Carpooling Declines 50% Since 1980


I’m lucky enough not to have a work commute, though I know many people do. What I can’t explain is why carpooling has declined 50% since 1980, even as traffic gets worse and gas gets more expensive. What gives?

It seems that back in the 1970’s, a decade that saw disco and destitution, high gas prices, and the exaggerated death of the American muscle car. Many companies organized carpools for their employees, and at its peak about 25% of Americans got to work via a carpool. In the last 30 years though, that number has dropped by more than half, to less than 12%, despite building more carpool lanes and commuter parking lots. It’s a national problem, coast to coast.

One cause is that as Americans got wealthier, they were buying bigger houses farther from work, making carpooling more difficult despite a wealth of social networking devices and make it easier to find people to get to work with. Carpooling dates back to World War II, when there was a gas and rubber shortage, and hit its peak during the 1970’s. Interestingly enough, minorities carpool more than whites, and in the case of Hispanics, up to 28% of the time. People just don’t want to share the car, and would rather brave hours of traffic than seat next to Sarah from accounting, apparently.

How do we remedy this? I can think of only two ways; a massive overhaul of many mass transit systems, coast to coast, or an empty-seat tax. Obviously the former will have longer-lasting benefits, but the empty seat tax would be easier to implement. Charge $5 per-empty seat, and you’ll start seeing a lot more carpooling. All seats full? No charge. The money collected from the tolls can go towards building the aforementioned expensive mass transit projects.

I know it sounds draconian, but just building bigger and bigger highways hasn’t done anything to relieve congestion, and Americans don’t seem interested in carpooling, despite the billions of dollars poured into creating HOV lanes and promoting the practice. If anybody has a better idea, I’m all ears.

Source: New York Times

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMI’s. You can follow his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout.

About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he’s running, because he’s one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.

  • Why?

    Because car pooling ties you to someone else’s schedule and that is unacceptable. But well design and operated mass transit system (light rail) allows you the freedom to come and go at will, so it is highly popular.

    Car pooling will never be widely accepted in this country and any any politician who votes for an empty seat tax will be voted out of office.

  • I am for big time overhaul. Design a small electric city cars. Instead of freeway design a rail system. If are doing city driving use battery power. If you going far car should go on rail. In electronic world rail can be as flexible as needed. For example if four car gethered for one location, it will start. Or someone is ready to pay for four car fair rail will start etc.

    Many advantages:
    – less polution
    – less accedent
    – smooth traffic
    – Drivers are free to do other activity on go (read GAS2.ORG)
    – personal freedom

    • Cool idea! I love the idea of an intracity rail system for EVs, although that would take billions of bucks. I had a similar idea, though it doesn’t use a rail system within city limits. Create a small parking lot full of small EVs at each downtown rail terminal. (A perfect vehicle here would be the MIT SmartCities car, which A) folds up when not in use, thus requiring less space to store, and B) has all four wheels capable of turning 90 degrees, thus allowing parking in extremely tight spaces.)

      The concept could be expanded in the future. Create a set of roll-on/roll-off (RORO) rail cars that could be hauled between cities and used thus: A family on a trip to Disneyland goes to a train station, buys four tickets plus a one-week rental of one of the EVs sitting on a flatbed railcar at the end of the train. They arrive in Anaheim, pick up their EV, drive it off the flatbed and use it during their stay. When they return home, they drive the EV back to the station, drive it up a ramp onto the flatbed car, get into their seats, and go home.

      Net gains: Make long-haul travel more carbon efficient using the train; make short-haul intra-city travel more C efficient by using EVs.

      To extend the concept one more step, rail companies could offer a discount if you rolled your own EV onto the flatbed, etc. Your thoughts?

  • A substantial oil tax will help us shift away from our dependence on oil. We won’t be making detailed decisions for people such as whether to carpool, but the tax will help us reduce the $300bn we send to Saudi Arabia and other countries each year for oil.

    • Carpooling is a matter of social and cultural adaptation. There are several websites which offer carpooling platform in Europe, where long distance carpooling seems to be going main stream in the recent years. One such Europe wide long distance carpooling platform (in the UK) along with is French and Spanish counterparts has managed to gather more than 1.3 million strong community.

      Even though petrol price rise is one of the main factors the other important factor which makes it really popular is the environmental(opportunity to reduce carbon foorprint) factor. This website has managed to save a wopping £100m and 200,000 tons of CO2 on over more than 6 million shared trips.

      The carpooling concept has several such benefits. Among others it even makes the journey a much more sociable experience.

  • In the UK there was a sudden increase in car pooling last year.

    Average car occupancy is 1.60 (in 2008 – it increased from 1.58 in 2007 following 40 years of decline!)

    Likely causes are the increased fuel prices and the huge number of people (400,000+) joining

    The average occupancy increased from 1.58 to 1.6 in 2008,saving 4 billion km, saving 700,000 tonnes of CO2 = a 1% reduction.

    This trend is likley to continue…

  • Chris – Are you stoned? Did you find some hidden stash in Nick’s old desk?
    A $5 Empty Seat charge? Easier to implement? Oh, yeah, I’d love to see that one make it to the floor. Any legislator proposing that would be ripped to shreds before three words got out of his mouth.
    The better idea is concentration on mass transit systems. Update them, make them more affordable to ride (monthly or yearly discount passes), and place them near the higher concentrations of people. Just like the cities do now, but focus on the needs of the passengers and not the egos of the city planners.
    And let’s not forget, unlike our UK or European counterparts, we have a hell of a lot of space between cities and towns than they do. That’s the central reason why mass transit and car-pooling programs work so well overseas.
    $5 empty seat charge. Sheesh. Negro, you so cray-zee!

  • Imagine if most of the commuters would be part of a carpool…it would be so much easier to get into the city. I tried the carbon dioxide and driving cost calculator of the carpooling network ( ) and they suggest huge savings: up to 2000$ and 1,5 tons of GHG per year.

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