Cathy Cowan Becker, Green America’s responsible finance campaign director, works with an organization in Ohio to stop fracking in state parks. The state-wide Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission that will decide the matter recently held a public meeting in Columbus seeking input from citizens. But in order to provide your perspective as an Ohioan, you had to be there in person.
“For most people, that meant a two-to-three-hour drive,” Becker says. She knew the tactic would impact turnout to voice opposition.
“I set up a carpool page on groupcarpool.com where drivers could post spots in their cars and people could join a car from their area. We got three cars full and a good turnout. The committee tabled the decision, so we get to do it again next month.”
But even aside from carpooling for political activism, ridesharing offers a win-win-win proposition for people, the planet, and your pocketbook. Many cars can seat several passengers, and yet of the 1.1 billion personal car trips each day in the US, nearly half are driven with only one of those seats occupied, according to the US Department of Transportation.
Every empty seat in the hundreds of millions of cars on the road represents a missed opportunity to save money, reduce traffic and pollution, and build community through a shared ride. While the idea of carpooling isn’t new, several resources make it easier than ever to publicize open spots in your car and to safely seek out promising carpool partners.
The Perks of Carpooling
There are several reasons to carpool—a 2018 study cited “cost of gasoline” and “less expensive than driving alone” as the most pressing motivations, but other reasons included “more convenient parking,” “finding good company to ride with,” and “a variety of pick-up and drop-off times.”
Sharing rides also means fewer cars on the road, which has a major environmental benefit. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, transportation makes up nearly a third of the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a whopping 81% of all transportation is made up of light-duty vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks. For trips where walking, biking, or public transportation aren’t an option, ridesharing is a powerful way to cut down on car miles driven. In many cities, carpooling also allows drivers to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which may have lower traffic.
Amid the US loneliness epidemic, as detailed in the 2023 US Surgeon General Advisory “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” carpooling also provides a lifeline: social connection.
Scholar of “social capital” Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, has documented that across the population, every ten minutes of additional commuting time is correlated with a ten percent lower level of social connectedness. In a world where isolation poses serious health risks (29% higher risk of premature death, 32% higher risk of stroke), carpooling could literally be lifesaving.
Remember that while ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft may be useful, they are not the same as carpooling. Paying a ride-share service does not remove a car from the road, does not foster the same community connection as developing a cooperative arrangement with other travelers, and does not save money like carpooling.
Share Rides to Work, School, and Worship
If you don’t have a friend or co-worker ready and willing to carpool with you, online tools can make finding carpool partners easy and safe.
The first step is to locate fellow carpoolers, so tap your community. Put out the word in-person at school events, church, or the office breakroom. In the internet age, check out your school or work’s website, or see if they have a Facebook or Nextdoor group, and inquire there.
“Incentive programs help encourage pooling,” says Adam Cohen and Susan Shaheen, members of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. “There can be direct cash incentives, free parking, and more, offered or funded by employers and public agencies.”
Companies like RideShare and CarpoolWorld make it even easier, by offering ride-sharing services to
employers, so don’t hesitate to advocate for an incentive program at your workplace.
Share Rides to Events
Next time you’re planning a car trip to a large gathering such as a conference, concert, sports game, festival, or celebration, look for an opportunity to share rides there and back.
SpaceShare.com develops customized ridesharing applications for large festivals, conferences, and
AlterNetWays provides software to help coordinate transportation, such as a customized ride-sharing application for an event website for $50.
“Think about football games,” muses AlterNetWays’ CEO Mark Evanoff, noting that universities could help organize ridesharing to both home and away games. “Somewhere on the university’s website there will be a link to buy tickets to the game. Universities could add just one more link that says, ‘click here to carpool to this game.’”
For private events like weddings or family reunions, there are a variety of free technologies that can help participants find a ride. Try setting up a spreadsheet online through Google Sheets and create a public URL for the document that you can share with guests by e-mail.
Share Rides in Town
Many local ridesharing resources serve particular metropolitan areas. Many lively local websites, sometimes established by the municipal transportation authority, help citizens share rides.
For example, at Central Texas’ Commute Solutions, neighbors collaborate locally to set up carpools for one-time and recurring car trips.
AlterNetWays also works directly with local transportation authorities to provide a customized application that allows residents to coordinate ridesharing through the city or county’s transportation website.
Across the country, city officials may already offer carpool services you didn’t know about—try searching online for: “[city name] transportation department carpool.” For example, in the Bay Area of California, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) supports carpooling in various ways, providing dedicated drop-off/pick-up zones downtown, parking permits, discounted rates, and more.
Erica Kato, chief spokesperson of SFMTA, stressed the importance of a well-maintained ridesharing service in order to achieve the benefits of carpooling like saving money and reducing emissions: “As folks get used to having car share available and get rid of a personal car (or forego purchase of a new one), having that car share service get less reliable is a bad thing—we don’t want to drive people back to buying their own cars.”
If possible, you can also reduce your environmental impact by walking, scootering, biking to stores, parks, and other recreational areas in your neighborhood. According to a 2021 study in “Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment,” people can reduce their transportation footprint by 67% by choosing a bike over a car for one trip a day.
Share Rides Out of Town
Heading out of town for the weekend? A number of national ridesharing websites help carpoolers find each other for trips between cities. CarpoolWorld offers inter-city rides, as do apps like Hitch or Ridesharing.
Cohen and Shaheen believe carpooling can increase thanks to technology: “Digital matching platforms and rating systems can help enhance trust between carpooling partners and match carpoolers with similar preferences (such as carpoolers with similar interests and/or music preferences, etc.).”
Safety is another ride-sharing concern, and it is always important to practice caution when matching with someone you don’t know to share rides. This can mean making sure someone you trust knows your ride-share details, and you agree on clear guidelines and rules with other participants, including any health concerns, such as agreeing to mask while in a confined space, or keeping a clean car. Let’s Go Smart, a Springfield, MO program encouraging climate-friendly transportation, provides a useful carpool FAQ addressing safety and other concerns.
With all the benefits and increased ease of ridesharing, Evanoff envisions a day soon when cooperatively sharing car rides will become a routine part of planning how to get from point A to B.