The Case for Carpooling 2.0

How ride-sharing apps and other innovations are bringing carpooling into the 21st century


In February, Congressman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) introduced a bill that would award a $1 billion prize to the first U.S.-based auto manufacturer to sell ?"60,000 mid-sized sedan automobiles which operate on gasoline and can travel 100 miles per gallon." In part, Lungren presented the "E Prize Act of 2012" as a rhetorical vehicle. Why, he opined on his website, should the federal government subsidize specific technologies that may or may not deliver intended results rather than simply reward desirable outcomes? A gasoline-powered car may not seem like a forward-thinking solution to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or our dependence on oil—but if such a car could take our gas consumption levels from 8.9 million barrels a day to 1.8 million barrels a day, it'd be worth throwing into the mix, wouldn't it?

There was also a practical aspect to Lungren's proposal. A robust infrastructure for servicing gas-powered cars already exists. People have shown they like driving mid-sized sedans. If someone could engineer a solution that looks more like today's vehicles than, say, the paradigm-shifting Edison2 does, surely that would have a strong positive impact on adoption rates.

Taking such pragmatism a step further, what if the sort of solution Lungren envisions involved not just cars that looked like today's cars, but today's actual cars? As Bill Eggers, a former Director of Government Reform at Reason's Public ?Policy Institute and currently the Global Director for Deloitte Research's Public Sector practice, noted in a recent presentation at South by Southwest, the hundreds of millions of cars people already own constitute the greatest untapped resource in today's transportation landscape.

According to 2009 U.S. Census statistics, 85 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 119.3 million individuals, drive to work each day—and 105 million of those people drive alone. (In addition, 6.9 million people take public transportation, 3.9 million walk, 766,000 bike, and 5.9 million work at home.)

Get three people who would otherwise be driving solo into a mid-sized sedan like the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, which gets 35 mpg in city/highway usage, and its effective fuel efficiency actually tops Lungren's dream car. Take 70 million cars off the nation's roads each morning, and you'd create tens of trillions of dollars worth of increased lane-miles per automobile, without actually having to pay a cent for new road construction.

In theory, this should be a boom era for carpooling. Gas is expensive. Millions of people want to reduce their carbon footprints. The average U.S. commuter now spends a total of 50.2 minutes per day commuting to and from work, and according to numerous studies, commuting makes us miserable. Ride-sharing apps like Avego and iCarpool allow users to screen potential ride-sharers in advance, find drivers or passengers in real-time, and even manage payments between parties. And yet according to a paper transportation researchers Nelson Chan and Susan Shaheen presented at the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting in 2011, carpooling is only about half as popular now as it was when an upraised thumb was the only technology connecting drivers with passengers. In 1970, they write, U.S. Census data showed that 20.4 percent of American workers commuted to work by carpool. Today, only around 10.7 percent do.

One way to raise that number: gamify ride-sharing. Because ride-sharing apps aggregate lots of information about their users, it's easy to incorporate foursquare-like elements in them. You can, for example, award badges to drivers who pick up a specific number of passengers in a week, or passengers who log a specific number of morning-commute hours each month.

Some ride-sharing services have already begun to experiment with this approach. In Houston, for example, Avego has partnered with a company called Nuride that incentivizes alternative transportation by offering rewards to users from local business—carpool a specific number of miles and you can get a free burrito from Chipotle or a discount at Barnes & Noble.

Avego has also introduced a character it calls Captain Carpool. "If you're in a city where we're running a pilot and Captain Carpool picks you up, you get a hundred bucks," says Sean O'Sullivan, co-founder and Managing Director of Avego. "And it works the other way around too. If you're a driver and you pick up Captain Carpool—and you can't miss him because he's wearing a blue spandex suit and a cape—you get a hundred bucks."

Supplementing modest but guaranteed rewards with larger but more unlikely ones is a step in the right direction—what ride-sharing could use at the moment is ?a radical infusion of intrigue and irrationality. Indeed, if pre-Internet iterations of carpooling represented, at least in part, a mature, professionalized, dully virtuous manifestation of hitch-hiking, high-tech ride-sharing rationalizes carpooling even further. It achieves new levels of efficiency (you can coordinate rides in advance) and security (you have a pretty good idea of who you'll be interacting with) but at the same time, it has done little to capitalize on the romance of hitch-hiking, its sense of adventure and discovery.

