Originally published August 2010.
Across my native USA, I whenever neighbours or townspeople lobby for
more bus and rail services, pundits and politicians usually sputter
something like this:
Trains and buses are a waste of taxpayers’ money. There’s no reason for them to exist. Look at the ones we have now – they’re mostly empty.
who’s ridden a bus or train recently knows that’s not even remotely
true. Buses and trains are often filled to capacity, here and in America
– I’m writing this from a tight squeeze in a packed double-decker. Even
if those critics were right, however, they never apply that same logic
to cars, for they never say:
Asphalt is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and so are highway overpasses, parking garages, car parks, traffic signals, streetlights, traffic cops and auto company bailouts. Look at the cars we have now – they’re mostly empty.
might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money
you waste. As I write this, for example, a business headline boasts of
Toyota’s multi-million-dollar plan to boost fuel efficiency by 25
percent, with the usual discussion of what this will mean for the
economy and the climate. Any of us, however, can boost the efficiency of
our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional
expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car.
fact is also forgotten when we judge car owners by the wastefulness of
their vehicles. An SUV is a spectacularly inefficient machine compared
to a Prius, for example, but pack that Dodge Durango full of people and
suddenly it is greener than the electric hybrid driven alone.
use another example, your bus could be less efficient than an SUV in
kilometers-per-litre, yet all of you bus passengers are making one of
the greenest transportation choices around, thanks to the fact that so
many seats are filled.
One of the easiest ways of cutting your
expenses, fuel and carbon footprint, then, is simply to share rides with
other people. Since most of us travel similar routes from clusters of
houses to clusters of offices, there is no reason why carpooling should
not work for most of us.
to the website carfinance.ie, the average car in Ireland, driven 10,000
kilometers a year, will cost 1,750 euros in petrol. Divide that by four
people, however, and you each save 1,300 a year. Carpooling could even
pay for itself, if you propose to friends and co-workers that they pay
you slightly more than the cost of fuel, as compensation for driving a
little out of your way.
Some people might think they want to
listen to music or a podcast on the way rather than talk to other
people, and there’s no reason you can’t do even if the car is crowded.
Most people, however, could do with more company. A June 2006 study in
the American Sociological Review found that the number of close friends
people say they have fell by a third in the previous 20 years.
people don’t go to poker nights or Kiwanis meetings anymore, and the
number of people who know their neighbours has also fallen, but the
number of hours spent commuting has more than doubled in the last few
decades. Most studies show us lonelier and more stressed than people of
previous generations, probably because we spend less and less of our
lives being the social animals we evolved to be, and more and more
staring at glowing rectangles.
Perhaps this paranoia about human
company is one reason so few of us have taken up carpooling, no matter
how much money they would save. A brief internet search shows that while
more web sites encourage people to carpool, many people seem fearful of
meeting strangers. “How could I possibly trust that the people … I’d
travel with are honest guys and not awful criminals?” asked one blogger –
sentiments typical of many comments on the subject, even though
criminals are unlikely to use a morning carpooling route as their cover
for a nefarious plan.
this with the 1930s or 40s, when regular people carpooled, hitchhiked
and picked up hitchhikers, and movies and other media showed this as
normal. In wartime USA and Britain carpooling, like many other self-sufficient
activities, was declared a patriotic duty – propaganda posters warned
against people who selfishly took up a whole car to themselves, or who
let the troops down by wasting energy. Hollywood movies showed stars
carpooling, Dr. Seuss drew cartoons about how many people you could pack
in a car, scoutmasters gave speeches about saving fuel and money.
did the posters approach carpooling as a nice way to enjoy the morning
or as a hip new part of eco-fashion; rather, they could be stern in a
way that few advertisements are today. “Hitler rides in the empty seat,”
said one typical poster. People need this. We are counting on you.
Today many people, in many countries, are struggling again. It’s not exactly war, and not like any
previous Depression. It does have a home front, though, and could
benefit from some of the same solutions that were understood to be so
sensible, for so long.