Commuting, COVID-19, and the Shift to Remote Work

Carpooling to the Rescue

Alexandra Cutean
Jul 3, 2020 · 12 min read

COVID-19 has prompted the world’s largest remote working experiment, with many suggesting that it will remain the norm — at least in some form — in a post-COVID world. Does this signal the eclipse of the daily commute? In some cases, perhaps, but for many Canadians, getting to the office — even on an occasional basis — will still be a reality. Recently, ICTC’s Senior Director of Research & Policy sat down with Antoine Abribat, CEO of carpooling app Commut. Originally hailing from Paris, a city with millions of daily commuters, the Toronto-based entrepreneur discusses digitally enabled carpooling, the sharing economy, and new methods of eco-friendly mobility.

Photo by Daniel Novykov on Unsplash

Alexandra: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Antoine! I think we can start off with a very simple ask: tell me a bit about Commut.

Antoine: Commut is a daily carpooling solution between coworkers. Basically, we connect drivers and riders that share the same commute and the app manages all the rest.

The story of Commut is intertwined with my own personal story. I arrived from France two years ago, living in downtown Toronto. When I first moved, I had job interviews in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and I quickly realized that I only had two real options to get to them. The first was by car, which is really expensive. We’re talking on average, $600 per month to own a car, and if you are a newcomer it’s around $1,000, easily. The other option was public transit, but it was complicated, slow, and not very reliable. I’ve always been passionate about mobility, so based on my own experiences, I began investigating different solutions from around the world and got inspired to create Commut.

Alexandra: I can empathize with your struggles of travelling in the GTA. I know it was recently ranked poorly for daily commuting (according to this study).

Antoine: You’re right, and I would argue this is because the city is facing two main trends. The first one is that there is an influx of new people coming to Toronto. There are more than 100,000 newcomers that come to the city each year — it’s really growing. On top of this, the cost of housing is really high in the city, so people are opting to live in the suburbs. This is where the second trend comes into play: the relatively underdeveloped network of public transportation. The TTC is the least subsidized transit system in North America, meaning that it has to rely almost entirely on user fares for upgrades, or extensions. This makes it difficult to find investment needed to build new subway lines or offer new services in a timely manner. Combined, these two factors make the daily commute challenging in Toronto, compared to many other cities.

Alexandra: Totally. I’m originally from Toronto, but when I was younger my parents moved from the west side of the city to Milton. At first, it didn’t seem that far — it’s about 50km away — but I quickly realized that the commute was not a quick one. Driving or taking the train would take close to an hour, if I’m not mistaken.

Antoine: And imagine if you had to make that trip every day, twice a day.

Alexandra: It’s certainly not for me!

Antoine: Exactly. It’s a lot to handle — this is why we are focusing on the daily commute and trying to make it a better experience. You mentioned Poparide in a previous conversation, but the main difference with Commut is that we are only addressing the daily commute to work. We’re not tackling long-distance trips like Poparide does, so we have different users.

Alexandra: In that case, is there a maximum distance that you can travel using Commut?

Antoine: It will depend on the community, but 50km one way is the maximum for now. We don’t have any precise rules or limitations, but we are focusing on people who work downtown and live in the GTA — like Milton, for example — which tends to fall within the 50km radius.

Alexandra: That makes sense. I want to talk about the focus on the daily commute. Since Commut is about offering a carpooling solution for coworkers specifically, do you engage directly with employers?

Antoine: Yes. We mostly engage with employers. To address this daily trip issue, we are trying to create a new alternative to a personal car and public transit. To do that, we need to generate a pool of users — a community — that shares a commute. So, when you are talking about daily commutes, you’re immediately talking about companies and coworkers. The best way to reach out to coworkers is by engaging with employers. Today, we make our solutions available to companies so they can promote this safe solution to their employees.

Alexandra: When looking to get buy-in from employees, do the employers you work with offer incentives for people to start using the services?

Antoine: That is not the case at the moment, but it’s an interesting question because it highlights a key difference from Europe. In France for instance, your commute is subsidized — your employer will usually give you an allowance for a car or taking public transit to work — but that is not the case here. We provide the solution to companies in Toronto for free, so they can promote it on their end, but it is not their responsibility to finance it. We allow companies to offer certain incentives to employees within the app — like free trips — but that’s not commonly used yet by the employers we work with.

