Emtpy Seat Travelling Reconsidered

With the economy in decline and peak oil in the back of our minds, many of us are rethinking the way we travel. While some are rediscovering the amenities of train travel, others are warming up to the idea of sharing their sacred car space with others, even if it means losing some convenience or […]

With the economy in decline and peak oil in the back of our minds, many of us are rethinking the way we travel. While some are rediscovering the amenities of train travel, others are warming up to the idea of sharing their sacred car space with others, even if it means losing some convenience or privacy.

The system of ridesharing has a long history of its own in Germany, where the first national rideshare institutions were established in the 1950s. Over the course of time, posts within all major cities’ central stations and universities evolved where rideshares could be arranged on commission. The original “rideshare shacks” have mostly disappeared in favor of more appealing and flexible services available on the internet, such as market leader Mitfahrgelegenheit.de. With about 30 million visits and around 150,000 offered rides per month, the platform offers an easy and convenient way for people either seeking or selling ridespace to get in touch. It’s become one of the easiest ways to travel in Germany when you are on a budget (- and of course, it’s also more environment friendly than driving your own car).

Some of the former offline rideshare services such as Citynetz or Mitfahrzentralen have made a transition into the online world, too, as their streetside posts continue disappearing.

In December, The New York Times featured an elucidating article about iPhone applications (Avego Shared Transport and Carticipate) that aim to establish on-the-fly rideshares within a community. The idea of flexible mobile rideshares using smart technology has been discussed in other places as well; its implications and potential are well described in a white paper published by Nokia Research Center in 2006 and it has also been proposed as part of Google’s ideation challenge Project 10100.

Nokia’s paper examined “next generation ridesharing and its potential to mitigate traffic and emission problems in the 21st century”. Assuming 2 empty seats per car in about 236 Million cars in the US, the publishers calculated a value of 5 cents per seat and kilometer. Using these numbers the economic value of travelling with empty seats would add up to about 500 Billion € per year. Both success factors and reservations towards rideshares are well-documented and explained, but naturally the perception of rideshares in general may vary between cultures.

Security and trust are obviously key factors. Without doubt a certain risk is involved when picking up and taking rides from strangers. But what if someone built a trusted community around the service? What if there was a way to ensure riders and drivers were safe and/or certified, and rides could be user rated?

The NYT article describes the challenges for a smart rideshare application in the US, pointing out that the number of people carpooling actually decreased between 1980 and 2007:

Although there is anecdotal data that carpooling rose during the recent spike in gasoline prices, American drivers have historically preferred solo trips. About three-quarters of workers in the United States drive alone, said Dr. Mark Mather, associate vice president for domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau, a research organization in Washington.

From 1980 to 2007, workers were carpooling in decreasing numbers, he added. About 20 percent of workers carpooled in 1980, versus just 10 percent last year. “Trip chaining — running errands on the way to and from work,” was part of the reason, he said. “You can’t do that if you are with five other people.” Dr. Mather’s figures are based on the 2007 American Community Survey of the Census Bureau.

Apart from newly introduced applications such as Avego Shared Transport, the US have several of their own rideshare platforms such as Zimride or Goloco. As the article points out, though, the question remains whether people, especially in the US, will be able to shift gears in their thinking about sharing seats in their cars. Ride sharing will surely not reach the masses, but if we could widen the niche of people using this affordable and energy-efficient transportation just a bit more, it would be a significant stride towards improving our growing transportation problems.

[image via Hysterical Bertha on Flickr]

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