Car Pooling Part I: Treading Water

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:53 am by Administrator

My father is prone to making very simple and often amazingly insightful comments on complex social issues.  Often when we are driving in heavy traffic he will look around and say “gasoline is too cheap”.  If asked what he means by that his response is always the same.  “Look at all the people that are alone in their cars.”

It is a simple observation that speaks volumes about our relationship with the automobile.

Most of us view our vehicle as an intensely personal and essential part of our lives.  We take a lot of time to pick the car we want to drive; the size, the color, the interior details including how the instrument panel looks and the pattern of the carpets.   Those that can afford to buy a car that still has vestiges of shipping film protecting bumpers and doorjambs revel in the “new car smell” (there are companies that sell air fresheners that emulate the “new car smell” – luckily manufacturers tweak design clues every year so that discerning observers can always pick out the true new cars!).

Some people take more time and care selecting a car then they do choosing a spouse! (Larry King, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liz Taylor come to mind).

How addicted are we to the automobile habit? Well, in 2009 there were 242 million cars and pickup trucks registered in the United States to serve 117 million households and 210 million licensed drivers

(http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0059.pdf).  That’s correct; more vehicles than licensed drivers.

But you know what?  As hard as this might be to accept I can assure you that a car is not really the ultimate expression of our status in life, our virility, or our excellent fashion taste.  A car is a piece of machinery designed to move people from point “A” to point “B”.  I say “people” and not “person” intentionally.  There are no commonly used vehicles that seat one.  In fact, only a small minority of vehicles seat only two people.

Most vehicles are designed to carry from 4-7 people.  And yet according to the 2009 U.S. Census information (http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acs-15.pdf) some 76% of American workers drove alone to work compared to 10 percent that carpooled and 5% that used public transit (note that there was very little change from the 2000 census when the figures were 76%, 12%, and 4.7% respectively – http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/c2kbr-33.pdf).

Driving a vehicle is expensive.  If you consider that a vehicle purchased for $30,000 depreciates to something like $15,000 after 5 years or 60,000 miles that is a depreciation rate of $.25/mile.  Add to that gasoline at $3.5/gallon or $0.12/mile (assuming the vehicle gets about 30 mpg), maintenance of $.08/mile (assuming $1,000 annual repair bill), and insurance of $.10/mile the total is $.55/mile.

Given that the average two-way commute for American workers is 24 miles that adds up to more than $13/day to get to and from work and that assumes you don’t have to pay for parking.  These numbers will vary considerably based upon the age and type of vehicle as well as the distance travelled.  But no matter where you are and what you drive the daily commute is expensive.

Driving to work is also stressful.  Rush-hour traffic demands constant attention and diligence.  It can often be frightening as well.  I tell the young drivers in our household that they would be well served to assume that everyone around them is out to bumper-car them off the road.

So why would we consistently choose not to share the pain and the expense of commuting with our fellow-travellers?  Car-pooling as a concept has been around for decades.  Many major urban centers have High-Occupancy-Vehicle (HOV) lanes designed to give responsible car-poolers an edge over the selfish SOVs.

I’d like to say that I simply cannot afford the extra time it takes to commute in a carpool.  According to the U.S. Census data, participation in a car pool costs the average commuter 5 minutes each way.

But really – 5 minutes?  Am I willing to be out-of-pocket and damage the planet in order to save 10 minutes per day?

OK, so what then?

It is too much hassle to find compatible car-poolers and I might not like the ones I find anyway!

This excuse might have some merit.  But there are numerous on-line services available to help you find your perfect car-pool companions .

When you come right down to it, the reason we don’t carpool is because we are not socialized to carpool.  It’s just not cool!  How many people do you know that brag about car-pooling or taking transit? Isn’t that a little like admitting you can’t afford to drive your own car?

Every television commercial involving car-pooling is vaguely comical at best.  Conversely, most of the glitzy automobile advertisements have a single driver, and usually a beautiful/handsome one at that.

The societal benefits of car-pooling are obvious.  If we had two people in every car rather than one, we could live with half as many costly and ugly freeways.  We would have half the pollution and half the energy use.

The bottom line is that when it comes to car-pooling we are just not very responsible.  We need to shift gears so that single-occupancy driving is really frowned upon, especially during our daily commute.  Driving alone should become an “only when necessary” activity rather than standard practice.

I firmly believe that an intense public education program, which highlights both the financial and environmental benefits of car-pooling can achieve a collective mind-flip (to quote Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show).  In my next blog I will reference some case studies and provide some thoughts on how that might happen.

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