The lingo of sharing rides: Ridesharing, carpooling, etc.

In many cities around the world, non-professional ride sharing has arrived on the scene at a furious pace — just a few years ago, most of the companies and apps powering these services didn't even exist! There's no denying it: Automobile transportation is changing rapidly. The media and web now abound with seemingly similar permutations of the same five words — car, auto, ride, share and pool — but when it comes to sharing a ride, the precise terminology matters!

As this is the first post of this new blog, it seemed fitting to start with some definitions. So let's clear up a few things...

First, let's talk about the elephant in the sector. Yes, Uber. Leaving aside all the controversy that this company has generated in many jurisdictions, one fact seems to be escaping the notice of most: Uber is not a ridesharing service. At its heart, Uber's service is just a taxi service, albeit a very modern one, with a mobile-friendly booking (hailing) and payment system. The Associated Press agrees with us and, in their latest style guide (the AP Stylebook), suggested that Uber and similar companies should be referred to as "ride-hailing" or "ride-booking" services.

That leaves the question: What is ridesharing? Though things are still a bit blurry, including the preferred spelling (ridesharing vs. ride-sharing), as it's a relatively new expression1, one thing is clear: ridesharing is not carpooling.2 Though both terms imply sharing a ride, ridesharing is mainly about the arrangement of one-time shared rides, whereas the essence of carpooling is repeated, regular rides, generally with the same person or group.

Ridesharing can be sub-divided into two classes, long-distance and short-distance:

  • Long-distance ridesharing is fairly straightforward: Typically, it is arranged by posting an ad (such as on Craigslist or on Blablacar) and making arrangements to share the costs of an anticipated road trip with a driver or passenger. As such, this type of ridesharing competes with other transportation options like trains and intercity bus services.
  • Short-distance ridesharing is a quite different beast. As short trips are generally not planned far in advance, before the advent of smartphones this type of ridesharing didn't exist. Nowadays, we can use one of a multitude of competing apps to find and arrange rides on very short notice. As such, this type of ridesharing is sometimes referred to as "real-time ridesharing", "dynamic ridesharing", "ad-hoc ridesharing", "instant ridesharing" or even "on-demand ridesharing". In the vast majority of cases, the drivers in these schemes are doing it to make money.

Finally, there's carpooling.3 Carpooling is the sharing of rides on a regular basis, typically daily, to and from a same destination, typically work or school. As carpooling is for commuting, it is more closely related to short-distance ridesharing. Strictly speaking, carpooling is just regular, scheduled ridesharing, but unlike the drivers involved in the new real-time ridesharing systems, carpool drivers would be making the trip anyway, whether or not they have a passenger. Also, well-organized carpool groups can allow the driver the possibility to sometimes choose to be a passenger.

Carpooling is the granddad of the ride sharing family — it's been around since the early days of the automobile!4 Despite this fact, it's still not that common.5 This is partly because it's not that easy to organize: Driver and passenger must have compatible commutes (live nearby, or along the way, and also work nearby, or along the way), have compatible schedules and they have to find out about each other! These are precisely some of the problems that we are trying to solve.

One classic carpooling strategy is to use designated common meeting points; people line up at these spots (sometimes designated by local authorities) in the morning or evening and get picked-up by drivers with empty car seats, almost like if they were taking the bus. Carpooling in this ad-hoc manner is sometimes referred to as "slugging", "flexible carpooling" or "casual carpooling". Some might argue that it's not true carpooling, since every day different people pair up, so it's not a "pool" in the classic sense. However, it could simply be thought of as a very large carpool group, all sharing the same general commuting route and schedule.

This brings us to one last point: Some of the main ride-hailing services, notably Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, have recently started to market new services (UberPool, Lyft Line, and Sidecar's Shared Rides) sometimes billed as carpooling services. This is misleading; it is not carpooling. Though they are all slightly different, the essence of these schemes is that a single driver is hailed by not one, but two passengers who are headed in the same direction (specified in the booking request). He/she then drops off one passenger, and perhaps picks up a third before the first is dropped off; there are many combinations possible. The goal is to reduce the cost for each passenger by sharing some portion of the ride, just like splitting a taxi cab ride.

Any questions? Have you ever carpooled or rideshared before? Tweet us to start a discussion!

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary very recently added the word ridesharing.

  2. It may seem like a cop out to define something by saying what it's not, but as many Canadians who define themselves as "not American" will agree, this is perfectly acceptable!

  3. Disclaimer: Carpooling is what we're passionate about!

  4. Photographic evidence!

  5. On average, in the U.S. only 8% of people carpool to work. Check out: How Americans Get To Work — a very nice interactive analysis of commuting data from the United States Census Bureau's 2013 American Community Survey.