Treading Lightly: Carpooling is good for you, and the planet
October 3 2017
By Sarah Cushman
Years ago, carpooling was far more commonplace than it is today, both in Maine and around the country. Until the 1950s, most American families owned just one car – or none at all. In Maine – the most rural state in the country, according the 2010 U.S. Census – it often took some Yankee ingenuity for people to get where they needed to go. Even today, the spread-out nature of our homes and towns here means that strong public transportation networks with frequent service may not be viable. For some commuters, carpooling may be the only green option.
Most of us know, at least intellectually, its benefits. Sharing rides cuts down our household transportation costs; that’s significant when, statistically speaking, almost 20 percent of individual income goes to own just one vehicle. Carpooling also reduces greenhouse gas and other vehicle emissions, which contribute significantly to climate change. But carpooling offers a surprising and lesser-known benefit, too: It makes us happier, according to several studies. It strengthens our human connections, reduces stress and builds community resiliency.
My grandmother’s first cousin, Frances Burgess, knew this firsthand. She died this summer at 96 – I loved her dearly. She and her husband raised their family in a small cape in the midst of farmland in Saco. They shared one car between them and worked staggered shifts at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. When Frances headed to work, she would leave her two daughters with her mother and carpool in with neighbors. She always told me she was tickled by the friends she made and the stories she heard over many years of riding together. Her carpool had more men than women, she explained, so it was a unique opportunity for friendships with the opposite sex in an era when that was rarer.
Plenty of working Mainers today understand the benefits of carpooling, too. Take Hampden resident Ben Connors, who works in Pittsfield; he carpools 45 minutes each direction every day with his colleague Jeff Allen.
“We share the cost of the car – the wear and tear and gas – so that’s a direct benefit. But you also get to unwind with your co-worker at the end of the day,” Ben said. “You can talk about what you’re working on, and they offer a different perspective on things. By the time you’ve gotten home, you’ve gotten all that stuff off your chest.”
Others add that having another person, or more, in the car makes them feel safer when the weather is bad and driving conditions are poor.
Unfortunately, despite the personal and planetary benefits, fewer people carpool today than in the past. From the 1950s on, Americans began buying – and driving – more cars. By 2000, almost half of car-owning families had two or more vehicles, and more than 90 percent of American households had at least one, according to “The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000.” Carpooling peaked in 1980 at the end of the Middle East oil crises, according to the U.S. Census. At that time, almost 20 percent of Americans shared rides to work. Now that figure is a little less than 10 percent. About 9 percent of Mainers carpool. (Of note: People who work in construction have some of the highest rates of sharing rides, likely because of the long distances they must travel to various work sites.)
Many of us don’t carpool because we think it won’t work for us. Our reasons are many: I have kids to pick up. I have to run errands after work. I just want some peace and quiet. What if my aging parent suddenly needs me? Or maybe we tried it once back in 1992, and it didn’t work.
If any of these sound like you, I urge you to give carpooling a try, or perhaps another try. Keep in mind that it needn’t be all or nothing. Broach the subject with a co-worker and experiment for a couple weeks. Ask a neighbor who goes your way to try it for just a day or two a week. If you don’t know anyone who is making a similar trip, sign up for Go Maine’s recently revamped ride-matching service at gomaine.org, a statewide commuter assistance program. “It’s like Match.com for carpoolers,” said program coordinator Rebecca Grover. (Full disclosure: I’ve been hired to help with Go Maine’s Business-to-Business Commuter Challenge, which starts today.)
Go Maine also offers rewards to those who log their trips – either on the Go Maine website or using its new app – walking to work, bicycling, using public transportation and carpooling. I think one of the program’s best parts is the Emergency Ride Home Benefit, which gives active users a free taxi ride or Enterprise rental car to get home in the event they have a family crisis, get unscheduled overtime or have another unforeseen workday emergency.
Years ago, I remember attending a conference where a staff member from Go Maine showed us a World War II-era Uncle Sam carpooling propaganda poster. “The best options for public transportation many of us have as Mainers are the empty seats in our cars,” he said. That’s still right.
Carpooling needn’t be limited to getting to work, of course. You can carpool with other parents to get kids to soccer practice, with a member of your congregation to get to church or the mosque, with a friend to get to a community meeting.
If you’re hosting an event, consider groupcarpool.com, an attractive, low-barrier carpooling option. It’s a national app and online service specifically designed for one-time occasions. The service is free for an event with up to 50 participants and just $10 for an event of up to 500 participants; attendees themselves need not register nor pay a fee. Plus, it’s a great ice-breaker; say you’re headed to a conference – you’ll begin to build community even before you arrive.
Enough of the nuts and bolts, though. For some fun carpool love, check out James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke videos from “The Late Late Show.” It’s hard to watch just one!
Sarah Cushman, a sustainable transportation consultant and former master-certified auto mechanic, is always looking for sensible solutions to help folks save money and comfortably get around via public transportation, sharing vehicles, on foot and by bicycle. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.