Carpools help ease the burden

When Suzanne MacKay started a new job in Albany last March, she began looking for a carpool immediat
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When Suzanne MacKay started a new job in Albany last March, she began looking for a carpool immediately.

“Especially with the rising price of gas, I did not want to drive every day by myself,” the 57-year-old Amsterdam resident recalled.

MacKay had not commuted in years; her previous job was at an elementary school about five miles from her house. She turned to the Internet, registering on Web sites such as eRideShare.com that link commuters who want to form carpools. She now rides to her job as a child nutrition officer at the New York State Education Department with two other women who work in downtown Albany; they meet every morning at the Amsterdam park and ride.

Carpoolers are still in the minority: the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates that more than 81 percent of Capital Region residents drove to work alone in 2005, while 7.6 percent drove to work in a two-person carpool and 1.2 percent drove to work in a three-person carpool.

Yet MacKay believes that as the price of gas continues to climb, more people are considering carpooling.

“If you look around the parking lots and the park and rides, they’re becoming more full,” she said.

Still, it isn’t always easy to find a carpool partner. One woman said she posted a notice in November but had not received a single response; a posting on Craigslist.com also came up empty.

Renewing efforts

Throughout the Capital Region, there are efforts to increase the number of carpoolers and make it easier for people to do. Advocates say it’s a way to ease congestion and reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

The state’s new Smart Growth Cabinet, which will hold its first meeting this week and is charged with finding ways to reduce sprawl, will discuss ways to get more people to carpool.

“The Spitzer administration views carpooling as a very effective air pollution-reducing strategy,” said Judith Enck, state deputy secretary for the environment.

The Capital District Transportation Committee, which looks for ways to better manage traffic in the Capital Region, operates an online register that allows commuters to post information and look for compatible rides.

The agency launched the Commuter Register program in 1988; at that time, information about the register was distributed to office buildings and supermarkets in a bimonthly publication. In the late 1990s, CDTC moved the register to the Internet. This spring, the program will transform once again: CDTC is looking to hire someone to make the register more sophisticated, with Geographic Information System software that allows users to locate commuters in their ZIP code.

“It will be more user-friendly,” said Deb Stacey, a senior transportation analyst with the Capital District Transportation Committee. When the new site is up and running, CDTC will publicize it in the hopes of boosting use, much like it did when the Commuter Register was first launched back in the 1980s.

Right now, one out of every five people who post information on the Commuter Register successfully finds a carpool, Stacey said.

The average commuter drives 25 minutes one way, and the average carpool’s lifespan is two and a half years. The most common reason why a carpool dissolves is because someone is leaving their job or retiring.

The Capital District Transportation Commitee has noticed an increase in postings to the Commuter Register, a trend probably fueled by gas prices and winter — people don’t like to drive in snow and ice, Stacey said.

Unfounded fears

One of the main reasons people do not carpool, or take the bus, is because they fear it will cut into their ability to be flexible if there’s an emergency, Stacey said. What will they do if they get sick or a child gets sick?

She said carpooling can be as flexible as people make it; carpooling just two or three days a week can cut down on pollution.

“When people look at taking a bus or carpooling, the look at it as a very stringent thing to do,” Stacey said. “My advice is to give it a try. … It doesn’t have to be five days a week. It can be two or three days a week, and it can still save on gas and the wear and tear on the car.”

CDTC also sponsors a program, called the Guaranteed Ride Home, that provides carpoolers with up to $150 in taxi fares a year, or a maximum of four taxi rides per year, in the event of an emergency. Since the program was launched in the 1990s, only two people have used it, an indication that emergencies are few and far between, Stacey said.

“There’s more the perception [that an emergency will occur] than the reality,” Stacey said. “It’s kind of like people want to blow holes in the carpool program by asking, ‘What if? What if?’ They’re almost looking for a valid excuse not to carpool.”

Encouraging employees

Enck said a number of state agencies already have carpooling programs. Carpooling will not be “a huge focus” of the Smart Growth Cabinet, but “we see opportunities to expand it. … We definitely want to boost the numbers. It all comes down to how easy you make it for people.”

One state agency working to find ways to get more people to carpool is the Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency has a carpool matching service on its Web site, but it is also going to point employees to carpoolworld.com. The service on the DEC Web site is in the more primitive personal ad-like format, while carpoolworld.com provides a more sophisticated matching service.

“We were thinking we’d like to offer an alternative to people,” said Lawrence D’Arco, an environmental program specialist at the DEC who is heading up the carpool project. He’s also making sure employees are aware of the Guaranteed Ride Home program.

When the DEC was still located on Wolf Road — the agency moved to downtown Albany in 2001 — it surveyed employees to find out how many carpooled. At that point, the number was about 13 percent. A similar survey hasn’t been done since.

D’Arco doesn’t carpool because he lives in Albany.

“Carpooling seems to work very well for people who live a distance from work,” he said.

Carpools vs. buses

Albany resident Tom McPheeters is working on finding ways to get more state workers to take the bus or carpool to work through the organization ARISE, a coalition of congregations and community groups. Members of ARISE have been meeting with state officials; so far, McPheeters said, the reception has been good.

For him, the goal is to cut down on air pollution.

“I’m a sufferer of sinusitis; my daughter has asthma,” he said. “At Giffen Elementary School [in Albany’s South End], every kid has an inhaler.”

Scotia resident Betty Ann Hughes started carpooling about a year and a half ago to her job in downtown Albany. Prior to that, she had taken the bus, but an illness made her look for something that would expose her to fewer people.

Carpooling and busing both have advantages. On the bus, she could get more reading done, she said. The car ride is a little quicker and allows her to keep “company of choice,” although “there are days when everybody is tired and it’s not exactly a lively conversation.”

Hughes, 55, said she carpools for two reasons: she hates driving in traffic and it reduces her carbon footprint, which is a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide they produce. Carbon dioxide is the leading cause of global warming.

Compared to other urban areas, the Capital Region does not have a huge congestion problem, Stacey said. But during peak commuting times — between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., for instance — the congestion in the area approaches that of the Long Island Expressway, she said.

Scotia resident Maureen Kucharski carpooled to her job at an Albany law firm for a while, but her carpool group broke up when one of the members left for another job. Now, she takes the bus to work.

“Carpooling is great, and busing is great,” she said.

Of her decision to look into carpooling, she said, “My house to the parking garage is 40-some miles. With gas prices going up, I wanted to hook up with someone.”

Kucharski said she prefers the bus to carpooling.

“I can sleep,” she said. “When I was in the carpool, I felt obligated to talk. Now, I can read and sleep.”

MacKay said she was always interested in carpooling, but she lacked the flexibility to do so at previous jobs.

“All my jobs during the last 30 years didn’t allow me to adjust my hours,” she explained.

Categories: Schenectady County

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