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21st Century Hitchhiking: Social Carpooling Launches on East Coast

California’s leading carpool company is now bi-coastal. Zimride is now trying to steal away passengers from Chinatown buses up and down the Northeast.

California’s leading carpool company is now bi-coastal. Starting this week, Zimride will help drivers in the Northeast sell rides in their private cars as they travel between New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston—and, if anyone is willing to pay for a seat, anywhere else.

“We’re excited about the East Coast because of all the success the bus lines have had,” said John Zimmer, founder of Zimride. His service is a substitute for bus travel or driving alone. “From San Francisco to Los Angeles we have 250 - 300 drivers every week [who offer to sell seats in their car]. And we expect a similar type of density on the East Coast,” he said, primarily because the cities are closer together. Zimride also hopes to benefit from passengers looking for low-cost transportation in the wake of a recent shutdown of several Chinatown bus companies.

The company’s website connects drivers and prospective passengers for trips of more than one hour. (There’s a local version called Lyft available in San Francisco). Drivers can set a price for an empty seat on a trip they plan to take, and passengers can pay—or make a counter offer. All payments go through through the website, giving Zimride a cut of up to 15 percent. The prices tend to be about the same as taking a Chinatown bus—meaning cheap enough to rack up 300,000 rides from 360,000 users in California, on 140 college and corporate campuses, since 2007. The pace of growth has doubled the pace in the past year.

Taking that business model to the busiest travel corridor in the country, though, is a big test for the concept of carpooling in America. "The reason we have created Zimride is because 80 percent of seats are empty on highways," Zimmer said.

The company calls it 21st-century hitchhiking.

That's curious branding. Though Europe warmed to the idea long ago, Americans continue to associate riding with strangers to consorting with ax murderers.

Zimmer figures trust is the secret sauce to success. "Because our application is integrated with Facebook, you can see who are going to ride with before you ride with them,” he said, “and so you can choose someone that is most likely going to be a fun experience for you.” Pick your experience: adventurous, safe, or romantic. (At least one wedding has resulted from ride sharing through Zimride so far.)

As with the European experience, Americans tend to come for the savings—and stay for the experience. The first-time Zimrider likely chose carpooling to save money. But repeat users say they most value the social aspect.

Zimride suggests a price based on mileage, so New York to D.C. should be about about $25 for a passenger. That’s a bit more than a curbside bus, but it could involve door-to-door service.

To grow the business in New York, Zimride will “feed the marketplace” at the start through targeted advertising online. If the company can get a critical mass of thousands of drivers offering up seats to Northeast corridor cities each weekend, the same number of cars zipping up and down the highways can be carrying a few extra thousand people.

(A version of this post also appears on Transportation Nation)

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