On a crisp morning in San Francisco, Catherine Zhang stepped out of her house a few blocks away from AT&T Park and headed to the usual rendezvous point next to a coffee shop across the street.
Within two minutes, a familiar red Volkswagen Bug pulled up, driven by Jennifer Slotnick, who like Zhang works at Workday, an enterprise-software company in Pleasanton. The two have been matched up for a ride by Scoop, a new company that this week rolled out its services in downtown Palo Alto and in the Stanford Research Park.
The arrangements -- made through a mobile app -- are flexible and, in this case, mutually agreeable. Zhang, who doesn't own a car, has had four or five drivers and, in most cases, the experience has been positive (though, she said, there was that case of a driver, a first-time Scoop user, who kept talking about how he would never be a passenger because he "wouldn't want to place his life in someone's hands," a slightly awkward thing for the passenger to hear; and that other driver, who was still getting used to the brakes of his new car, who felt compelled to apologize every time he stopped).
It takes about an hour and a half to take BART to Pleasanton; a car ride before the morning rush could take half the time -- provided you find someone to ride with. Zhang had flirted with carpooling before, through 511.org, but found that coordinating the ride back -- the texts and calls throughout the day -- could be cumbersome.
"It was helpful when Scoop came up with the option to choose what time you can leave," said Zhang. "It made things a lot more flexible."
For Slotnick, 26, the arrangement is also beneficial. Commuting alone to work was "wasteful and expensive," she said. Since discovering Scoop late last year, when the company made Pleasanton its first partner, she'd had a chance to meet people from other area companies, including Roche and Veeva Systems.
"It's nice to drive someone in the morning," Slotnick. "If you haven't met them you can learn about some other company and some other person's job."
Now, both Scoop and Palo Alto's elected leaders hope that local commuters will have a similar experience. The Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, the nascent downtown nonprofit dedicated to dramatically shrinking the number of solo car commuters, has selected Scoop as one of its major initiatives. The first Scoop carpools in Palo Alto began this week.
While ride-sharing trailblazers Uber and Lyft have transformed themselves into household names, Scoop is just getting started. Founded in 2014 by brothers Robert and Jon Sadow, the company is targeting a commuter who has been largely neglected by the existing services: one who has to drive 20 miles or more to get to work.
For the Sadow brothers, the problem felt close to home. Growing up in Atlanta, they attended a high school 25 miles away, Robert Sadow said in an interview this week. At 16, he was driving 250 miles per week. By 18, he would carpool with his brother, who was 15.
The long commutes don't just cost money, they drain your energy, Sadow said. He cited a study showing a higher divorce rate among people who commuted 45 minutes or more (the 2013 study, which was published in the British journal Urban Studies, carried the evocative title, "Til Work Do Us Part: The Social Fallacy of Long-distance Commuting"). The long drives, he said, are a "quality of life" issue.
"We'd hear stories about commuters who would pull into the garage and park and wait there for five minutes and just sit there and try to unwind from the experience they just had," Sadow said.
In 2013, the brothers found themselves living in the Bay Area. Solving the congestion problem became for them an "every night, every weekend project," Sadow said.
Last August, Scoop launched a month-long pilot project at Workday. When results proved encouraging, the company expanded it to other companies in Pleasanton, including Clorox, Kaiser Permanente and Roche. In October, Scoop launched in northern San Jose, with Cisco, Samsung, Brocade and other area employers as the major partners. And in November, its services became available to San Francisco employers. It now has more than 10,000 users, Sadow said.
The company's entry into Palo Alto comes at a time when traffic congestion sits at the very top of the City Council's list of annual priorities. With recent resident surveys showing growing anxieties about traffic and parking congestion, the council is implementing new parking restrictions for employees in residential neighborhoods, preparing to expand the city's shuttle system and requiring new developments to offer transportation-demand management (TDM) programs -- incentives for employees to not commute alone. The council also spurred the creation of the city's new Transportation Management Association, which in February became an official nonprofit and is preparing to unveil its own TDM programs, including transit subsidies for low-income employees.
At the same time, HP, Lockheed Martin, VMWare, SAP and other large employers at Stanford Research Park have banded together to pursue their own traffic-reduction efforts, including new shuttles, vanpools and Caltrain Go Passes. Just like the downtown nonprofit, the Research Park collective is also preparing to use Scoop to encourage carpools. The company's offerings rolled out this week in both parts of the city.
The company's pitch in Palo Alto is simple: For $1, an employee can get a ride to work from someone who, in many cases, lives just down the street and works in the same office building. There's no need to secure a commitment for a ride back or to worry about late nights at the office -- you simply use the app by 3:30 p.m. to schedule your ride later that day. The company acts as both matchmaker and mediator: an agent that both brings the commuters together and takes care of all the transaction fees so there are never awkward conversations about gas or parking costs.
The Palo Alto rate is $1 thanks to subsidies from the two partnering organizations, the downtown TMA (which so far is funded largely by the City of Palo Alto) and the Research Park. In most other cities, a rider pays about $6 per trip, of which the driver gets $5.
Other areas of Palo Alto that are packed with employees, including California Avenue, will also be able to use Scoop, Sadow said, though in the long-term they would be required to pay the regular rate, barring an employer's subsidy.
"If you think about taking an Uber for 20 miles one way, it costs $30 on average without surge pricing," Sadow said. "(Ours) is a model that's 80 to 90 percent cheaper without a subsidy."
His main competition, however, isn't those two companies; it's the nature of carpooling. First, there's the trust factor. It's harder, Sadow noted, to convince a rider to commute with a stranger than it is to convince a driver to pick up a stranger. To create a level of trust, the company instantly verifies the driving record of its drivers and allows riders to offer feedback after every ride. If the experience has been in any way unpleasant, a box is checked and the user is never matched up with the driver again. If it's been great, the rider can mark the driver as "favorite" and gradually assemble his or her own stable of preferred carpool partners.
Then there's reliability. Though Scoop tries to find a match for every trip within the normal commute hours (for the downtown TMA, the $1 offer applies to rides between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. and between 4 and 7:30 p.m.), it also guarantees a ride for those who use Scoop to get to work but then have to work late or experience an emergency of some sort. The company will pay for a taxi or public transit so the worker can get back home.
While the Palo Alto effort is just getting started, Sadow is encouraged by the early results, noting that the first week here has been stronger than the first week in San Jose.
Among the biggest challenges, Sadow said, is getting people to rethink the traditional notion of "carpooling" and to stop thinking of themselves as victims of congestion.
"As a commuter, you aren't stuck in traffic; you are traffic. You are a contributor to that problem. And if you think about it as, 'This is the world inflicting the problem on me,' you lose the ownership that is so important in terms of what it means to solve this problem," Sadow said.
Slotnick, who usually drives to work two or three times a week, fully subscribes to this mindset. Both she and Zhang said their experiences have been overwhelmingly positive more than 90 percent of the time. Yes, there was that case when a rider who was supposed to get picked up didn't show. And at times, Slotnick said, it can be tricky to gauge whether the passenger wants to talk or sink into a calm morning. On the whole, however, both are happy with the way Scoop has changed their commute and say they would like to see the company succeed.
"I like to be able to carpool, save some money and not be a jerk to the environment by driving alone every day," Slotnick said.