Analysis: Carpooling Not Without Drawbacks

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SAN FRANCISCO, July 23 (UPI) — Berkeley, Calif., resident Jan
Lecklikner’s routine is ordinary by most measures. At 7:30 a.m. she
pulls the car out of her suburban driveway and shuttles to a nearby
cafe for her first cup of coffee; but then her schedule takes a
rather unconventional turn.

At 8 a.m. she lines up outside her neighborhood transit station and
invites two complete strangers into her car. Her purposes is nothing
shady — she is attempting to shave a few precious minutes off of
her morning commute to work.


“Casual carpooling,” as this practice is called, is a kind of
highly-organized and civilized form of hitchhiking that has emerged
as the San Francisco Bay Area’s answer to traffic-snarled highways
and infuriating rush-hour gridlock.

It does not work everywhere, however. Residents of cities like New
York tend to consider corralling two strangers into their vehicle
each morning as borderline deranged behavior.

Here in the Bay Area, however, where morning commute times over the
8.4-mile-long Bay Bridge can take a single driver up to two hours,
residents have warmed up to this unconventional transportation
strategy, which pairs two passengers with a lone motorist, giving
each of them speed in numbers. All three riders bypass the toll
station and forgo the steep public transit fares they might
otherwise pay, which can total several hundred dollars per month,
and enter the High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV, lane, which requires
at least three warm bodies.

For commuters like Lecklikner, who work outside the downtown public
transit grid, casual carpooling improves their quality of life
drastically. A public defender who sees her fair share of criminal
behavior, Lecklikner said inviting strangers into her car does not
intimidate her.

“I’m a pretty outgoing person so I tend to meet interesting people
on the ride in,” she told United Press International. “I’ve never
had a problem.”

Passengers get a good deal as well. They often shuttle into the
city in a comfortable, leather-interiored luxury car — a huge
step-up from the sticky, over-crowded seats of the commuter train —
in half the time it would take on the public transit system.

Casual carpooling also has become popular in the Washington, D.C.,
area, where approximately 5,000 random individuals connect each
morning in the Northern Virginia region — more than 8,000
participate in the Bay Area.

The program’s genius is its clever mix of informality and
formality. Drivers and riders are not hindered by the schedules of
other commuters because sufficient numbers in each group allow
clusters of three to form spontaneously during peak rush hours at
designated stops.

To make the arrangement palatable to all parties involved, the
system has some unspoken rules.

For example, passengers should not strike up a conversation with
the driver unless spoken to first and the driver should not play
cloying or obnoxious music. Etiquette requires audio choices be
limited to classical music or news radio.

The passengers — or “slugs,” as they are called in Metropolitan
Washington — should try to act as passive cargo by abstaining from
touching the driver’s controls or opening and closing windows.

These simple rules are supposed to ensure a consistently pleasant
trip and the system depends largely on a basic trust casual
carpoolers will abide by them. No government or private entity
oversees its function.

Casual carpooling took shape spontaneously during times of crisis.
The Washington system was born out of the oil shortages of the
1970s. As commuters opted increasingly to take public transit
instead of their cars, drivers in the Virginia suburbs began picking
up passengers waiting at bus stops in order to qualify for the HOV
lanes to the Pentagon. Gradually, the practice gained acceptance and
the slug system expanded to include nine different pick-up locations
throughout the greater D.C. area.

High gas prices also spawned the Bay Area system, but casual
carpooling really took off after a transit strike shut down the
buses and trains from the East Bay to San Francisco. The region now
boasts one of the highest carpool rates in the country.

Some environmental groups, such as Environmental Defense, an
advocacy group in New York City, have praised the ingenious
transportation alternative because it slashes vehicle emissions by
reducing the number of cars on the road. But, increasingly, research
is showing exactly the opposite is true.

Other public interest groups, including the Sierra Club, claim
carpooling actually increases highway traffic and vehicle emissions
and that the system should be actively discouraged.

“My research shows that HOV lane construction leaves vacancies in
the other lanes which are filled by other drivers,” Akos Szoboszlay,
vice president of the Modern Transit Society, told UPI. “It’s an
excuse to circumvent the clean air act by the false claim that
carpooling and constructing HOV lanes decreases vehicle emissions
and air pollution,” he said.

Casual carpoolers tend to drive to their local pickup stops whereas
public transit patrons tend to walk. The cold starts of autos
traveling to carpool pickup locations obviate any benefits to air
quality from the practice of casual carpooling, claim opponents of
the ad hoc programs.

Moreover, they argue, the systems divert commuters from public
transit, causing those publicly funded systems to lose revenue and
increase fares. Casual carpooling likely occurs in other cities with
a large portion of suburban to urban commuters and highways that
require three passengers for access to the HOV lane, says Joy
Dahlgren, a traffic expert and assistant research engineer with the
University of California, Berkeley School of Engineering.

“What seems to happen is that when you need three people to
carpool, you see people picking up strangers at transit centers. It
reduces patronage on the transit system and reduces transit
revenues,” Dahlgren told UPI.

According to a 1999 survey by, 74 percent of casual
carpool passengers said they used public transit before they
switched to carpooling.

Because it tends to attract commuters who would have otherwise
opted for public transit, casual carpooling actually adds about 645
cars to the HOV lanes on the Bay Area’s main artery into San
Francisco, concluded the study.

“It’s potentially a very minor contributor to congestion and air
pollution,” concedes Steve Beroldo’s research manager.

Despite these unforeseen drawbacks, the advantages to casual
carpooling — it is faster, cleaner and cheaper than public transit
— is prompting the practice to catch on in other cities. For
example, officials from Portland, Ore., visited the D.C. slug system
last year in order to explore the possibility of forming a similar
program in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s sort of a perverse argument to say that expanding the
transportation system and increasing commuter convenience is a
negative,” Frank Moretti, research director for TRIP, a
transportation policy think tank, told UPI.

Beroldo agreed. “It may add a few cars to the roads but the upside
is that it’s another option for commuters that they seem to like,”
he said. “You don’t have to worry about a schedule, you don’t have
to pay and, occasionally, you meet interesting people,” he added.

“It’s really a delightful way to get into work in the morning.”

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.