Lyft co-founders have an idea for how to end traffic once and for all

Traffic on an Interstate freeway in Southern California
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Traffic on an Interstate freeway in Southern California

2017 marks the tenth year the two of us have worked together. Soon after graduating college, we each started thinking about bringing new solutions to old transportation problems with the goal of improving people's quality of life. We spent the first five years building Zimride (long distance carpooling on college campuses) and the last five years launching and growing Lyft. The evolution from Zimride to Lyft started with one simple question we asked each other about the business: "What would we do today if we were starting over?"

"How much does traffic suck? The average American will spend over 3,000 hours of their life in traffic."

Americans spend $2 trillion every year on car ownership, making transportation the second highest expense in American households, second only to housing. Yet on average, each vehicle is used only 4% of the time. This is massively inefficient, not only because it's a waste of money, but also because the majority of our cities' land has been paved over with infrastructure built for parked or slow-moving cars.

As we wrote about last year, the next transportation revolution will change everything. So let's take this opportunity to ask ourselves: "How would we design our transportation infrastructure if we were starting over?"

Let's talk about traffic

Traffic might be the single worst aspect of our transportation system today. We've yet to meet someone who likes traffic, but everyone just accepts it. Traffic hurts our economy, damages our environment, creates unnecessary stress, and keeps us from our friends and family.

How much does traffic suck? The average American will spend over 3,000 hours of their life in traffic. This means that our entire country is less productive. According to one estimate, traffic costs our country $160 billion in productivity and fuel every year.

What if we could finally end traffic? The good news is we don't have to imagine it. We now have the tools to do so. As our country looks to fund ambitious new infrastructure, combatting traffic is a golden opportunity staring us right in the face.

We can end traffic

It's not that no one has ever tried to end traffic before. But for the last century, we haven't taken bold enough action to make it all go away. The standard solution has been driven by a false theory that the best way to reduce traffic is to build more lanes and widen roads. But study after study have shown the opposite is true. Just look at Los Angeles, a place where you can experience how adding lanes has actually increased congestion.

Remember the bridge to nowhere? This is actually pretty similar. We build more highways, then more cars come, and we still can't move because we're all stuck in traffic. We have more and more infrastructure that takes us nowhere — enough is enough.

The problem is as simple as an old-school word problem: Jack in his red car and Jill in her blue car need to get from home to work at 9:00 am. There's only one road with room for one car. How can Jack and Jill both get to work on time?

Reality is not that much more complicated than the above example, and the great part is that the solution is also really simple: smart lanes everywhere.

When people are encouraged to drive together, there are fewer cars on the road, and traffic goes down significantly. In fact, most mornings when we're not taking Lyft, the two of us carpool to work together. Thanks to the carpool lane along our route, the trip takes us 30 minutes instead of an hour (and as we pass everyone waiting in traffic, it feels like the real-life equivalent of getting a star in Mario Kart!).

Smart lanes with a universal free option

The idea of ending traffic might sound too good to be true, but it's as simple as three key steps.

  1. Based on local traffic data across the country, city, and regional governments should classify specific streets and highways as smart lanes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Smart lanes will supercharge everyone's commute by being active during peak hours and returning to regular (or "dumb") lanes in off-peak hours. The smart lanes will be 100% free for any vehicle with three or more people and have a market-based price for vehicles with fewer than three people.

This gives consumers a choice in how to move around more efficiently and can be implemented with very low-cost digital and physical infrastructure. All funds generated by smart lanes will be invested back into local infrastructure projects.

As we've mentioned before, the United States has systematically underinvested in its infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our existing systems a D+ grade. We need about $3.6 trillion in maintenance to get back up to an A. From an economic perspective, this is a no-brainer. In the short term, investing in infrastructure creates jobs. The White House Council of Economic Advisors estimates that 13,000 jobs are created for every billion dollars in highway infrastructure investment — and since we need trillions in investment, that means millions of jobs. Over time, these investments will actually save our country money. Every day that our roads succumb to more wear-and-tear, they become more expensive to fix. The good news is that political leaders on both sides of the aisle are signaling that they're ready to focus on infrastructure. And if we fund the improvements now through smart lane programs, we will generate long-term savings.

While the use of so-called congestion pricing is beginning to show up all over the world with positive impacts, it has not caught on in a big enough way. London, Singapore, and Milan all have programs and early results are encouraging. Stockholm reduced traffic by 22% in its city center. In Washington State, drivers got 27 minutes back in their day. But not all existing implementations offer a universal way for commuters to ride free. Pricing roads without a free option has an unfair and uneven effect across income levels. Smart lanes that include free carpooling access solve the inequality of previous solutions and allow for widespread rollout and political support.

And now with Lyft Line, it's easier than ever to find others going the same way as you. A recent MIT study found that services like Lyft have the power to significantly reduce traffic. In New York City alone, if Lyft Line were to be applied to all single occupancy taxi trips, it would reduce the number of vehicles needed by 75%. We've started doing what we can to mitigate traffic, but we need collective action and policy to eliminate it completely.

Riding together is patriotic

The end of traffic is as real as we make it, and there's no better time than now to create American economic growth driven by a sense of national pride and ground-up action. During World War II, riding together was extremely patriotic and empowered everyone to do their part. Why not apply this mentality to drive economic growth today?

Throughout history, our country's best infrastructure investments have always had a single focus: giving America a long-term competitive advantage. We now have the rare opportunity to do it again. A smart, future-focused infrastructure investment that aims for 2050 — not 1950 — will give our country a big boost to lead a century of shared growth and prosperity.

This commentary was originally published on Medium.com. John Zimmer and Logan Green co-founded ride-sharing services ZimRide and Lyft. Follow them on Twitter at @johnzimmer and @logangreen.

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