On the one hand, ride-sharing facilitators obviously want to provide users with a safe, reliable service. In addition, Sony and Apple haven't made billions selling Walkmans and iPods over the last three decades because people love talking to strangers on the bus. On the other hand, consider all those surveys ?that show how much people hate commuting. It's unpleasant in large part because it's uneventful and repetitious, the same thing day after day. It's also lonely. "Every 10 minutes results in 10 percent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness," Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam told The New Yorker in 2007.

Ride-sharing, however, can transform commuting from an activity that's characterized by social isolation into one that's characterized by social connection. And gamifying ride-sharing could turn a dull, repetitive routine into one that's characterized by unpredictability and adventure as well as safety and reliability.

One easy way to instantly increase ride-sharing's appeal would be to dramatically increase the reward for picking up Captain Carpool. If Avego or one of its partners started offering a million dollar prize every month, you can bet that thousands of people around the country would suddenly find the prospect of exchanging rote pleasantries about the weather for half an hour with some guy who works down the street from them irresistible.

A more strategic approach would use the lure of that grand prize to influence user behavior in more granular ways. You could earn points for recruiting new ?users to the system. You could lose points if you went a week without sharing a ride. Because work commutes only make up less than 20 percent of all car ?trips taken, ride-shares to the grocery store or the bank might be rewarded with more points per mile than ride-shares to the office. In addition, when users registered for the system, they could be assigned specific powers or information that they would then deploy when interacting with other players in the game. Like Farmville or Mafia Wars, a massively multiplayer ride-sharing game would ultimately give strangers or near-strangers a set of parameters for engaging with each other. There'd be fewer awkward silences or even more awkward conversations among ride-sharers—the game would simultaneously serve as an ice-breaker and limit the ways in which it was permissible to engage someone while sharing a ride with them.

In Fiscal Year 2011, the federal government spent $41.8 billion on Federal Highway Administration projects and $10.2 billion on Federal Transit Administration (i.e. mass transit) projects. Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic congestion costs America more than $100 billion a year in lost time and increased fuel consumption. In light of such numbers, a $1 billion federal subsidy to underwrite ride-sharing doesn't seem all that outlandish—and yet think how much $1 billion in prizes could change consumer behavior.

But would a handout like that even be necessary? Currently the IRS estimates that it costs drivers 55.5 cents per mile to operate their cars. Because commuters cover and average of 33 miles on their daily commutes, ride-sharing could potentially free up anywhere from $1,500 to $4,500 per person in driving costs per year. (Passengers who pay drivers as part of their arrangement would have to subtract that cost from their savings, of course, and some costs, like insurance, wouldn't disappear if ride-sharers didn't give up their cars entirely.) With that kind of money potentially in play—10 million new ride-sharers saving $1,500 a year equals $15 billion in newly disposable income—surely at least a few corporate sponsors will see the wisdom in fueling such a powerful new economic engine with the prize money that could get it up to speed.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.

NEXT: Can We All Admit That Birth Control is A) Not That Expensive B) Over-Regulated and C) a Flashpoint for Public Policy?

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  2. We’re American. We like freedom. Screw being tied to someone else’s schedule.

    1. I thought the Segway ended all of this?

      1. If it’s an idiot on a scooter in the middle of the night, it must be Gob.

        1. Let’s give him a scare.

      2. I thought the Segway ended all of this?

        It might have ended it if the president of Segway hadn’t died in a Segway accident.

        1. Now that is funny! Like Larry David funny.

          1. From now on, I’m spelling irony S-E-G-W-A-Y.

    2. Where do you work that you are not tied to someone else’s schedule?

      1. Software company. Plus I can go out to dinner after work here if I want, I can decide to skip the gym, etc.

  3. Non-starter for us misanthropes.

    1. you mean lycanthrope

  4. Carpooling makes a commute more miserable, not less.

    1. I started giving a co-worker rides home so I could peep her big tits while she loads the medicinal ingestion engine so I disagree about rides home. Couldn’t agree more re: driving TO work

    2. Not everybody’s autistic. This could work!

  5. NO!!

    People must ride trains. Voluntarily, of course, unless they fail to do it voluntarily.

