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Carpooling Threatens the Public Transport Business Model

Yochai Benkler’s work on the productive possibilities of distributed peer groups relies, in part, on the example of casual carpooling.  In the U.S. casual carpooling developed in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1980s and a short time later (I believe) in Northern Virginia.  A street corner or bus stop acquired “focal point” status for riders; drivers with empty seats in their cars would line up and collect riders; and the resulting “casual” carpools would use nearby HOV lanes.

Public transportation authorities were not amused.  Were riders opting out of their cars (reducing traffic congestion and pollution), or were they opting out of the bus and subway system (and reducing the system’s income)?

Whether in music or software or transportation, as Benkler notes, these issues just won’t go away.  Naturally, entrepreneurs have found ways to commodify and commercialize casual carpooling, and naturally, the established business model empire is striking back:

From The (Toronto, Ontario) Star:

A Canadian Internet company that co-ordinates car sharing around the world could soon be shut out of Ontario if one of the province’s largest chartered-bus companies gets its way.

PickupPal Online Inc. was launched less than eight months ago by two Ontario entrepreneurs who thought car sharing, if it could be made easier through the Web, was a noble way to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

The service is like an Internet dating service for drivers, matching up people who are going to the same place at the same time — anywhere from concerts to sporting events to corporate functions. Special mapping software helps them find the best route.

But Peterborough-based Trentway-Wagar Inc. says PickupPal is breaking the law because it helps drivers collect money by offering strangers a ride. The bus company even hired a private investigator to test out the service, posing as someone who needed a ride from Toronto to Montreal and negotiating a fee of $60 with a driver travelling from Simcoe, Ont.

One might get kind of silly with the open source/ proprietary code analogy here, or with the file sharing/authorized downloading analogy.  But the analogy is apt.  The hook for the claim here seems to be that money is changing hands, but the real harm to the incumbent — if there is a harm — isn’t that PickupPal and its customers have got money flowing into them or among them, but that the incumbents are losing out.

There is the supplemental argument that casual carpoolers aren’t licensed by public authorities and aren’t vetted for compliance with safety and other public regulations.  Allegedly, there is a public danger here that differentiates the case from the music/software situations (well, music, anyway; one could make the case for the safety/security implications of large-scale software installations).  As a former Bay Area casual carpooler, the same concern was omnipresent:  Who is this guy, anyway (in my experience, drivers were almost always men)?  Social norms controlled a lot of this:  If you didn’t like the look of the car or didn’t like the look of the driver — or if you got a tip or a nudge from a fellow would-be rider — you didn’t get in.  In my experience, “the look of the driver” covered things like the cleanliness and professional appearance of the car and the person, but undoubtedly other riders used other proxies.  Many riders were occasional drivers, and vice versa.  (A quick aside:  Has anyone studied racial/gender/ethnic/class/other bias in distributed peer production systems?)  In the Canadian situation above, the opt-out solution means that I’m skeptical of giving too much weight to the public safety argument.  But I’d like to know more about the issue.

Meanwhile, spin out the implications on your own.  Here’s one immediate thought, prompted by observing the RIAA in action against file sharing:  Will driving a vehicle in Ontario that is carrying three or more passengers be alleged to be presumptive evidence of illegal carpooling, and law enforcement authorities charged with a corresponding mandate to pull over said vehicle and arrest the driver?

4 thoughts on “Carpooling Threatens the Public Transport Business Model”

  1. If 90% of the drivers using the carpool site were actually running gypsy cab services, I think our intuitions about the website would be slightly different. But I suspect the $60 ride to Montreal is a fluke, or gas money or something, and thus the bus company’s arguments are ridiculous.

  2. Great post.

    We are working very hard to bring the benefits of casual carpooling to a city near you. See our website, and also the animation on We would add some safety and origin end parking features to the system, including pre-screening for membership and technology to track participation so that ‘ride credits’ (not money) can change hands and share the benefits between riders and drivers.

    The benefits are significant to the rest of the traffic as well as the participants.

    Our biggest challenge is that transport planners are divided into two groups: those who don’t think it will work, and those who think it will work and will take everyone off the buses. Hence we have been having trouble getting funding and support for what we are trying to do.

    The casual carpool system has 23 pick-up points in the East Bays of San Francisco and gives rides to some 6,000 people per day. That is over a million trips a year! I doubt that AC Transit could afford to put on the buses needed to carry than many more people. It is mostly a one way system, and few people use it in the afternoon.

    In Washington DC/Northern Virginia its called the slug lines, but it works the same way and is about the same size. It is responsible for more trips because it works more in the afternoon as well as the morning (return trip).

    Both these systems had their start, according to my research, in the early 70’s, so are very resilient.

    And very very low cost.

    Any of your readers like to know more? Contact details on the website.

  3. There’s a good reason that the casual carpool threatens public transit. In the bay area, it arose precisely to get people where they were going without the use of public transit.

    It all started with an AC Transit strike (AC transit being the bus line that operates the transbay buses). Because of the strike, no buses ran from the east bay to SF, leaving many in the lurch. People didn’t really have any idea what to do, so those without cars just went to the bus stop as they were accustomed to, and hoped for a a solution. Meanwhile, some of the commuters had cars but they just preferred to take the bus, likely because of parking. Without the bus, they just took their cars. But on their way to work, they stopped at the bus stops they used to wait at, to pick up their fellow riders. People realized that this system worked out favorably for everyone involved, and so it continues.

    In a way, the transit systems brought it on themselves. By allowing the strike to happen, they forced people to reevaluate their transportation, and to create alternate methods of getting to work. Once the genie was out of the bottle, it’s tough to get it back in. Subsequent transit strikes have only cemented the status of the casual carpool as the most reliable way to get across the bay in the morning.

  4. I have been using the casual carpool to commute from Oakland to San Francisco on and off since sometime in the mid-1980s when AC Transit refused to negotiate a fair contract with its drivers, resulting an a strike. After the strike, AC Transit was none too pleased about casual carpools and did what they could to discourage it, mostly by using the police to prevent cars from stopping at bus stops to pick up passengers. Perhaps I am overly suspicious but recently either the Metropolitan Transit Authority or AC Transit have been handing out detailed survey forms that include questions about drivers “earning” money by picking up drivers. This goes back to AC Transit’s old claim that carpool drivers were in the gypsy cab business – an absurdity. I think this nuttiness has been resurrected because the bridge recently started to charge a $2.50 toll for carpools and riders generally offer to share in this new expense by offering to kick in a dollar. All the drivers “earn” is the dollar per passenger (usually 2) to reduce their toll expense to $.50. At the same time, both the driver and the passengers save 20 to 40 minutes of commute time and bridge congestion is reduced.

    My siblings who live in San Francisco or on the peninsula are horrified that I would get into a stranger’s car or would allow 2 strangers into my car for the morning commute. People in the East Bay who participate in this unofficial, unorganized, and unsupervised mode of mass transportation (43% of the people crossing the bridge each morning) joke that the worst that has happened to them is getting a driver who doesn’t tune in NPR.

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