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.
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."