NORTH FULTON, Ga. — After decades of governments pouring billions of tax dollars into traffic solutions for North Fulton, two local officials have tapped into the private sector to take a crack at it.
And it won’t cost taxpayers a cent.
Through August 5, Alpharetta and Johns Creek residents can commute for $2 a trip through Waze Carpool, thanks to a partnership between the company and the two cities.
Waze Carpool is an app, available through the Google and Android stores, that connects drivers and passengers with similar destinations and travel times.
Groundwork for the arrangement began about a year ago when Johns Creek City Councilman Chris Coughlin approached executives of the Google-owned firm, which the city had been using for traffic data since 2014. Coughlin was interested in finding ways to incentivize locals to use the carpooling app, which launched nationally last October.
Coughlin then reached out to Alpharetta City Councilman Ben Burnett to see whether he could meet with Waze CEO Noam Bardin to discuss a plan to subsidize riders for carpooling as a means of reducing traffic.
“I was like, heck, if you guys want to pay our residents to carpool, I’ll do that all day,” Burnett said.
The meeting took place last September in New York, and a deal was eventually worked out whereby riders with a trip originating or ending in Johns Creek or Alpharetta can use the service for a flat fee of $2, with Waze subsidizing the difference so drivers receive full fare payments. The program began June 4 and runs through Aug. 5.
Coughlin said he hopes the service will take off thanks to the existing popularity of Waze as a navigation service in the Atlanta area.
“We have 1.1 million users in the metro area,” Coughlin said. “If 15 to 20 percent of Waze users utilized this, we’d have a bigger impact than hard rail. Fifty percent [of users] we’d solve traffic in Atlanta.”
MARTA’s hard rail ridership for March 2019 was 5.3 million, putting daily ridership around the 15 percent mark Coughlin cited.
Burnett was quick to praise Coughlin for having the insight to pursue the strategy.
“He is the smartest human being I know,” Burnett said.
Negotiations with the company were low key, Burnett said. If Waze was willing to subsidize carpooling, Burnett said, both he and Coughlin were more than willing to have city staffs organize the details.
To that end, Coughlin cited Johns Creek Communications Director Bob Mullen and Burnett cited Alpharetta Assistant City Administrator James Drinkard for assembling all the elements to get the program off the ground, coordinating with the company and the cities to iron out all the details.
From a business perspective, Burnett said Google wants to see whether it can put a dent in traffic by just using the technology that’s available in the marketplace.
“I think Waze is the only legitimate authority that doesn’t have a special interest take on traffic solutions,” he said. “They just want to see if the behavior patterns of consumers would change if they paid for your commute to school or work.”
He said the arrangement illustrates how business can take the lead in changing things for the better.
“My hope is that people will see that there are for-profit businesses in the world that care about social good,” he said. “They care about cleaner air and the environment, and truly want to see people get off the roads.”
Drivers can register for Waze Carpool through the regular navigation app, while riders must download the Waze Carpool app.
From there, users can enter their daily commute route and schedule and connect their Facebook or Google account to complete the profile. They can also add their work or school email address to find fellow coworkers or classmates.
Users can select filters for gender, coworker or classmate and proximity to a preferred route. Rides can be scheduled up to seven days in advance.
Waze Carpool is also working with Georgia Commute Options, a program managed by the Atlanta Regional Commission, to partner with employers to promote the program.
Unlike Uber and Lyft, which are essentially taxi services, Coughlin said Waze was designed with carpoolers in mind, with rates set to cover gas and contribute to car maintenance, not as a way for drivers to earn a profit.
Coughlin said unlike other traffic solutions such as heavy rail or road widening, carpooling has no cost to the public sector and can be implemented instantly.
“Consider it because it can be boring to sit in your car by yourself and it’s not good for any of us,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said.