Alexandra: This is kind of a broader question, but what are your thoughts on the future of transportation, especially within dense cities like Toronto where it’s costly to own a car, and the cost of living is also high? I know recent trends indicated that car ownership was on the decline in many cities, but now it seems that COVID-19 have turned this on its head. Interest in vehicle purchases has increased in many cities amid fears of public transit.

Antoine: This is a very interesting area. Ultimately, COVID-19 was a game changer from many perspectives, including this one. We were initially forecasting a decrease of personal car ownership and usage, but you’re right that in the wake of COVID-19, interest in car ownership has grown again.

It’s hard to say what the future of transportation will look like everywhere, but I would argue that the future of the commute in big cities will be a blend of different solutions. Travelling by bike or walking to work is doable for some, but only those who have small distances to travel. If you have to go more than 5km, you reach your limit with a bike. I think the personal car will remain a staple in cities like Toronto, so this is why we want to promote solutions like Commut — car use will be around for some time, but there is no need to add more cars on the road.

Alexandra: That’s an interesting perspective, because I think with ride-hailing being around for a while now, people are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of sharing. The blended approach to transit is also an interesting concept. Do you think that a greater focus on sharing will lead to greater use of active transit options?

Antoine: Definitely. In the short-term, things might be different because of COVID-19, but in the long- term, I think the model will be more sharing and less ownership. This necessitates different types of transportation. For example, someone that needs to go to Hamilton from downtown Toronto may take their bike to go to the train station, take the train to downtown, then maybe bike again to go to their office. I certainly see active transit gaining ground in the future.

Now, I think there are limits related to the climate — riding your bike in the middle of winter in Toronto isn’t something that many people will voluntarily do. Right now, it’s June, the weather is lovely, and everyone is talking about buying a bike. That’s great, but let’s discuss this again during winter.

Alexandra: I think you’re right. I can see that year-round active transit is more of a possibility for places like Vancouver where you don’t have severe winters. I probably wouldn’t ride my bike in -30C, either!

Antoine: Yeah, and another thing that I think will be a real game changer is remote work. No one ever thought it would become so big so fast, but I think it’s going to be the new norm for jobs that can afford to do so. This will completely redefine transportation.

Alexandra: On this topic, how do you envision your company changing to accommodate this reality? If remote work does become even somewhat the norm, do you see Commut as more of a solution for essential or frontline workers?

Antoine: That’s a great question. Our solution will work for everyone except the people who are doing fulltime remote work — we cannot do anything for those people. But we can still service part-time remote workers, essential and frontline workers, people that cannot go to work by walking or by bike — it’s still a lot of people. I think it’s great that remote work is picking up steam — especially for work-life balance, this option will be important as many people spend a lot of time commuting. Commut is a flexible solution, and one of its key features is that you get a unique matching for each trip. For your morning trip, you can be matched to one person, and for your evening trip, another person. We anticipate that a lot of companies are going to create shifts for workers, with each person coming once or twice a week, so there will still be people that will need options like ours to get to and from the office.

Alexandra: Great. I read on the website that you can choose which driver you want. So, do you get an option of five or something from which you can take your pick?

Antoine: Yes. This is another key feature of the app. Basically as a rider, you can request rides from several drivers. You then get access to their public profile, including where they work, their rating and can make your decision based on this information. You can request rides from several drivers to increase your chance of getting matched.

Alexandra: Are passengers also rated? If I’m a bad passenger, do I get a bad rating?

Antoine: Exactly! It’s interesting because the rating system addresses one of the important aspects of the platform, which is safety. Everyone has to enrol on the platform as a user — you do not enrol as a driver or as a rider, specifically. On each trip, you can decide if you want to be a driver or a rider, so everyone goes through the same vetting process.

Alexandra: Can you elaborate more on the user vetting process?

Antoine: Sure. When people are creating their user profile, we check their phone numbers, the company they work for, and a few other key pieces of information. This is then linked to their public profile. While we are a platform, it’s important to note that we function as an active third party. We won’t just give access to the app and leave it unchecked. If we receive complaints, alerts, or even if the rating is getting really low for some people, we are free to put accounts on hold and investigate. We take this very seriously. Maintaining safety is our core objective.

Alexandra: For the drivers that are providing the service, is it kind of like a part-time gig?