    1. Ah Tony….Ima so glad you like a my work~!

      1. Spoof Tony. Not serious enough, and no mention of starving children forced to eat their grandmothers to survive.


        1. NO!!

          People must ride trains. Voluntarily, of course, unless they fail to do it voluntarily or else starving children will be forced to eat their grandmothers to survive.

          1. +0.5

          2. Yes, all the Jews on the trains! Mach Schnell!

  6. I am excited that these carpooling ideas are happening in Houston, which is a hellhole of rush hour misery and madness.

    There are now road closures in three different spots in my commute. Urge to kill, rising.

    1. I have about 5 different reasonable routes to work, and 4 of them are closed, with the 5th having a detour through some construction.

      Fuck that.

      1. Since I live on one side of downtown and have to drive to the other side, there are about half a dozen ways to get through the city for me, so I can usually finagle a route that’s not too terrible.

        1. What need is there to own a car if the cars are driven by computers and there are enough of them to keep waits down to 5 minutes with your own private bench and safety features? Tell your smart phone when you want to go home, and your ride will be right on time if you’re consistently punctual. Let’s be honest, staring at the road is not a good way of spending your time. Bring on the cheaper, greener, safer, and more convenient transportation…

    2. My favorite Houston rush hour trick? The car fire, conveniently located either in one of the enclosed HOV lanes or at the toll plaza. Seen both of those in about the past year.

      I swear I’ve seen more car fires in Houston than I did in my entire life before moving here.

      1. I think I’ve seen three car fires since I’ve been commuting. One time I passed one and could feel the heat of it even with the windows rolled up. That was pretty interesting.

    3. Um they are? Please tell of these amazing Houston carpool programs?

  7. Yea, right. Welfare for all those weirdos who won’t buy a car, or at least a scooter.

  8. What the mass-transportation lovers should focus on is flying mass transportation. That way, they can get the sexy on their side. Trains aren’t sexy.

      1. Flying train robots.

        1. Flying train sex robots.

    1. But then they can’t control where people go.

    2. All that phallic symbolism must be good for something, ProL.

    3. I don’t know. TGV is pretty sexy as far as technical achievements go.

      1. Not flying sexy. Come, let us be reasonable. People pine for flying cars. Not trains. Flying cars and the fjords.

        Also acceptable would be a huge pneumatic tube network that went to every home and was capable of human transportation.

        1. Ah, HA!!

        2. Acceptable to you, maybe.

          1. What? You realize that the quantities of psychotropic chemicals you need to survive could be delivered this way, right? Not to mention that it’s the next best thing to teleportation.

            1. Don’t let good be the enemy of perfection, ProL.

            2. How strong is the suction on those pneumatic tubes?

            3. This is just your roundabout way to get those Bachelor Chow subsidies.

        3. I used to fantasize about underground tunnels or even teleporters as a child. I want my god damn teleporters!

        4. What about hovercraft. When I was kid, I thought hovercrafts were the car of the future.

          1. They’re too danged loud.

          2. “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

    4. Administering the anal probe pre-flight makes it EXTRA sexy.

  9. My company subsidizes carpooling in some opaque way I don’t fully understand. I am misanthropic and prefer to listen to my music loud, so carpooling with me would be an unpleasant experience. Most people aren’t blowing the doors out with Pantera, Combichrist, and The Birthday Massacre on the way to work at 0dark30.

    1. This. I am surrounding by people at work all day, I need some alone time before and after. My car is great for that.

      I don’t need people telling me that my taste in music sucks in my own car. I already know that.

  10. I would gladly carpool if I could find people who worked near me, had a similar schedule and like views on carpool participants smoking quality weed while commuting

    1. And strategic withdrawals as a means to encircle Soviet divisions

  11. The greatest drawback of carpooling and the main reason people prefer to commute alone is the fact that carpooling leaves subjects you to other people’s schedules.

    I’d love to carpool with my coworkers, but then I would be forced to either wake up a whole lot earlier in order to make it to my their homes and get us all to work in time or we would all be forced to arrive late because one of us overslept or something. The same applies to the commute home. It takes me long enough to get home without having to drop others off first.

    Don’t get me wrong; I think carpooling is a great idea for some people. But it will never be a significant way for this country to save fuel (or the environment, if you’re into that kind of thing).

  12. I just checked out the Avego site, and was amused to learn that someone is doing a pick up at 5pm just down the street from my job. That would be great, if she wasn’t headed even farther away from my house.

