Concept

For several years now, I have been having quiet conversations with friends about running a county-wide test of an idea to save fuel, expand employment opportunities, and re-establish an ethos of civic connectedness. The quiet period is over, and beginning today I would like to see if you and I might be able to start a process of viral adoption.

My idea, Ride$hare (yes, with a dollar sign), is public and non-profit, although not governmental. It would require no new bureaucracy, taxes, expenditures, or the coercion of law. Please bear with me for a minute while I list several facts or assumptions that Ride$hare utilizes or addresses:

1. America’s transportation system is based on a great fleet of privately-owned vehicles, almost all of which operate with substantial unused capacity (perhaps 1.2 people on average per trip, including the driver).

2. Substantial unused capacity wastes gas, contributes to congestion and pollution, and adds to wear-and-tear on roads and bridges compared to the same passenger miles with fewer but fuller vehicles.

3. The sticker shock of having to pay close to $50 to fill up an average gas tank is reducing the mobility of people least able to afford it. A reduced job search radius is an important negative consequence.

4. People respond to price signals. A mechanism that makes gas “free” for drivers and that also frees riders from the cost of driving their own cars could be a powerful modifier of voluntary behavior.

5. The most desirable and least coercive socio-economic system or institution is one designed so that in pursuing their private gain, people are also acting in a way that promotes the common good.

6. All car-pooling mechanisms to date have been adopted by too few people to make a major difference, whether they are ride-sharing queues for HOV lane users in places like Washington, Houston, or San Francisco, or profit-seeking web-based businesses like Uber.

7. With Ride$hare, the keys to widespread adoption by riders will be quick and spontaneous use, infinite route flexibility, and extremely low cost. The key for drivers will be reducing or fully offsetting the cost of fuel.

Two objections are commonly and understandably raised by folks when they first hear of the Ride$hare idea: (1) the uncertainty of getting a ride quickly when you’re seeking one, and (2) the danger of getting or giving a ride from/to a stranger.

With respect to the uncertainty issue, I remember from my long-ago student days the sometimes hour-long waits by the roadside, but I also have faith in point #4 above. Economic reward can be a good motivator. If only 10% of drivers respond to that financial incentive and choose to pick up a given rider, then for all but the least-traveled roads, the wait should be under a minute. And once riders have that experience, they will develop confidence that getting a ride quickly is as simple as holding up the “V”. Also, that easy and quick result means that they can efficiently daisy-chain together a series of rides to get to any destination, even if the first driver was only going in the right direction for a short distance.

The perceived danger issue is addressable from several directions. One is that the largest stranger-to-stranger carpooling operations that have been conducted to date, and over a number of years, are the aforementioned HOV pick-up areas in DC, Houston, and San Francisco. To my knowledge, no driver-on-rider or rider-on-driver crimes have ever been reported in connection with that carpooling. A further consideration is that in the traditional no-fee hitchhiking scenario, only the most altruistic or most predatory drivers pick up riders, and only financially constrained, lifestyle-motivated or predatory riders seek rides. With Ride$hare, bad actors would be swamped by millions of folks offering and accepting rides for the most benign and commonplace motive: saving money. Finally, participation is always completely optional. Just like traditional hitchhiking, if you don’t feel comfortable offering a ride to or accepting a ride from a particular person, you drive on by or wave him off.

And that brings me finally to where I started, my hope that we can re-establish an ethos of civic connectedness. I do pick up hitchhikers, although they’re rare birds these days, and I may go months between sightings. They are generally happy to talk, and the variety of their backgrounds, experiences (and even politics) is intriguing. If Ride$hare were to catch on, my somewhat naive hope is that it could help renew our sense of all of us being in this life together.

Starting today, if you would like to be part of this grand experiment, hold up that “V” (or pick up someone showing the “V”), and let’s see if it catches on!

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