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The Green Life: New and Next Big Things in Ridesharing

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September 11, 2008

New and Next Big Things in Ridesharing

Carpoolsign New rideshare services match commuters using Facebook, text messaging, GPS, and iPhone 3G. What's next? Devices that provide not only real-time information (about traffic and approaching buses, for example), but also anticipate a commuter's travel patterns and suggest personalized transportation alternatives. That's the vision, at least, of transit scholars from the Center for Urban Transportation Research, or CUTR, at the University of South Florida.

If it sounds far off, consider the growing number of startups now racing to capitalize on rising fuel costs, increased congestion, shrinking budgets, and advances in technology that could make ridesharing more convenient. Oh, and profitable too--though in Silicon Valley style, that comes after cultivation of a massive user base.

"Over 100 other sites are trying to do this in some form," said John Zimmer, co-founder of Zimride, which recently launched a Facebook application connecting drivers and passengers within existing communities. "But no one has solved it to the point of creating a reliable form of transportation."

The latest entry in the tech-enabled rideshare world, Avego, comes from Ireland-based Mapflow. It uses the new iPhone's GPS feature to link potential carpoolers based on their destinations and real-time locations--providing what transportation wonks call dynamic ride-matching.

Here's how it works: Users register with their name, credit card information, and a photograph (think of it as creating a license to carpool on your phone). They can also choose to filter the network, limiting results to say, women or co-workers. Passengers receive text messages about drivers before they arrive, and opt to accept or reject a pickup. After meeting a driver face to face and deciding to take the lift, they key in a code to authorize a $0.30-per-mile charge via PayPal. Avego takes 15 percent, and drivers get the rest, again through PayPal. The service debuted at this week's DEMO conference and Mapflow plans to launch a beta version by the end of October.

Zimride also expects to launch a mobile, location-aware application this fall in partnership with a company called Ecorio. This one tracks carbon emissions associated with each trip and lists alternatives to driving solo. Score one for the scholars.

Of course, carpooling isn't for everyone, says Phil Winters, director of the Best Workplaces for Commuters and Transportation Demand Management programs at CUTR. But neither is it an all-or-nothing proposition. Winters has studied [PDF download] how tracking commuters' travel patterns with GPS, sharing the data with them, and offering ways to spend less time in single-occupancy vehicles affects behavior. "A lot of people say, 'I can't do it because on Thursdays I have classes,' and they're apologetic because sometimes they can't do it." But present them with practical alternatives, and they tend to rethink transit choices.

By all accounts, building that all-important user base is far from simple. "It is in a sense a cultural shift," said Zimmer--something he said has happened before. "Zipcar was very successful in shifting how people think about transportation." The leading U.S. car-sharing company, Zipcar has 225,000 members and signed up 11,000 newbies in July alone. Still, it leans heavily on venture capital and has yet to turn a profit after nearly a decade in the business. Zimride, Avego, and their ilk take the Zipcar promise--an affordable, green, convenient alternative to typical transportation choices--and eliminate the overhead of maintaining a fleet of vehicles and covering considerable fuel costs.

Think it can work? Maybe, said CUTR researcher Sean Barbeau. But once users find trusted travel companions who will chip in for gas, a broker like Avego becomes an unnecessary expense. Bad news for the company, he said, but not a total loss: "The end result from a transit point of view is that's a good thing."

Share your tips: What's your secret to successful ridesharing?

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