Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The New Carpooling

A feature in the Wall Street Journal from a couple weeks ago:

Carpooling, for most people, loses its appeal sometime after the fifth grade. For many adults the thought of making obligatory chitchat with a neighbor, the safety risks of hooking up with a stranger, and the general annoyance of being hostage to someone else's schedule wipe out any advantage of getting a free lift.

But rising gas prices and new services and incentives are making carpooling easier, more efficient and less of a long-term commitment. As a result of the proliferating options, carpooling is up sharply in a number of major cities including Seattle, Miami and Chicago.

Transportation agencies, nonprofits and start-ups across the country are offering immediate online lists of potential carpoolers, whether for one-time trips to locations like ski resorts or train stations or for daily commutes. Some Web sites even provide incentives like prepaid gas cards, store gift certificates, reserved parking spaces or taxi vouchers for rides home.


The average driver spends about $2,800 annually at current gas prices to fuel a typical passenger car, compared with about $2,280 a year ago, according to AAA. By cutting down the number of days and miles someone drives, carpooling could save consumers hundreds of dollars a year. Most carpoolers generally take turns driving and split gas costs. Vanpools, meanwhile, usually include a monthly fee that consumers pay for a seat on the van.

While many state and local governments have long looked to ride-sharing as a means to reduce congestion and improve air quality by getting more single-occupant vehicles off the road, previous matching services like 1-800-numbers posted along the road or online request forms on older Web sites failed to catch on among consumers. Both of these methods could mean waits of a few days to two weeks or longer for matches.

In contrast, the new online matching services bring up results instantly. Some, like a new service offered in Indianapolis, match users based on where they live, work and their work hours and also bring up available vanpools in the area.


Until now, carpooling has never widely caught on, in part because of the difficulty in finding suitable fellow riders and drivers. About 10% of workers ages 16 and over in the U.S. carpooled to work in 2004, whether in a car, truck or van, compared with nearly 78% who drove alone and about 11% who carpooled in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

But given the growing demand, the services are expanding geographically. NuRide.com, a Web site owned by NuRide Inc. of Herndon, Va., that rewards ride sharers with points that can be redeemed for gift certificates from stores such as Brookstone and Old Navy, expanded earlier this year to the Hampton Roads, Va., metro area. The Houston-Galveston Area Council now offers NuRide.com for its region, and the site also began serving Connecticut and New York last year in partnership with local transportation departments.


The sites also recognize some people are wary of carpooling with strangers. To address such concerns, NuRide limits membership to those with an official email address from a major organization like an employer or school, has members rate each other, and lets users block certain people from match lists.

Most sites also recruit users by encouraging employers to promote the services as employee benefits. This typically costs employers nothing, so many people are likely to match up with co-workers.

A sidebar has specifics on the NuRide program, which is offered in Houston:
Rewards ride sharers with a system similar to frequent flier miles. Users earn 100 points for each ride longer than five miles. Each point is valued at approximiately a penny and rewards include $25 gift cards.
Houston also has a very active vanpool program.

My own idea for an incentive option? Give them a free lottery ticket for every day they participate in a carpool or vanpool (or even for every ride, so two per day). It essentially costs the government nothing, yet has real value in the minds of most riders and every ride increases your odds of winning.

These programs are a great way to get better utilization out of our extensive HOV network, and are actually very complimentary to the developing light rail/BRT network in the core, which makes it easier for those commuters to run errands or go out to lunch or business meetings when they don't have access to a car.

I don't know the program details, but I suspect what we need more of are suburban carpool and vanpool meeting points in an easily searchable web-site database: retail or other establishments (churches?) that have unused parking during business days where everybody can meet and park for the day. The benefit for retailers would be extra morning and evening customers at places that sell coffee, breakfast foods, dry cleaning, groceries, take-out, movie rentals, etc. Definitely a win-win relationship.


At 7:44 AM, February 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

METRO is currently working out details to use a massive church parking lot on the Gulf Freeway for weekday parking (Grace Church). METRO will maintain the lot in return for its weekday use. This saves land acquisition costs, construction costs, and importantly, acres of pavement in a lowland area.

The carpool program is a no-brainer. While a bus may take 40 cars off the road, there are expenses, and mass transit can't get everyone where they need to go. Cutting traffic in half via carpool is still a winner, although every time I hear about carpools, I think of the Clear Lake woman who bragged in the Chronicle about driving to downtown alone, even though her husband also drove HIS SUV downtown as well. To make matters worse, a neighbor also drove to within a couple of blocks of this woman's building. She gave the same tired, selfish excuse of not wanting to wait 20 minutes for the husband to get off work.

With attitudes like that, we have a ways to go.

At 9:23 AM, February 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice example of what you're talking about: an architect I work with works in the Rice Village; her husband works downtown and they live in Pearland. They drive in together; she drops him off the Museum District light rail station so he can take the train Downtown and drives on to work; in the evening she picks him up again at the station and they head home.

At 2:20 PM, February 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I carpooled with two older, higher ranking men at my work and it paid off big dividends when it came to my career. Because they liked me and respected my opinions after a hours together talking one requested that I work for him on a project that was well above what my peers were working on. I am now changing jobs and I am hoping to find someone in my office to carpool with, not just for the savings, but also for the networking advantage.


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