Carpooling has been in a bit of a slump these past, oh, 30 years. In 1980, about one in five commuters carpooled to work, according to the latest Commuting in America report compiled by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. By 2010 that figure was down to one in 10. Steven Polzin, one of the report's coauthors, calls the steep decline in carpooling "the most significant change in commuting behavior in the past few decades."
Any numbers of factors could explain carpooling's fading glory. Metro areas have more job centers than in the past. Work schedules are more flexible, and telecommuting is on the rise. Above all, driving to work alone remains a cheap and convenient option, with employers subsidizing parking and a policy focus on highway expansion draining HOV lanes of their power.
But carpooling isn't dead yet. Several new services are betting that digital networks and smartphones can do for shared commutes what cul-de-sacs and water coolers once did. The list includes Carma, eRideShare, CarpoolWorld, BlaBlaCar (in Europe), and Zimride (for companies and colleges), and is not to be confused with cab-sharing ventures like UberPool and Lyft Line, whose users pay lower fares for the off chance they'll have to slide over.
The most well-known service, Carma, even holds a business accelerator program designed to develop carpool-related start-ups. Accepted ideas will receive seed money and office space. The inaugural accelerator began in January.
One intriguing service to emerge from the Carma accelerator is ToEverywhere, a joint effort by former UC Berkeley students Rafael Ancheta and Darwin Wu. ToEverywhere positions itself as an aggregator in the emerging world of digital carpool services. Instead of choosing a single service and hunting for a driver or a passenger in a given area, users can simply enter their location and see all the commuters who pass by them on a regular basis.
"It tries to solve the biggest dissatisfaction people currently have with carpooling websites, which is being unable to find drivers or passengers, by putting all of them into a single place and onto a single map," says Wu. "So you can see everything that's going on around your area."
Though still in development, ToEverywhere is clearly easy to use. Once you type in your location and set your distance threshold for passing cars, a list of potential carpooler drivers shows up, along with dates, times, and prices. That carpool list is populated by drivers who sign up with other services; Ancheta and Wu are already working with Carma and say they're pursing more partnerships.
In addition to commutes, the site offers a novel way to take road trips, too. (The duo previously worked on a service called Rdvouz that's specifically devoted to long-distance travel.) It's almost a throwback to the days of hitchhiking, with your thumb working a smartphone instead of hanging in the wind.
The site is very much a work in progress, and it won't achieve peak usefulness until it's populated with many more drivers and becomes a smartphone app. (Ancheta and Wu expect to launch an app within a couple months.) Even then ToEverywhere seems more likely to appeal to people who already want to carpool than to change the habits of solo drivers. A lack of flexibility to leave work early—that looming bane of carpoolers—remains a challenge with all of these new ride tools.
But Ancheta and Wu, not to mention the many entrepreneurs entering this space, remain hopeful that technology is the key to reestablishing carpooling's place as a premier travel mode. Insofar as digital networks make it so much easier for people with similar commutes to connect, perhaps they'll be right. They also see their efforts as being in line with a broader push among leading metro areas toward less single-occupancy driving and more transportation options.
"Having people driving alone in their cars every day is somewhat depressing," says Ancheta. "It's nice to think that one day through technology and personal communities we can bring a change to that."