Casual Carpooling

Casual carpooling is an ad hoc service in the Bay Area that involves drivers picking up random strangers at BART stops in the East Bay and giving them a lift into the city. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. The passengers get a free ride into work and the drivers get to take advantage of the carpool lane across the Bay Bridge and avoid the toll.

What fascinates me about this service is that it’s completely emergent. There’s no overarching authority to control casual carpooling or maintain it, and no designer to orchestrate the service or its touchpoints. The participants co-create it themselves on a daily basis:

Casual carpool is flawless, sensible. In fact it is so flawless and sensible that it could never have been planned by any city planner or transportation wonk. This phenomenon is essentially an unorganized grassroots effort, organically emerging from the need to avoid the ever-more congested trip across the bridge.

Although the practice has no official leadership, a UC Berkeley programmer named Dan Kirshner started to help document the phenomenon. There’s a basic etiquette involved:

  • Talking – Drivers generally should be the ones to initiate any conversation. No religion, politics, or sex.
  • Food – Passengers should assume that food and drink are not allowed in driver’s cars.
  • Music – Drivers should be considerate of passengers when listening to music, news or talk radio.
  • Cell Phones – Neither drivers or passengers should carry on a conversation while commuting.

More interesting is the etiquette around picking up passengers. Groups congregate in orderly lines [PDF 916K] at several well-known spots:

People are quite mindful of the “first-come, first-served” aspect of the lines. Avoid the ire of your fellow commuters: don’t “line-jump.”

On the other hand, riders and drivers are free to wait for another driver/rider. For example, a woman may not want to get into a two-seat car with a male driver, or a woman driver may prefer to wait for a female rider. As far as we’ve seen, such choices are respected without comment or disapproval.

They frown on picking up more people than necessary to fulfill the carpool lane requirement (three occupants) or circling the block to poach riders without waiting in line.

This is also interesting:

The line does not leave a woman standing alone. If the line has three people left in it and the driver needs only two, the “line” should ensure that a woman is not left standing. Either a man forfeits his place in line so that he is left standing, or the ride is declined until another person arrives.

Casual carpooling isn’t limited to San Francisco. It’s been going on for close to thirty years in Washington D.C., and more recently in Houston, Texas [PDF 516K]. Outside the Bay Area, the service is called “slugging.” It’s a derogatory label that bus drivers came up with to describe people who confused them by waiting at bus stops for carpool pickups. Riders are the slugs and drivers are called “body snatchers.” It’s a little bizarre, but the terminology is widespread and even found its way into an official Virginia Department of Transportation report.

In both Houston and DC, the service is more complex than San Francisco, where the route and destinations are a known quantity (across the Bay Bridge into downtown). Instead, drivers announce their destinations up front, for example “Pentagon,” and the first two people in line who are going that way hop in the car.

Some drivers have signs, but it’s usually dark and you can’t see anyway… Occasionally there is a barker in line, and he repeats the destination so everyone can hear.

Each of these services emerged in proximity to mass transit and in response to the development of HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes near major cities. That catalyst was enough to prompt enterprising drivers to cruise past bus stops and ask people if they wanted a lift. The passengers are essentially ballast.

Casual carpooling is at the extreme of co-created service design. No designers required. There’s a bit of institutional support (notice the metal carpooling signs in the photos above) but just as often the service is at odds with the powers-that-be. In Berkeley, police frequently ticket drivers for parking in bus lanes and I can’t imagine BART appreciates non-passengers taking up space in their commuter lots.

These services thrive on their simplicity but there are problems that I think designers might be able to address. For instance, the return commute isn’t nearly as easy to spontaneously organize because the timing and destinations are so varied. And safety is a perennial concern. The and sites both maintain a message board for members to share information about sketchy drivers.

It seems like I remember a ridesharing project from Ivrea about five years ago (something about wearing flashing signals on your belt) and people always seem keen to apply technology to the problem [PDF 144K]. Casual carpooling predates cellphones and the consumer web, but people are gradually discovering how this infrastructure can augment their commute.

For further reading:
San Fransisco Chronicle
Houston Chronicle
The Hill

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