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Not Your Father’s Carpool: Part 1

When 18-year-old Lauren Mok leaves her apartment in Isla Vista for classes across town at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) and uses an iPhone app to offer a ride to a student she doesn’t know, she occasionally reflects on something a professor recently said:

We’re in the middle of a social revolution, where technology is changing the way we do everything. Even, it seems, activities as mundane as driving.

Mok is part of a pilot program using a new mobile application that matches carpoolers in real time: SmartRide (www.SmartRide.org). The program aims to tap into the river of cars driving between SBCC and Isla Vista – a corridor where bus ridership has increased so much in recent years that buses often exceed capacity and students are forced to wait for the next one.

Using the app, car owners and riders create a profile and log in when they want to offer a ride, or catch one.  They can schedule ahead, or can find someone who is ready to go, sorted by location. They see each other’s photo and how they’ve been rated by other users, and then text or call to arrange where to meet up. After the ride, both drivers and riders can rate each other and leave comments, which helps add to a sense of safety and community. The system also facilitates an electronic payment based on mileage.

This is the next generation of carsharing and ridesharing, which is evolving beyond the familiar pre-arranged vanpool into a realm that is more instantaneous and free-flowing – and that even rethinks traditional car ownership. Heading to the Santa Barbara Bowl for a concert and want to avoid parking hassles by catching a ride on the fly? There’s an app for that. Want to rent a car just for an hour or two? Someone has that figured out, too. There’s even a well-established network of services designed for visitors who want to travel to Santa Barbara car-free.

“Carpooling is the easiest way to effectively double the mpg of any car. It’s the fastest, cheapest way to cut down on congestion and pollution, as there are people driving everywhere, but usually with just a driver and four empty seats,” said Michael Chiacos, Transportation Manager at the Community Environmental Council, which has partnered with Traffic Solutions to run the SmartRide program.

carpool2_rideshare

In truth, this evolution away from the one-car-per-person model has been underway for a while. In a few larger cities, commuters pick up passengers from a group of strangers on the side of the road to help share a toll booth fee or to meet a required minimum before entering a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane – a practice called “casual carpooling” or “slugging.”

What’s new, however, is an explosion of tools and services that allow the user more flexibility and control. In recent years, the internet has made it easier to match riders and drivers – both through formal services (like one managed by the countywide Traffic Solutions) and informal services (like posting on Craigslist to catch a ride to the Bay Area). One popular on-demand ridesharing program, Zimride, was co-founded by UCSBalum Logan Green and has since become a national service is helping users share 100 million miles per year.

Over the next month, CEC will be showcasing some of these services — the market’s response, in part, to the fact that fewer young people are buying new cars or even driving. According to recent reports, fewer teens and 20-somethings are getting their licensefewer adults between the ages of 21 and 34 are buying cars and that age group is driving 23% fewer miles. In fact, Americans in general are driving fewer total miles today than they were eight years ago.

In fact, according to a new report released this month by U.S. Pirg, “The unique combina-tion of conditions that fueled the Driving Boom — from cheap gas prices to the rapid expansion of the workforce during the Baby Boom generation — no longer exists. Meanwhile, a new generation — the Mil¬lennials — is demanding a new American Dream less dependent on driving.”

So what’s the best way to respond to this changing market? “Rather than using scarce transportation dollars to build new roads or buy new buses,” says CEC’s Michael Chiacos, “we can make the existing system more efficient by using something that many people already have – a smart phone.”

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