Saturday, January 12, 2008

Car-Pooling -- An Idea Whose Time Has Come -- and a Solution



Traffic


Twice a day in every American city – indeed, in cities worldwide – for two- to three-hour periods, commuters drive into and out of central business districts. These periods, familiarly known as rush hour, are anything but rush.

Rather, the so-called rush hour can be characterized by:

• Traffic congestion
• Slow speeds
• Long commute times
• Stressed drivers
• Single-person occupancy

The last-named feature is the glaring one. Anywhere from 80-90% of commuting cars have no occupants other than the driver. Thus a car that can seat five is operated at a 20% load factor, or worse. No other transportation system operates so inefficiently. Airlines, which need 80% or so load factors just to break even, wouldn’t last a week operating with only 20% of their seats filled.

Yet we tolerate this system with almost no one being exercised. Except me.

It’s a terrible system on at least five counts:
• It wastes gasoline.
• It wastes our time.
• It excessively pollutes the air.
• It excessively generates greenhouse gases.
• It stresses the parking lots.

And if you think it’s bad now, consider the following:

Traffic is worse than it’s ever been,
But better than it’ll ever be.


Or,

Every day
We’re making more cars
We’re making more people,
But we’re not making new roads.
 (At least not in most metropolitan areas.)

So how do we solve the rush-hour problem of traffic congestion, long commutes, and excessive fuel usage, emissions and greenhouse gases?

The solution is car-pooling.

Yes, that’s an old idea, but one that has never been successfully implemented in metropolitan commuter situations. (In fact, it only seems to work in neighborhoods with parents shepherding kids to school and play.) Most of the reasons are well known:

• Individuals’ independence
• Fear of riders getting stranded by drivers’ schedule changes
• Personal preference issues of riding with another (smoking, radio, talking, gender differences, et al.)

But there are two other impediments:
No effective software systems exist to implement widespread car-pooling
No effective governments programs exist to encourage pooling

In order to solve the problem, then, we need a system that:
• Is extremely easy-to-use
• Has ubiquitous access – at home, office, anywhere, any time
• Dynamically matches drivers and riders
• Offers incentives to both riders and drivers
• Allays fears.

Once this system is developed, we then need governments (local and state) to implement and encourage it.

In the last two years, I’ve been investigating the possibility of developing Poool, and then offering it to employers and governments on a pro bono basis. Working with Avery More, a Dallas-based venture capitalist/entrepreneur, and a team of software engineers, also in Dallas, I’m convinced that such a dynamic matching system is feasible.

Indeed, there are a lot of matching systems out there today. We can easily bring together multiple buyers and sellers, whether of romance (dating services), goods (eBay, Amazon), tickets, whatever.

But the key to success in car-pooling is “dynamic.” This means that if the universe of users is large enough, there is a very high probability of matching a rider and driver (schedules, locations, personal preferences) at any time – even if the driver has to work late, or leave early, or gets sick. In other words, No Rider Left Behind (to coin a phrase).

Ideally, the way to begin such a program is with large employers. Organizations with at least 250 employees at a common site would be large enough to ensure statistically a high degree of matches. Another benefit of making it organization-based is that the fear of the unknown would be mitigated; participants would share the same employer. Finally, the radial pattern of commuting would also assist in ensuring successful matches – everyone converges on a single location in the morning, leaves that single location later that day..

The system would be accessible to the user anywhere. On one’s home computer, office computer, cell phone or PDA. Whenever plans changed, a new driver (or rider) would be just a few key clicks away.

The system also would have (as current car-pooling software also incorporates) personal profiles of each participant. This way, all individual preferences would be respected in the matching.

In effect, this system, which I have named Poool, uses technology to help solve a transportation problem, much as technology has made possible automated tollbooth collections and congestion-pricing schemes.

The beneficiaries of Poool are manifold.

Riders will enjoy fuel savings that are non-trivial, especially at $3-plus per gallon gasoline. Their cars will be freed up for family use.

