Paul Resnick (presnick) wrote,
Paul Resnick

Dynamic ride sharing in the Bay Area

A couple weeks ago, I spent some time with Dan Kirschner (see slideshow), a long-time ride-sharing activist from Berkeley, who is trying to launch dynamic, computer-assisted ride-matching on the I-80 corridor going into and out of San Francisco. Unfortunately, I see from his web site that he's put the service on hold for the time being-- not enough users, especially drivers.

Because of HOV lanes with less congestion and no tolls on the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, there has long been "casual car pooling" on the morning commute from Berkeley and other locations, but in the evening few drivers picked up riders and the riders relied on BART. A few years ago, the city put up destination signs on Beale Street, near the entrance to the Bay Bridge, and people going longer distances (eg., Vallejo) line up and eventually get a ride. As you might expect in San Francisco, it's a diverse crowd (see slideshow). As I found watching a slug-line in DC, drivers, sometimes in fancy cars, take passengers on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Dan's new computer-assisted service would have two primary advantages. First, morning pickups would be at locations other than the current pick-up spots, several of which have parking lots that fill up quite early in the morning. After those times, there are few riders (they can't park) and so it's hard for drivers to fill their cars. Second, in the afternoon, riders would be matched with a driver before leaving work, and thus would not have to wait in line.

The problems with the news service idea that I could pick up, from talking to people in the lines as I distributed flyers, were:

  • Inertia. The people in line find the current system at least minimally acceptable.

  • Corodination costs and loss of spontaneity. Though he calls the service "Ride Now", as actually designed people have to decide at least an hour in advance in the morning and 30 minutes at night, and have to call each other to confirm. In analyzing why he has suspended the service, Dan wrote, "One lesson is that this has to be easier for people to use. A truly 'instant match' system would be more a one-step process: 'Hi, I'm here, give me a ride match.'"
  • Lack of backup. If a rider doesn't get a computer-assisted match at night, hecan't just use the regular carpool line, because drivers take those passengers back to the old pickup spots (with the full parking lots) not the new pickup spots that Dan's service has. One interested womanwho I gave a flyer to said she couldn't use the new service because there is express bus service from San Francisco to the existing parking lots as a backup if she doesn't get a ride, but no service or only local service to the new pickup points.

It's a hard problem getting this kind of service launched. It was interesting to see when passing out flyers that most people basically were interested and were willing to believe in the good intentions of the service launchers (after getting a few questions answered). One person even pointed to Dan and said, "He's the father of this carpool system", referring to Dan's role several years ago in assembling the initial critical mass of users for the current pickup spots on Beale Street. But there just weren't enough takers, at least yet, to make this particular version of the service go.

I'm still optimistic that Dan's fishing in the right pond, and I look forward to doing a little fishing there myself.
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