Flickr/Sharon Hahn Darlin

Turns out, the biggest risk to casual carpoolers in Oakland is not each other.

"Casual carpooling" is a relatively old and fascinating little transportation subculture that has largely been obscured by the rise of companies like Lyft and Sidecar, tech-enabled platforms that have stealthily borrowed the name of "ride-sharing." Casual carpooling, on the other hand, predates smart phones. It involves no technology. It is vastly more anonymous. And for that reason, it also much, much more interesting.

To my knowledge, major casual-carpool networks exist only in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area, two places where the commuting patterns and infrastructure are conducive to the central bargain involved here: You get in my car for free, and I ride faster to work in the HOV lane for free. There's no money involved, no apps to connect people, often even no names exchanged between passengers and drivers. The system works because, over time in these two metros, a quasi-formal map of pick-up and drop-off locations has emerged.

If you've ever seen a rush-hour queue of people in business attire lined up on a sidewalk in downtown D.C., in front of neither a taxi stand nor a bus stop, they are probably waiting for strangers to pull up to the curb and drive them to northern Virginia.

The idea poses the same question as every element of the sharing economy: Why do these people trust each other? With casual carpooling, the passengers and drivers can't even rely on an online network of identities, reviews and log-ins. Several years ago, I spent a fair amount of time talking and riding with these people around Washington, and I was repeatedly struck by their attitude toward what might go wrong. A few people were concerned about getting in the back seat of a car with a bad driver. No one was concerned about getting into a car with a bad person.

To the outsider, all of this seems like a fantastic way to be sped into the woods by a serial killer. But the casual carpooler's trust was buttressed by the fact that this system had been in existence in Washington for years almost entirely without incident.

This brings me to, well, an incident that happened Monday morning in Oakland: Three men, at least one with a gun, held up a casual carpool lane of commuters waiting for a ride to work. They made off with some smart phones and bags. As SF Gate described the story:

The thieves appeared to take advantage of a central feature of casual carpooling: The self-regulated stops, where solo drivers pick up passengers so they can use the diamond lanes while heading to San Francisco, are popular with commuters carrying expensive electronic devices.

The incident is shocking because the commuters were at risk from the people you'd least expect: other strangers who had absolutely nothing to do with the casual carpool scene. As one startled victim told SF Gate, "There were people who kind of scattered like pigeons and people like me who froze in place."

This makes me think that our preoccupation with risk in networks of strangers might be at least partially misplaced. Sure, it's fascinating to think about the social dynamics of strangers putting trust in each other to share resources. But what if the rare incident that deters people from doing this actually comes from somewhere else?

Top image of a casual-carpool line in Oakland: Flickr user Sharon Hahn Darlin.

About the Author

Emily Badger

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

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