    1. How were her tits??

      1. Sadly, the iPhone app seems to lack photo functionality so far. Happily, STEVE SMITH wasn’t listed as a driver.

  13. I’d carpool if it were convenient. But I suppose most people just like the autonomy of their own car.

    I do think that people should hitch hike more, though. It’s a shame that it has become a much less viable means of transportation.

  14. I’d love to carpool.

    But my car won’t accommodate a 25 meter pool, which is the minimum for a good workout.

    1. Plus, there’d be a real mess if I cornered too sharply.

      1. Or stopped.

    2. I’d love to carpool.

      But my car won’t accommodate a 25 meter pool, which is the minimum for a good workout.

      It’s just as well; ADA would force you to add a if you did.

  15. A couple years ago, I checked the bus schedules in Houston, and found that it was possible for me to ride from home to work and back each day. It would just take two hours one way to do it.

    1. Just you and the driver in an otherwise empty bus for 2 hours is the greatest sacrifice you can make for the polar bears.

    2. Plus, you get to hang out with the kind of deviants that ride the bus. I’ve seen that crowd here in Houston. I am not getting in an enclosed space with, or even within 10 feet of, some of those people.

    3. When I tried the website to route my commute the website froze – no joke.

  16. In theory, this should be a boom era for carpooling. Gas is expensive. Millions of people want to reduce their carbon footprints.

    When did The Nation take over this intertube?

  17. Millions of people want to reduce their carbon footprints.

    Wipe your feet on the mat. Take your shoes off at the door.

    Now, was that so difficult?

  18. When I fantasize about making other people do things they don’t want to do, it’s never this elaborate.

    Just “Fuck yeah my Timberlake costume is really convincing” and shit like that.

  19. I checked tomorrow on the Avego site. There is a very disturbing listing for some guy showing a pickup time of 12:25 AM, going both directions on the same route.

  20. “Millions of people want to reduce their carbon footprints.”

    Yeah! That’s the only thing I think about every minute of every day.

  21. When the hell did Reason get on board with government subsidizing transportation? Getting paid by the government to pick up weirdos who treat your car like a public bus… very libertarian.

    1. The payments were private carpool aggregators trying to get business.

      The 1 billion dollar prize for a car that goes 100 miles a gallon is government funded, though.

      1. Yes, but the author also says “…a $1 billion federal subsidy to underwrite ride-sharing doesn’t seem all that outlandish.”

        Depends who you ask! Sounds like bullshit to me.

  22. In theory, this should be a boom era for carpooling.

    Not so much in 2012. Unless you’re a civil service drone, the New Reality is you’re not working 9 to 5. Some nights, you’re lucky and can be out by 5:30. Other nights, you’re there until 7, 8, or worse. No telling. You DO want to keep your job, right?

  23. How about repeal open container laws for carpoolers?

    That would be an awesome perk that would really piss off the MADD crowd.

    1. As a member of DAMM I support this

  24. All power to the Soviets

  25. Is the Romney campaign like an Etch A Sketch?

  26. Gasoline isn’t “expensive” if you price it in silver.

    1. It’s just as expensive in sliver as in any other unit of exchange.

  27. Just deregulate the hired transportation industry and with connectivity applications as seen in the article the whole issue becomes a non-issue.

    Fare money and or social rewards will be enough to encourage people to provide rides without any subsides or even gimmicks like riding with or picking up Captain Carpoo.

    Not that I would turn down the prize money, of course.

    1. *Captain Carpoll

      1. Goddammit, Captain Carpool.

        1. I liked your first two versions better.

  28. You price gas as percent of median income. Incomes have decreased over the last ten years as gas is up and up. Carpooling and hitchhiking will come back as the paranoid-military culture collapses. Pack a Glock and a Kal-tec to protect your stuff.

  29. Excellent article. Trying to incentivize people to use that additional space in the car is something we’ve been grappling with for a while on our site, Our solution, although it’s definitely different from the gameification strategies Beato recommends, is to try to create a transparent market places for those open seats. That way, drivers can offer available room in their car on an open market, while travelers in need of a ride can bid for open seats. We see it as sort of an Airbnb model for drivers. But we’d like to incorporate gameification strategies as well, if money turns out not to be as much of a motivator as we’d thought.

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