Technology makes ride-sharing a better way to go

By Daniel Grabauskas

Last Friday, Zipcar, the world's largest car sharing provider, and Zimride, the largest online ride-sharing community, announced an expansion of their partnership to five more university campuses in the US — adding these to the 10 campuses already participating in the shared program. (None are in Massachusetts.)

As described by the companies, it works like this:

The integrated Zipcar-Zimride application allows members to share a ride by posting the date, time and destination of the trip to the Zimride campus community. Once posted, Zimride's route algorithm finds and notifies users looking for a ride to the same or nearby destination. Zimride members also may find and share a local Zipcar if a posted ride is not available or does not exist. Campuses integrating Zipcar and Zimride into their overall transportation demand management (TDM) programs will help reduce congestion, parking demand and CO2 emissions while at the same time providing a cost-saving and convenient alternative to car ownership for faculty, staff and students.

I’m a great fan of Zipcar. I have long believed that Zipcar boosts public transportation ridership because it fills in the gaps between where fixed-route bus or subway travel can take you and where, historically, only a personal vehicle could take you. Zipcar is an answer for the typical auto-centric person who asks, “But what if I need a car?" These are not public transportation-phobic folk. These are people who do not daily require the use of their car yet will hold onto their car for the just in case situations. For the convenience. For the freedom to travel when they want. Car rental places don't fully satisfy as they can be expensive, inconveniently located, and not conducive to the spontaneous trip. On more than one occasion while at the MBTA, I met customers who told me that signing up for and trying Zipcar became the tipping point in the decision to sell their vehicle. With a CharlieCard and a Zipcar card, people found that without losing the flexibility previously only found from a personally owned vehicle, they could go places easily and much more economically.

Studies have shown that Boston is the number one city in America when it comes to savings for your household budget if you can get rid of your car. But when there is not a working alternative, you will bite the bullet and pay the high maintenance and insurance costs, pay the fuel costs, and get up at ungodly hours to move your car when a snow emergency is declared.

More difficult has been the attempt to advance the concept of carpooling or ride sharing. Recall if you are old enough (unfortunately, I am) the public service announcements of early 1970s pushing carpooling during the oil crisis. A cartoon Noah stood in front of his ark exhorting us to "Kalaka with a friend!" Kalaka, we were told, being "ancient Babylonian" for carpool. Carpooling just hasn't ever caught on. It may work for regular commuting and regularly scheduled trips (or for diluvian adventures). But every attempt over the last 40 years that I have looked at just hasn't been able to successfully link two unrelated people for a spontaneous trip.

Partly, the inability to simply make that connection was a hindrance. But technology may now have advanced to the point where such links are possible in real time. This capability is more important than ever, as we don't want to wait. People must know they can find a trip to share on their schedule or to get wheels when they want them — even when there is no one going their way. That's where Zipcar availability makes all the difference and compliments the Zimride alternative.

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I am no Pollyanna who believes that our love affair with our car will be tossed easily aside. And frankly, some people simply don't have the choice but to have a car for the demands of work or family, or both. But two-person, two-car households could downsize to one car and save a lot of money — along with a hefty carbon footprint reduction. The costs of transportation for the average family are rising. Today Zipcar and Zimride are doing an amazing job refining the technology that can link two travelers and meet their individual needs. To be successful beyond campus settings, they will have to provide travel convenience and as-you-want-it vehicle availability that closely matches having a car in your driveway.

Certainly, they have the economics on their side. But cost hasn't proven enough of an incentive for people to change their habits. Good business, well-executed by the private sector might just do what 40 years of well-meaning PSAs from the government haven't been able to accomplish. "Lose you car, but not your mobility." Can we be convinced?

Note: Zipcar is a contributing sponsor of MassINC and CommonWealth magazine.