Americans are freaking out over gas prices and the country’s transportation choices are undergoing real change for the first time in decades. Miles driven and car sales have waned while mass transit ridership and cycling have soared. But, as a recent Boston Globe article laments, carpooling still hasn’t seem the same spike.
Good for the environment, the pocketbook, and perhaps even the social life, car pooling would seem, at this particular moment in history, to have a lot going for it. Environmentalists and traffic planners say it’s one of the easiest and cheapest ways for cities to decrease pollution and congestion – never mind helping individuals reduce transportation expenses, which as of 2006 consumed approximately 15 percent of the average American budget (12 percent for those in the Northeast), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And unlike public transit, a car pool requires little in the way of costly taxpayer-funded infrastructure or maintenance.
But Americans don’t carpool much. In fact, over the past quarter century, despite increased traffic, fuel costs, and growing awareness of environmental issues, we’ve been doing it less and less. According to the federal Department of Transportation, the number of solo drivers on US roads nearly tripled between 1960 and 2000. In 1980, when the US Census began tracking car pooling, almost 20 percent of American workers shared rides to work. By 1990, the number had fallen to 13 percent. In 2006 – the newest data available – it was down to about 11 percent.
These two issues are interrelated. Car manufacturers inevitably boost the “freedoms” that their vehicles supply: “Find Your Own Road”; “Grab Life by the Horns”; “Drivers Wanted”, ad nauseum. Sharing a ride, and one’s personal space, with others is at odds with the multi-million dollar images we’re bombarded with.
Singapore began charging fees to enter its downtown in 1975. According to data collected by the Environmental Defense Fund, the city has seen a 45 percent decrease in traffic and a 20 percent increase in the use of public transportation since then. More recently, Stockholm and London adopted similar schemes to encourage both transit use and ride sharing. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that London traffic moves 37 percent faster and uses 20 percent less fuel than it did before the fees began in 2003. And in Stockholm, where a pricing plan went into effect in 2006, traffic is moving 15 percent faster.
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