Life & Liberty: Spontaneous Ingenuity


"The enemies of freedom," wrote Nobel-laureate Friedrich Hayek in his landmark book The Constitution of Liberty, "have always based their arguments on the contention that order in human affairs requires that some should give orders and others obey." Against that contention, Hayek posited a "mechanism of mutual adjustment," whereby individuals organize their actions according to their own particular circumstances. And thus there arises a spontaneous order in human affairs, quite without planning and commanding.

As the autocrats and collectivists in our midst struggle to direct our lives, a felicitous example of Hayek's "mechanism of mutual adjustment" is to be found in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Commuters there have taken to spontaneous private car-pooling—in response to the planners' efforts, true; but not in ways envisioned by the planners.

In San Francisco, suburbanites commuting to the city once had primarily two choices for getting to work. They could take public transit, which is often overcrowded during rush hour and can be inconvenient compared to driving. Or they could drive, but that often means waiting in long lines at the toll booths before creeping along in rush-hour traffic.

A few years ago, with energy conservation in mind, government authorities set out to encourage a third alternative, formal car-pooling. They established car-pool lanes on highways and bridges in the early 1970s and let cars bypass toll plazas if they had at least three people in a car. They also did such things as setting up and publicizing car-pool information phone numbers.

But formal car pools are not easy to coordinate. Typically, the car-pooling commuter's travel schedule doesn't allow for much flexibility, since at least two other people are affected by any change.

And the planners never thought of the solution people have come up with on their own to make the most of the free car-pool lanes. Every morning in San Francisco, suburban commuters driving to work halt at certain mass-transit bus stops and pick up a couple of perfect strangers for the ride into the city. No money changes hands, but everyone benefits: the drivers get to bypass the toll booths, use the car-pool lanes, and save up to 20 minutes of commuting time; and the passengers get a free ride into the city.

No one knows how many people are doing spontaneous car-pooling in San Francisco. But the San Francisco Chronicle reports that "the informal car pool is a fact of life in both Marin County and the East Bay." A spokesman for the mass-transit system has complained that an estimated 2,000 riders are opting for instant car-pooling over mass transit, and the Chronicle found that at some bus stops, more riders are traveling by car pool than by bus. The mass transit system has taken an attitude of "benign neglect," says the Chronicle, although "it is not enthusiastic about a practice that is undoubtedly costing it revenue."

Interestingly, spontaneous car-pooling seems like a fairly safe enterprise. An Oakland Police Department spokesperson told the Chronicle, "Anytime you get in a car with a stranger is a risk. But we haven't had any complaints [about robbery or assault related to car-pooling]. I guess it's working."

As with most ongoing voluntary arrangements, informal car-pooling has certain rules—in this case, tacit understandings. It's not considered necessary for riders and drivers to converse, although they certainly may. Also, since three people in the car qualify for the privileged treatment on the roads, it is considered bad form for a driver to be a glutton and take in a fourth rider that some other driver may need. Riders themselves need not worry, since they're in great demand (a Chronicle reporter found that at one stop, riders rarely had to wait more than 30 seconds for a ride).

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, commuters between Springfield, Virginia, and the District of Columbia have been car-pooling spontaneously for about four years. The reasons are similar to San Francisco's: if a car has four or more passengers, it is designated a "high-occupancy vehicle" and is entitled to use the bus lanes on the interstate into D.C.

Gordon Jones, a Heritage Foundation executive, is enthusiastic about the car pools. "You meet all kinds of people, from common laborers to high officials," says driver Jones. "One morning I picked up Congressman Earl Hutto. When I asked him where he wanted to go, he told me the Cannon House Office Building. On some days you can do lobbying with congressional aides—you get a head start on your day's business!"

According to Jones, car-pool gossip has it that mass-transit officials pressured the county board of supervisors in Virginia to stop the spontaneous car pools, but nothing came of the effort. "These commuters are all up-scale, they vote, and they wouldn't tolerate any messing around with the car-pooling," he says.

Assistant Editor Paul Gordon rides his bicycle to work.