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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?