Driver benefits will require some creativity. For drivers opting into the system, state and local governments could reward them through a variety of financial incentives: cash, tax abatements, a share of congestion-pricing revenues (in New York City, assuming it’s implemented), lower congestion-pricing fees, toll-booth fee reductions.

Other driver benefits could be free or preferential parking and the satisfaction of being a good citizen (the “Prius-owner” syndrome). And one could create an affinity awards program, say Frequent-Poool-Driver Award Points. Finally, those drivers who elected to alternate with each other say daily or weekly would reap double benefits.

Employers would benefit by becoming better citizens: reducing road wear, emissions, greenhouse gases and traffic congestion. Their image would be burnished. A more direct benefit would be the reduced pressure on providing parking spaces.

Community and societal benefits are myriad. The improvements in traffic, the environment, and energy consumption would be palpable.

Before actually developing the Poool software, I’ve begun some market research tests. First, Avery and I visited several large employers in the Los Angeles area to gauge their temperature for our idea. We thought L.A. would be fertile ground because rush hour is now three hours twice every weekday and parking is a major issue. Also, employers of more than 250 employees in the South Coast Air Quality Management District (all or parts of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernadino counties) are required to implement a ride-sharing program.

You would think, then, that this would be fertile ground. Imagine our surprise. Or surprises. The first surprise came at an aerospace company that was attempting to comply with the SCAQMD car-pooling requirement. Their “system” consisted of a Human Resources staffer with a folder in her desk drawer. Whenever employees were hired, she would put their names, addresses and phone numbers in the folder and tell them, if they were interested, she would try to match them with riders or drivers. Needless to say, few employees at that company were car-pooling.

The second surprise was that companies could actually buy out of compliance. One CEO told us that they set up a program and complied with the regulation, putting into place a system with driver rewards and preferential parking. They then learned that it was costing them three times as much as the fee they could pay SCAQMD to buy out. Guess what they did?

My second market test is underway, but I’m not sanguine. I met this week with officials in New York City, the first U.S. city to propose the congestion pricing system first championed in London. The idea is to tax vehicles entering in peak hours the central business district in order to discourage their entry and to raise revenues (for mass transit) derived from those who do enter.

I didn’t get a lot of city encouragement for Poool; they’re totally focused on getting the congestion pricing approved and implemented. So my next meeting is in 10 days with New York state officials. We shall see.

Congestion pricing, by the way, uses a “stick.” You pay a fee to enter the CBD. Poool, by contrast, offers a “carrot.” You’re rewarded if you comply. As to reducing the number of cars, CG is forecasting just a 6.4% drop in vehicular traffic in the CBD (but a lot of revenue from those that enter the CBD).

With an effective car-pooling system, I think the reductions could be more significant. If we were to increase multiple-occupancy vehicles from 10-20% in rush hour to just 30-40%, the results would be dramatic – rapidly flowing traffic, little congestion, more parking spaces, and the concomitant environmental benefits.

But for this to happen we need a governmental champion to get it started. I’m convinced that employers will not do it on their own, nor will commuters. And government programs will have to go beyond the lip service of ineffective signs on the highway (“Call 1-800-CARPOOL”).

For those of you who say, Yes, but.. Sure, there are a lot of difficult challenges, including the not insignificant one of behavioral change. Yet if there is forceful government leadership and important societal benefits, behavior can be changed. Most people now use seat belts in cars, though resistance was high at the start. Few people now smoke in public places; we can give thanks to responsible government initiatives.

I truly believe that a meaningful number of people will commute with others in the same car if it’s encouraged, if it’s easy, if it’s pleasant, if it’s safe, and if it’s foolproof. What of the few who may not find an emergency match late one night on Poool? A safety net has to be there – taxi or car service. This is a cost of the system, but small compared with the rewards.

There clearly a lot of loose ends – this is still just an idea. The software has to be developed and to work. Measuring compliance with pooling will require its own technology (cameras, while avoiding privacy issue). Liability has to be considered. And a host of other “details.”

But here the devil is not in the details. The devil is in doing nothing, and watching a terrible situation get worse.

To the barricades! 

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