Driving Together

The high price of gas (as awful as it is to many scraping pennies to eke by) has finally begun to help curb our voracious appetite for oil.

Now comes some potential “social capital” good news that may occur as well. Spurred by the ever rising price of gas, Internet sites have sprung up that use social networking technology to try to pair commuters together for carpooling. Examples are GoLoco.org or eRideShare.com or DivideTheRide. [There's been no national data on carpooling increases, but some anecdotal articles about rise in this practice here and 28% of Californians said they are carpooling more.]

Here’s an excerpt of a recent report on technological advances in carpooling by NPR:

CURT NICKISCH [NPR]: Here’s how it works. Say you’re a driver. You post online where you’re heading and when. You also give details like what you listen to in the car and what you want for reimbursement. Riders go online and check out an interactive map. If they want to join your route, you get an e-mail. Or they can place their own posting looking for a ride. Afterwards, each person can rate the other, helping other users get a better idea of what to expect. If you ask for money – some people don’t – the rider pays through an online account.

CEO Robin Chase [founder of GoLoco] says drivers are cool with the 10 percent commission GoLoco charges, because overall this service can really save them.

Ms. CHASE: The total car cost, not just the gas cost, it really realigns when and why you’re willing to drive.

NICKISCH: But not necessarily with whom yet. Rachel Hoppy is with IDC Research, and she’s an expert on social networks.

Ms. RACHEL HOPPY: They succeed best with a passionate audience. People aren’t passionate about gas.

NICKISCH: At least not enough, she says, to sign up for a new service in droves to really get online ridesharing firing on all cylinders.

Ms. HOPPY: There is so much complexity in routes that you have to have a huge group of passionate people to really satisfy all the different demands that are out there.

NICKISCH: And even then there will inevitably be these same old carpool hassles when someone flakes or has a last minute emergency and can’t go. But the higher the price of gas climbs, the more people will be willing to put up with the occasional problem. These new Web sites make it easier for those people to find each other and share a ride.

Given Robert Putnam’s earlier research that every 10 minutes of commuting times cuts all forms of civic engagement by 10 percent, let’s hope that at least riders are able to build some social capital with their fellow carpoolers even if they are living far enough away from work that their long commute is sapping their civic engagement.

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