Even in the worst traffic jam, our roads are still mostly empty. That's if you think about the car seats, not just the cars. For commutes, the average number of people per car in the U.S. was 1.1, according to 2008 data. That's a lot of unused capacity.
Or, as Odile Beniflah sees it, a millions of idle assets, wasted resources. She is working to launch Carpooling.com in America. Europe's largest ride sharing company used by 2 million people each month in 45 countries. And that's just through one website. It's cultural, she says. “People [share rides] first for the money, but they come back to it because they enjoy the experience, they enjoy the social aspect.”
The United States, on the other hand “has the largest network of empty seats on the planet."
Eighty-six percent of people ride to work alone. Just 10 percent of Americans carpool to work, including family members who ride together, down from a peak of 19.7 percent in 1980. For reference, about 5 percent take transit, and some people alternate modes. (Chart 8.15 here)
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.
“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.”
Essentially, Beniflah says, 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.
So what will it take to get Americans offering rides to strangers?
Technology. Beniflah and a crop of other American entrepreneurs are hoping they can use online tools to match up empty seats with aspiring travelers. “I think you shouldn’t ride with strangers,” she says. Her service encourages reviews (like Couchsurfing.com uses for apartment sharing) 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 even pick the car type, or reserve a front seat. Riders and drivers set their own prices, and the company’s website plays matchmaker, taking a fee if users pay online.
Flinc integrates GPS navigation systems in cars and smartphones to connect people more efficiently. Zimride has been building a growing audience in the younger driver set -- a demographic less interested in owning or driving cars to begin with. Ridester is beta testing what its founders call a smart route-matching system.
All of them are trying to crack the puzzle and shift the mentality of thinking about giving someone a lift as a finding a potential road trip buddy instead of a hitchhiking ax murderer. By formalizing it online and using technology, Beniflah thinks, the U.S. could be more like Europe by tapping our idle asset of empty seats, economic efficiency is something we're supposed to be good at anyway.
A version of this post also appears in GOOD.