Antoine: That’s a great question, thank you for asking. The short answer is sort of but not really. Since we are a carpooling company, it is really different from a ride-hailing company. This means that you will not get someone who is a driver in the more professional sense. Your driver will always be a colleague that is going to where you need to go. It’s more about covering expenses for the driver, for their own trip. Drivers are also limited to a maximum of two trips per day.

Alexandra: How are expenses calculated and split?

Antoine: They are automatically processed by the app, and the cost is defined by the riders’ distance from home and work. So, as a rider you enter your home address and work address, and we do a calculation. The calculation is based on allowable vehicle use expenses, as defined by the government of Canada. We just split this amount in two and multiply it by the number of kilometres, and then we add on the Commut service and guarantee fee.

We expect that the average cost for a trip with Commut will be cheaper than using public transit. If you live in downtown Toronto and you have to go to Brampton for example, you’ll have to use the TTC then Metrolinx, and the average cost of these two services will run about $10 per trip. We expect this same trip with Commut to cost about $7.

Alexandra: Coupled with the added convenience — of not having two mediums of transportation — I can see the appeal.

Antoine: That is another key element! Once you are in a train or on the subway, it’s going to be faster than a car. But where you have a lot of lost time is transferring. Many Toronto-area commuters have to make at least two transfers per trip, and the wait time is around 12 minutes for each.

Alexandra: Interesting. Can we talk a little about sustainability? As we make plans for a post-COVID reality, it seems that a green — or sustainable — economy is a priority. Is there something that Commut does to encourage sustainable transportation options? For example, do you offer incentives for drivers that use electric vehicles?

Antoine: That’s a great question. As a company, we are committed to sustainability. While the number of cars on the road will not necessarily decrease at the moment, that is our ultimate goal. We hope that our platform will help limit the growth of new cars that are purchased right now by people that are afraid to use public transit. We hope that Commut can be seen as a safe alternative.

Sustainability is one of the key selling points of our platform to companies: we are helping to promote sustainable transportation. At the moment, we can evaluate the level of CO2 that is saved by employees who use our solution. We can then communicate this to the company, who can use it for their own promotion or marketing needs. On top of this, we’re also currently working on integrating a “special mention” related to this on drivers’ profiles — for example, it would say something like “I’m using an electric car.” This is something that might boost the number of people that want to ride with that driver.

Alexandra: Wonderful. One last question: being from France, but having lived in Canada for a few years now, what are some of the major differences that you see in terms of the public’s attitudes toward transportation?

Antoine: Coming from Paris, the network of public transportation there is huge, so fewer people own cars. Overall, I am surprised by the number of people that own cars here in Toronto. This is part of the culture, obviously much more than in Europe. In Europe, you have old cities that have not been built for cars, and as a result there are more innovative mobility solutions there. That said, I think Canadian people are keen to move to more sustainable solutions, and COVID-19 is going to make this, as you said, a priority going forward.

Alexandra: I like the comment you made about Paris not being designed for car use. Maybe in the future, even a Canadian city like Toronto — which kind of is designed for car use — will change and maybe these changes will spur new innovations.

Antoine: Definitely. Just last week, the city adopted the creation of new bike lanes — this makes a lot of sense. I think to trigger the movement, municipalities will have to play key roles. They are the ones that will have to evaluate solutions and implement initiatives that can benefit everyone. You can have private initiatives, but if there are too many of them without proper rules and standardization, it will be a mess, and that won’t be effective for residents.

This leads me back to remote work. I think it will persist in some fashion, and when coupled with the fallout of this economic crisis, I think more people will look for affordable and sustainable ways to get to work. This is exactly what Commut is all about.

Alexandra Cutean is the Senior Director of Research & Policy at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). ICTC is a national centre of expertise, with over 25 years of experience delivering evidence-based research, practical policy advice, and innovative capacity building solutions for the Canadian digital economy.

Antoine Abribat is the Founder & CEO of Commut. After a professional life in online advertising in Paris (France), he took advantage of his move to Toronto to launch an innovative commuting solution. Passionate about mobility, Antoine and his team developed a true alternative to personal cars and public transportation for a safe, affordable, and sustainable commute. Commut is an automated carpooling mobile application between coworkers in Toronto. Visit the Commut website to learn more.

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