12.06.12

Car Pooling Part II: Going for Gold

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:57 am by Administrator

If you read Part 1 of this blog you may have wondered why I would consider car-pooling to be a “Black Swan”.  It is a common practice and does not involve any innovative technology or processes. 

In this case what I believe could make this disruptive is the potential scale and the collective “mind flip” that would be required to achieve that scale.

As noted in Part I car-pooling has been almost static at about 10% of total commuting trips over the past 10 years in the United States.  Moving that to 12% or 15% would be useful but not radical.  Moving that figure to 20% or 30% or more would have a significant impact on everything from the cost to maintain highways to tailpipe exhausts and energy conservation.

In Part I the argument was made that car-pooling faced a multi-faceted psychological barrier that was comprised of a desire to control our individual travel plans mixed with some apprehension about possible conflicts or disagreements with car-pooling companions.  In addition, for workers with flexible work arrangements and schedules car-pooling is complicated.

All things considered most of us find driving our own vehicle just too convenient to give up.  This despite the fact that we all know, deep down, that we are causing more pollution and we are using more energy and we are suffering more out-of-pocket expenses than we could ever really justify.

So the question is “can we radically alter our attitudes towards car-pooling?”

I think we can.

I grew up in an era in which another driving practice was also generally tolerated because it was convenient.  That was “drinking and driving”.  It feels very uncomfortable to have to admit this in the context of the 21st century but the fact is that most people in post-war North America assumed it was perfectly fine to take command of a vehicle after having a few drinks. 

That was irresponsible behaviour which led to tragic results.  But I am happy to say that our collective attitude towards this practice has changed dramatically.  It may not be 100% justified but I will peg the beginning of that change to the foundation of “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” in 1980 (http://www.madd.org/about-us/history/madd25thhistory.pdf).

In 1982 53% of highway fatalities involved impaired drivers. That fell to 34% in 1997 and 31% in 2010 (all figures from NHTSA reports). This was brought about in large part by an aggressive and graphic public education effort by government, public service organizations, and private advocacy groups such as MADD. More severe legal penalties and stepped up enforcement also have played a major role. 

It is simply not socially acceptable to drink and drive anymore and that is a good thing.

The same sort of change is possible with car-pooling. 

The first step is to admit that we have a problem. 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation the cost to build and maintain roads in the United States was $160 billion in 2009.  Even a small change in utilization through car-pooling could result in billions of dollars in annual savings.

There have been numerous studies linking tailpipe emissions to serious health concerns including premature death.  In Canada is has been estimated that the annual costs related to treatment of air-pollution related illness is in the billions of dollars. 

So I believe that one component of a “Going for Gold” strategy for car-pooling is a public awareness program through advertising that describes the negative impacts of single-occupancy commuting in a compelling way.

The second and very critical step for this program is a quick and easy way for commuters to find compatible car-pool companions.  There are a number of on-line car-pooling services which have met with varying degrees of commercial success.  However, it is my opinion that only a centralized non-profit service sponsored by or owned outright by a government consortium can be really successful.

Having home addresses, work destinations, and travel patterns stored on-line is a bit worrisome even for the least paranoid Internet user.  Having this information scattered across multiple for-profit web sites and systems that are competing to establish proprietary user bases is guaranteed to reduce the likelihood of a good match.

Public authorities already have all the basic demographic information about us whether we like it or not. They also have access to criminal records and motor vehicle violations.  By pulling this information together and gathering travel times and patterns these same authorities could provide the most effective car-pool matching service possible.

There is also an important role for employers.  Although many larger companies already support internal car-pool programs they are inconsistent both in the level of recognition and support they get and in the systems used to implement them.

Employers, large and small, need to treat employees that car-pool as the working class heroes that they are, sacrificing some of their own time and convenience for the greater good.  There needs to be a consistent and very public recognition program for car-poolers with a high enough profile to make people take notice.  This could include things as simple and inexpensive as special mouse pads or certificates of appreciation.  Long-time car-poolers could be rewarded with a lunch or possibly even a day off with pay from time to time.

Establishing public education programs to raise awareness about the societal benefits of car-pooling and having matching and recognition programs in place represent the “carrots” in our “Go for Gold” program.  But I believe that there also have to be consequences for people that ignore all the positive reinforcement.

In 2003 the city of London, England instituted a “congestion” charge of approximately $15 for every vehicle entering the central part of the city.  Despite political pressures including several mayoralty contests fought principally on this issue the charge has survived.  The impact has been a sustained decline of over 30% in car and mini-cab traffic and an increase of almost 100% in bicycle traffic (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/corporate/Travel_in_London_Report_2.pdf). 

The technology exists to implement this in a modified form along the major commuter routes serving North American cities.  A charge could be applied based upon license plate recognition supplemented by human observers for every Single-Occupant-Vehicle (SOV) travelling during rush hour.  Exceptions could be made for drivers that have tried unsuccessfully to get a car-pool match.  Charges could also be applied only after a certain number of SOV trips by the same vehicle in a given month.  Flexibility and sensitivity towards people that can’t make car-pooling work should be important components of the system.  But in the end, if you have the opportunity to make use of a car-pool and you choose not to, you should have to pay a price.

All funds raised from the SOV charges should be used to support the public education, car-pool matching, and recognition programs.

Putting these elements together through public policy and private advocacy would put car-pooling where it belongs – at the top of the podium when it comes to energy conservation.

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