With carpooling in a steady decline despite the highest gas prices ever and record traffic congestion, two new online firms want to revive ride-sharing by piggybacking on social networking sites.
The startup services, through the popular Facebook.com, attack obstacles that have held back ride-sharing programs: the fear of sharing a car with a stranger and reaching the "critical mass" of numbers required to effectively match up people for rides.
The site's core users, college students and recent grads, could turn out to be the perfect demographic, because they tend to care more about cost and the environment.
The firms, Zimride.com and GoLoco.org, have created applications that run within Facebook — Zimride's is simply called Carpool. Both use Google maps-style geocoding to match up users, who can also browse rides listed in their areas.
The trips could be a daily commute, a short drive to a party or concert or a 400-mile road trip. The programs also divide up costs and calculate carbon emission based on mileage.
One crucial feature is that other people in your Facebook network don't have to be using the ride-sharing application for it to find you a lift. That's because just posting a ride will send it out in the news feed that's broadcast to your network of friends and it's not uncommon for Facebook users to have several hundred friends.
The Missing Ingredient
Logan Green, a recent UC Santa Barbara graduate with an interest in transportation issues, started Zimride after making numerous trips to visit his girlfriend in Los Angeles without a car. He used the ride boards on Craigslist.org several times and they worked well.
But, he says, "Each time there would be this nervousness ahead of time, wondering, 'Who am I going to get in the car with?' I realized that this isn't going to become mainstream until we solve the issue of knowing something about the person before you commit to riding with them."
When Facebook opened itself up to third-party developers, he thought, "Here's the missing ingredient."
People who have used Carpool say that Facebook makes all the difference. They can use the program to get a ride with one of their Facebook friends or with one of the site's 35 million other users.
Facebook opened its doors to the general public last fall, so even people without an .edu address can sign up. But the majority of members still belong to university- or company-based networks, which require an e-mail address with the corresponding domain name to join.
"Facebook has worked very hard to make sure that people who are on Facebook are actually real people. They're not aliases. They're not fake accounts," said Green. "And then you're adding the credibility of all of this person's friends. It's nearly impossible to forge an entire friend base."
Sami Najm, a Sacramento State student, says he often posts where he's going on Carpool when he's taking a trip. "With other sites, all you really get is a name and a number," he said. "With Facebook, you have some sense of who the person is. I saw them. I saw their friends and pictures. I really wasn't too worried about my safety because I saw who they were at first."
Carpooling rates have fallen in recent years from 13.4 percent of commuters in 1990 to 10.7 percent in 2005, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Most of the rides posted on Carpool so far are in California, but there are also rides offered around the country, and even a few in England.
Transportation commentator Robert Puentes thinks the idea will continue to spread. "I have no doubt there is a tremendous demand for an application like this," said Puentes, a Brookings Institution fellow and affiliated professor at Georgetown's Public Policy Institute. "The younger generations are poised to take a different approach to transportation."
Puentes says it's more expensive than ever to own a car, which can account for about 20 percent of a household's annual budget on average. Add in concerns about global warming and it's a potent combination. "The green movement — it's a real thing and it is affecting decisions," he said.
Robin Chase is banking on it. She founded the Facebook ride-sharing service GoLoco this year, but she's not new to the game. In 2000, she leveraged Internet and wireless technology to create Zipcar, a car-sharing company that lets urbanites rent vehicles for short periods, even by the hour. The company now has more than 100,000 regular customers.
GoLoco has a few differences from Carpool — the main one being that users can complete the financial portion of a ride-share deal online, with the site taking a 10 percent cut of the transaction. Chase says handling money online can bypass the awkwardness of doing it in person; for people who ride together a lot, it can help keep track of who owes what.
Chase is passionate about the environmental side to GoLoco, which she says is meant to conjure up "going local, low cost and low CO2."
"Personal cars are 20 percent of CO2 emissions, and the absolute No. 1 easiest thing to do to reduce our own personal carbon footprint is to share car rides or to reduce our miles traveled," she said. "Starting tomorrow, you can make a dent."
Different Priorities, Same Car
While some carpoolers cite money and others the environment, there's another key factor that is, after all, what Facebook is all about: social connections.
Lauren Fisch, 24, used the Carpool application to find someone to share her commute to Silicon Valley. "It can take more than 90 minutes some days, so it's really nice to have someone to talk to," she said.
"A car pool can be a real pain, unless there's an added value for me and for everyone else in the car," she said. "I care about having company and I care about being green."
Sacramento State's Najm said, "It's half and half between a social and convenience thing. … I've met tons of people and some of them I've actually become real friends with."
Still, it's not for everyone. Dayana Perez, 22, who lives in New York City, says she wouldn't ride with a person just because they were Facebook friends. "That could be someone you met at a party two years ago. It's got to be someone who's a real friend for me to drive with them."
Beyond the natural audience of college students, it's anybody's guess whether ride-sharing will catch on with a wider group. Older people are joining Facebook in droves, with people older than 35 now making up more than one-third of members.
Puentes says the biggest challenge for these programs is the same one that faces carpooling in general: As cities become more spread out, it gets harder to match riders to destinations, because fewer people are heading to and from the center (if there even is a real center anymore).
But he remains optimistic. "Things that were dismissed in the past are looking much more positive," he said. "It's a market that shouldn't just be a niche market. We're just on the cusp, I think, of more dramatic changes."