise benchmark against which to measure — whether a given trip is ‘worth it,'” he says in the book. “We may have been paying before, in time — which hardly helps fund the roads — but the human mind handles time differently than money. We seem less sensitive to the value of time, even if, unlike money, time can never be regained.”
But the idea is not without its flaws. Advocacy groups have argued that congestion-based tolls price lower-income drivers off roads. And Virginia drivers were startled earlier this month when Express Lane tolls surged to $30.
Zimmer, in the interview, acknowledged those concerns, but said companies like Lyft can be part of the solution. By making carpooling more accessible, he said, riders have a way of scoring free trips in “Smart Lanes.”
“There’s always a free way,” he said, “so when people think about congestion pricing, they say ‘I don’t wanna pay,’ let’s say ‘okay, great, you don’t have to.'”
A recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adds weight to the notion that car-pool ride-hailing can reduce urban congestion. Researchers suggest in the study that 3,000 Uber cars could replace New York City’s taxi fleet of 14,000 vehicles, if riders are willing to adopt carpooling.
But the model has faced challenges. Lyft canceled a true carpooling feature in California last fall, saying too few commuters were interested in picking up riders going in the same direction.
Still, Zimmer said, products like Lyft Line eliminate the traditional barriers to carpooling — there’s no need to line up for a ride, stand in the cold or take a trip with a driver who hasn’t been vetted. Uber has a similar feature, uberPool, that has made substantial gains in the D.C. region since the launch of Metro’s yearlong SafeTrack rebuilding program.
In his post, Zimmer lays out a roadmap for how the country could adopt congestion pricing through federal policy. The Trump administration has pledged a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, with a focus on public-private partnerships. Here’s Zimmer’s three-step plan, via Medium:
- 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.
It’s not the first time Zimmer has offered his perspective on the future of national infrastructure. In a Medium post last fall, he predicted private car ownership would “all but end” by 2025, as self-driving cars become a normal part of transportation networks nationwide.
This post has been updated.