In 2010, my husband and I moved out to rural Northeast Kansas in order to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Our dream had one major flaw – a complete lack of public transportation.
So these two save-the-planet sustainability groupies became just two more single-occupant vehicle drivers with big ugly carbon footprints.
And we’re not alone. Forty-five percent of Americans lack any access to transit. But funding a bus network in rural areas is difficult and expensive, so the choices are drive or stay home.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Kansas, we have good roads, plenty of cars, and lots of neighborly good will – a perfect recipe for ridesharing. Unfortunately, with ridesharing, you need a critical mass of participants – a daunting task in urban areas and almost impossible in the countryside.
The way around the critical mass problem? Hitchhiking. Hitchhikers do ride matching right on the roadside. It’s flexible and convenient, and not anywhere near as hazardous as the slasher flicks would have us believe. So I started wondering: How could we make hitchhiking a safe, easy, and reliable way to carpool?
First, I needed to understand why people don’t hitchhike these days. Marjan Knippenberg’s recent hitchhiking survey provides four answers:
- “It’s dangerous”
- “I worry nobody will pick me up”
- “I don’t want to feel like a beggar,” and
- “It just never occurred to me.”
And I needed to know why people didn’t pick up hitchhikers. The most common answers were:
- “I don’t know if they’re safe,” and
- “I don’t know where they are going.”
My solution was to give a potential hitchhiker a set of information-rich clues. He needs:
- Something that brands him as a member of a legitimate carpooling organization, with a corresponding marketing campaign.
- A way to signal his destination, and some way to record who he’s riding with.
- An easy way to reimburse the driver for gas and other trip costs.
- Some training and support to help him to be safe and successful.
That was the my vision for the Lawrence OnBoard project. I developed a distinctive, folding dry-erase board that takes care of the branding and the destination signal. Then I took 23 volunteers out to various roadsides in and around Lawrence, Kansas, gave them boards, and had them wait for random passing drivers to stop and give them a ride.
We logged more than 120 test rides and our results were downright astonishing. Provided the rider stood in a good location, the average wait time was under seven minutes.
We were so excited we wrote a paper about it for the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington D.C. That’s where I met Sean O’Sullivan, whose ridesharing company, Carma, was already at the forefront of sustainable transportation solutions.
Carma was looking for a way around the critical mass problem. Its carpooling app is wildly successful in cities like San Francisco and Austin, but it takes a lot of effort to build that momentum. A roadside approach sidesteps the need for an initial critical mass, and works especially well in the very places where traditional ridesharing programs don’t. We decided to join forces, and together created a new ridesharing concept called CarmaHop.
CarmaHop uses the same sign-up process as the Carma Carpool app. Users create a profile with a picture, email, cell phone, and Facebook verifications. But where Carma Carpoolers input their trips, find matches, and arrange carpools ahead of time through the app, Carma Hoppers can carpool right from the roadside. Hoppers are issued a dry-erase board, then they can go to a safe roadside, write their destination on the board, and catch a ride with a passing driver.
The CarmaHop app has a “start trip” button, and riders then select their driver from a list. The app records distance travelled and arranges payment to the driver for the cost of the ride. That’s an appropriate incentive that doesn’t turn the driver into an unlicensed taxi. Drivers and riders rate each other, which keeps everyone on their best behavior. We’re even making a map of good locations to get a ride, a user guide and a training video.
Our new concept really isn’t hitchhiking any more, so we came up with a new term – “roadside ridesharing.” Finishing touches are going on this summer, and we plan to launch this innovative new concept this fall.