Before Will Peach greets an Uber, he goes over what he calls the Holy Trinity of pandemic carpooling precautions.
He still sits in the rear passenger seat and slits the window. It avoids unnecessary conversations. And it uses hand sanitizer and minimizes its contact with car surfaces.
Peach isn’t just another concerned ridesharing customer. He is also a medical student in Europe, so more than the average person on the risks of a COVID-19 infection.
“Dividing the carpooling process into three simple precautions made them easy to remember and hopefully kept transmission rates low,” he says.
Welcome to the future of carpooling. It’s an increasingly busy part of the travel industry where many passengers are following Peach’s top three pandemic precautions – and more. Smart travelers will need to know the latest research on carpooling safety, as well as the essential protections that can keep them healthy.
It was a tough race for carpooling
Carpooling has had a bumpy ride since the start of the pandemic. And the future of carpooling is also uncertain.
A year ago, Lyft and Uber ridership dropped from 70% to 80%. It was only now, with the vaccines being more widely distributed, that the ridership started to return. Uber is even trying to recruit new drivers as customers resume their trips.
“While a full recovery has yet to be made, our data shows we’re at around 85%,” says Avi Wilensky, founder of Uphail.com, a ridesharing site. “In other words, our usage in March 2021 is about 15% lower than in March 2019.”
But it’s not like it used to be. I know this because the most visited place on my consumer advocacy site is the company contact page for Uber. We’re a magnet for Uber’s comments and complaints. Mostly complaints. And it was a mad rush. My favorite story is about the woman banned from Uber for wearing the wrong mask.
Leave this window open when you ride
A recent UMass study suggests that opening the windows farthest from the driver may offer some benefits. The results could provide COVID-19 risk reduction measures for future carpooling passengers, according to Varghese Mathai, assistant professor of physics at UMass Amherst.
No more carpooling
When it comes to the future of carpooling, carpooling options will remain limited, frequent travelers say.
“Before the pandemic happened, I could share a taxi with at least three other passengers,” says Robert Johnson, a frequent carpooler who runs a carpentry job. “Now I can only share a cabin with one passenger. I think it’s a safety measure for both the passengers and the driver.”
Johnson says you can’t be too careful (notice a theme here?). He even recommends wearing casual clothes and then changing into formal work clothes when you get to the office. This way you can avoid spreading the germs you have picked up in the car.
Carpooling may still be profitable in the future if you are careful
An Uber or Lyft ride may still be the cheapest – and fastest – way to get from point A to point B. But you have to be careful, say experienced rideshare.
“It’s a cost-benefit calculation if you want to carpool right now,” says Henrik Jeppesen, a travel blogger who lives in Estonia.
If COVID-19 infection rates are high, as is currently the case in Estonia, Jeppesen recommends avoiding carpooling altogether. But as cases come down, you can call an Uber or Lyft, as long as you do it carefully. He recommends contacting the carpooling company beforehand to find out more about the masks. (Here’s Uber’s policy for the UK, for example.)
Even when COVID-19 ends, you’ll still want to think about safety
Travel is risky whether or not there is a pandemic. While drivers typically have to pass background checks, some can fall through the cracks, say experienced carpooling. Going forward, travelers will need to be more vigilant than ever, especially with the arrival of all these new drivers.
“You may be driving with a driver who is behaving inappropriately,” says carpooling veteran Christian Velichkov, co-founder of a marketing site.
His advice: always drive in the back of the vehicle for safety. Never exit on the traffic side of the car.
This is the future of carpooling: how to do it now
Attitude is everything when it comes to the future of carpooling.
“Be selective, but don’t be afraid,” advises Will Coleman, CEO of Alto, an employee-based rideshare and on-demand delivery company. And ask lots of questions about your ridesharing business.
“It is important to understand the safety protocols of the department you are using. How do they monitor their drivers and vehicles? Are their drivers equipped with the appropriate training and support to keep you safe?” he asks.
But the runners will come back, experts say.
“As cities continue to reopen and relax social distancing guidelines, we will begin to see carpooling as a necessity once again for commuters and those who use the service for essential activities,” says Judah Longgrear, CEO of Nickelytics, a mobility technology company. “It takes a lot of building trust between carpool drivers and passengers.”
I want to boldly predict that carpooling will be back better than ever in 2021. But I’m watching the fourth wave of cases slowly increase, despite vaccines and lockdowns. Something tells me it will be an uneven return to carpooling this year.
And in the meantime, if I have to flag down an Uber or a Lyft, I will remember the Holy Trinity of pandemic carpooling precautions. And maybe say a prayer.