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Traffic Solution: Make Drivers Less Lonely

Rather than moaning about too many cars on the road, the Ridesharing Institute says the real key to battling traffic congestion and pollution is filling empty passenger seats.
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America has a passengership problem.

That’s another way of saying that too many people drive to and from work each day in otherwise empty cars. But if you think of the problem not as one of lonely drivers but of missing passengers, solutions to traffic congestion and auto pollution start to look slightly different.

The answer isn’t necessarily that we need to get all those single drivers onto mass transit, or even that we need to build more transit. Maybe we just need to get more people to take a ride in someone else’s back seat. All this currently unused occupancy – no self-respecting airline would put up with such inefficiency – is a great wasted resource in America’s transportation morass.

About 110 million people drive to work in the U.S. every weekday alone, escorting more than 300 million empty seats. Meanwhile, only about 10 percent of Americans commute in a car- or vanpool, down from about 20 percent in 1980. A new research and advocacy group called the Ridesharing Institute proposes we double passengership by 2020 (in other words, to what it was 30 years ago), by getting about 11 million more people to get out of their cars and into someone else’s.

“In our view, this is the simplest, cheapest, best solution,” said Paul Minett, one of the institute’s co-founders. “And I don’t think that’s just being silly, because each time you get somebody to be a passenger, you achieve two things: they’re still making the journey, but they leave a car behind.”

Perhaps the most compelling model for what all this would look like is slugging, a kind of homegrown anarchist public transit system in Washington, D.C., that we profiled in Miller-McCune last year. Some of the researchers and transportation planners who have been drawn to slugging’s strange sociology are also behind the Ridesharing Institute. The concept, though, of getting more people to double (or triple) up in the same vehicle takes on other forms as well: traditional carpooling, casual carpooling, vanpooling, ride-matching, dynamic ridesharing (with the help of smart-phone applications), even car-sharing. If you share a Zipcar to the office each morning with two or three of your co-workers, then you’re really cranking.

The number and type of models has proliferated as technology has made it easier to match drivers to riders, as more companies are finding profit in providing that service, and as academics are increasingly looking at sharing as a serious subject of study.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

“We don’t really mind where you’re a passenger, it doesn’t make much difference,” Minett said. “The outcome is the same if you’re in a car or a bus or a van.”

He is only asking that people become passengers some of the time. It’s OK if you drive to work alone four days out of the week if you hitch a ride with someone else on, say, Fridays. At the moment, most of us commute to work as passengers only about one day out of 11 (that’s the same as saying that one of out every 11 people is a passenger all of the time). If we changed that ratio from 1 in 11 to 1 in 5, Minett says, it would go a long way toward reducing most of our congestion.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why people now need to be coaxed into some kind of carpooling, why the basic idea is no longer as popular as it once was. For one thing, the cost in real terms of owning a car has declined (even as gas prices have gone up), making it simply more feasible for most of us to get around on our own. The growing lifespan of used cars has helped a lot on this front, too. That you can now buy a serviceable 15-year-old car means that many people who couldn’t afford a vehicle 30 or 40 years ago can today.

The nature of employment in America has also shifted. Factory work has declined, and those large central employment nodes with fixed shift schedules required everyone to arrive and leave at predictable times (making it for easy carpooling).

“And just the whole complexity of life has changed since 1980,” Minett said. “The trip chaining that people do, the things they do on the way to work and on the way home, their whole need for flexibility has changed a lot.”

This is why old-school carpooling must be replaced by more novel iterations that account for workers’ need for flexibility – with the help of technology – while perhaps creating different incentives to participate. Drivers who take part in a new ridesharing pilot aimed at Northern Virginia military installations, for example, will be given $25 in free gas each month.

Developing the best models will require actual R&D (although a small amount has been done and “soft” efforts to change mentalities has shown some promise). But while ridesharing currently accounts for about 10 percent of commuting trips, it gets nowhere near that in budget allocations or R&D funding from transportation agencies or large employers. Transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure have a similar problem because, on the whole, most of our attention and money goes toward accommodating single drivers and their cars.

“My criticism of the whole system and all of us collectively as a community is that we allow people to be single-occupant drivers on the road,” Minett said. “If we could get 11 million more people to be passengers, somewhere in that number – we haven’t done a lot of work to prove that number, but we feel it’s probably in the right ballpark – then the majority of the sustainability issues with transportation start to reduce, including the wasted fuel and the congestion.”

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