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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-13-053    Date:  May 2013
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-13-053
Date: May 2013

 

Exploratory Advanced Research Program

Casual Carpooling Focus Group Study

KEY FINDINGS BY BROAD THEMES

This research led to the development of five broad findings:

  1. While casual carpooling exists in multiple regions, the culture of those who participate is not uniform across all areas, but varies both across and within regions and by the role of the participant.

  2. Overall, casual carpoolers are satisfied with the organic nature of casual carpooling (that is, informality and lack of government involvement). There is a strong relationship between certain congestion policies (e.g., HOV-3 facilities and park-and-ride lots), and the development of and participation in casual carpooling systems.

  3. Hearing about casual carpooling does not in itself inspire first-time participation, and safety-related issues are among top concerns of new participants; however, an added sense of security (e.g., from riding with a friend for a period of time or familiarizing oneself with the route) may encourage participation among first-time casual carpoolers.

  4. The relationship between casual carpoolers varies by role and among and within regions.

  5. Possible enhancements to casual carpooling through technological tools (e.g., ride-matching and other smart phone or Web-based applications, and alerts when a parking lot is full or waiting times are long), incentives to drivers or riders, and other services appeal to some casual carpoolers as ways to make the system more convenient and easy to use and to enhance their sense of personal safety.

Each of these findings is discussed below:

1. While casual carpooling exists in multiple regions, the system culture is not uniform across all areas, but varies both across and within regions and by the role of the participant.

 

Across the three systems (Washington, Houston, and San Francisco) that were studied there is some uniformity and there are also many ways in which the systems differ. With regard to similarity across the systems, the following features stand out:

Among the differences between programs, the following features stand out:

 

2. Overall, casual carpoolers are satisfied with the organic nature (informality and lack of governance) of casual carpooling. Some participants’ decisions to casual carpool appear to be related to congestion policies. There is also a strong relationship between certain congestion policies and casual carpooling.

 

Motivators to participate include, first and foremost, cost and time savings:

The value of casual carpooling and participation levels is inherently and intrinsically tied to the cost and time savings relationship. As an example, and as observed in Houston, an impact of the Katy Freeway reconstruction was the reduction of congestion on the highway for all users and a reduction in participation levels in casual carpooling at that location. 

A final motivator, although not listed quite as frequently as time and cost saving was “flexibility.” Most participants noted that casual carpooling afforded them increased flexibility as compared to participation in traditional carpools or vanpools. They do not have the responsibility that comes in an organized rideshare program to drive, share in the payment of parking fees, and update other members when they are sick or on vacation. Further, they are able to make last-minute decisions on what time they will leave home and which casual carpool location they will depart from, etc. Unlike with fixed-route transit, drivers have the ability to make diversions as needed in the case of an accident or unexpected traffic even in the HOV lanes.

3. Hearing about casual carpooling does not in itself inspire first-time participation, and safety-related issues are among top concerns of new participants. However, an added sense of security (e.g., riding with a friend for a period of time or familiarizing oneself with the route) may encourage participation among first-time casual.

 

The majority of casual carpoolers first learned about the system through word of mouth from a friend or colleague, reading about it in the news, or observing people waiting in line for rides at park-and-ride lots and other locations.

While safety issues are among the top concerns of new casual carpoolers, they diminish over time. This is in part because participants share an attitude of literally watching over each other. Additionally, casual carpoolers’ general sense of safety is guided by the norms established by those who participate in casual carpooling at a given location. If a person’s behaviors or manner of dress, for instance, go against what is customarily seen at a pickup location, then he or she may be passed up for carpooling opportunities. For instance, casual carpoolers at the Northwest Station Park-and Ride lot in Northwest Houston are accustomed to seeing casual carpoolers in business attire heading to work. Casual carpoolers’ overall sense of safety at the Northwest Houston location is threatened when a person’s manner of dress is not in line with what is customary (business attire in this case) to that location. In contrast, how someone is dressed does not impact Oakland area casual carpoolers’ sense of safety or their decision to participate in casual carpooling.

4. The relationship between casual carpoolers varies by role and among and within regions.

 

Casual carpooling attracts participants for a variety of personal reasons. The role of the driver and passenger is similar to that of a traditional carpool in that a ride is shared between a driver and one or more passengers, and it is not uncommon for relationships to develop between driver and passenger. However, the relationships between casual carpoolers vary by their roles—as drivers or passengers—and are often influenced by the norms or culture, which differ by region (and even within a region). Highlights of this observation follow:

5. Possible enhancements to casual carpooling through technological tools, incentives to drivers or riders, and other services appeal to some casual carpoolers as ways to make the system more convenient and easy to use and to enhance their sense of personal safety.

 

While study participants overall are very satisfied with the casual carpooling system they use, they readily offer suggestions for improvements. Learning what works and where the systems function best is a helpful exercise to inform efforts to create casual carpooling in locations where it does not exist.

When asked about opportunities to improve casual carpooling, technology-based tools were among the top opportunities cited for improving casual carpooling in each of the study areas, especially as related to communications for improving the system dynamics and safety. Participants expressed the desire for real-time information exchanges about casual carpooling lines (e.g., number of passengers in line and number of vehicles in a queue, wait time for passenger or driver, etc.), estimated commute time from casual carpool lots, alerts about traffic delays on highways, and whether or not the parking area adjacent to the line—where there is one—is full. This information would allow participants to make informed decisions about whether to delay their commute to their regular location or go to an alternative location that is less crowded; or in the case of passengers, to take transit instead of casual carpooling. Participants also saw a role for improvements at casual carpool locations that would improve safety (and contribute in some cases to communications) such as installing a Web camera viewing the line or waiting area.

When asked specifically about Web or smartphone applications that would provide the services mentioned above or provide additional services such as matching riders with drivers, for a fee, there was some initial concern among most participants. While not generally adverse to technology, participants expressed concerns about (1) the associated costs with many objecting to pay for something that is already free and worrying that the price might arbitrarily rise over time; (2) whether introducing the technology would “upset” a system already in place that works well by changing its dynamics and making it more formal or structured and potentially reducing the number of drivers and passengers at the casual carpooling lines and locations; and (3) the user-friendliness of such an application.

Upon further reflection, however, some did see value in this type of ridesharing service in general. Being paid for driving appealed to some drivers and even some passengers felt the payment to drivers might encourage more drivers to participate (increasing their likelihood of getting a ride). However, in some locations, participants felt the number of drivers and riders was already well balanced and this might upset the balance. Several felt that a rideshare application might make the system safer, especially if drivers and passengers had to preregister and there would be a record of the ride match, thus deterring any misconduct.

Focus group participants saw possible benefits to offering rewards of some type to casual carpoolers who take action to make the system function better in cases where it is not functioning well. They also suggested services that would improve the convenience and reliability of casual carpooling. In particular, system enhancements and rewards were suggested under the following circumstances:

 

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