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Beyond Zipcar: Can Carpooling 2.0 Remake American Commutes?

By adapting to American car psychology, a European ride-share company hopes to cross the Atlantic to fill empty seats, save energy, and make money.



Odile Beniflah believes an empty car seat is a wasted resource, and she's made that philosophy the backbone of her business. The United States, she says, “has the largest network of empty seats on the planet,” a resource she plans to tap by bringing Europe’s wildly successful ride-sharing company, carpooling.com, to America.

More than 2 million people in 45 European countries use the German company’s services each month to find rides between cities, to the beach, to the airport, and to the office. Riders and drivers set their own prices, and the company’s website plays matchmaker, taking a fee if users pay online.

The service has been popular and profitable across the Atlantic, but we’re Americans—we like our own cars, and we have a lot of them. The more cars there are per person, naturally, the less people share rides. We know that 88 percent of car commuters are driving solo; the average number of people per car heading to work in the U.S. was 1.1 in 2009. With car traffic expected to grow another 60 percent (in miles traveled) by 2030, and Congress loathe to fund major new transit projects, using existing resources more efficiently is becoming essential, and fast.

So Beniflah has been hard at work sorting out the psychology of sharing empty seats in the country of On The Road, AAA, and the suburban subdivision. “In America, carpooling can only work if it’s convenient and easy,” Beniflah says after months of study to prepare for her company’s launch later this year. “The main reason Americans don’t carpool is the difficulty of finding someone else with the same location and schedule.”

Carpooling.com began in 2001 as a website called Mitfahrgelegenheit, which was founded by three students in Würzburg. Kiosks in train stations took a commission to match drivers with riders; most people were sharing to save money on the rising costs of inter-city train trips. What the student entrepreneurs found, Beniflah says, was that “people [share rides] first for the money, but they come back to it because they enjoy the experience, they enjoy the social aspect.”

In the United States, carpooling peaked at 20 percent in 1980 and now is down to about 10 percent, including families that ride together. That’s because more people live alone, live farther away from easy pickup spots like parking lots near bridges and on-ramps, and don't go to the same places as their neighbors. Corporate campuses aren’t all in city centers anymore. It’s just too inconvenient for most people to arrange times and meeting places. A 2009 study in the Washington D.C. area found that paying people to carpool could save money in the long term.

Essentially, Americans prioritize easy over cheap when it comes to travel. So it’s no surprise that the two “successful” U.S. carpool systems—in San Francisco and Washington, D.C—are flexible and convenient, what is known as casual carpooling. Riders wait at what are essentially taxi stands, then jump in with drivers who want access to HOV lanes or to save on tolls and gas without going out of their way. In 2009, these programs were used for about 3,000 trips a day, saving about 3 million gallons of gas a year.

Enter technology. If OK Cupid can make an algorithm for love, why can’t carpooling match up commuters for a few hours at a time? Beniflah calls it carpooling 2.0.

“I think you shouldn’t ride with strangers,” she says. Her service encourages reviews like Couchsurfing to build trust, plus links to Facebook profiles and descriptions of the car to provide a full picture of whose empty seat you’re filling. “When you look at the ride offers, you really know who you are going to ride with, you have so much information. You can check and see who is going [your way], maybe find a BMW instead of the Chinatown bus, paying only $15.”

Naturally, Carpooling.com isn’t the only digital ride-sharing game in town. Ridester is beta testing what its founders call a smart route-matching system. Zimride is already running and reports some drivers are earning thousands of dollars a year harnessing the idle assets of empty seats. Dozens of local governments and companies offer programs and plans, but to make sharing a ride a new mode of transit, these sites need scale.

The trick is reaching a critical mass of participants, or carpooling will never be convenient enough for Americans. In Germany, high train ticket prices pushed people to share rides, so with gas prices staying high and wallets feeling thin—transportation, most of it driving, accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption—money might become a motivator for Americans, even the ones who like their alone time at 60 m.p.h.

After all, the reason to root for ride-sharing to take off goes beyond tapping unused transportation resources—it's about preserving environmental ones.

Infographic courtesy Carpooling.com

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