Gas prices are still flirting with $4 a gallon, but that fact isn’t driving droves of Capital Region commuters to carpool.
When it comes to ride-sharing, the region has lagged behind the national average for more than 20 years, and experts say it will take more than a jump in prices at the pump to convince most locals to give up commuting solo.
Carpooling as a concept makes sense: It saves gas, tolls and vehicle wear-and-tear, helps to alleviate road congestion and cuts down on auto emissions. Riding with someone else can also make the commute less stressful and maybe even fun.
Resources for car poolers
www.iPool2.com — Commuters can post and view car pool and van pool requests on this site. Car poolers can also register for the Guaranteed Ride Home program, which ensures up to four free taxi rides home from work annually in an emergency.
www.eRideShare.com — On this site, commuters can post and view car pool requests for commuter travel, cross-country travel and more.
www.CapitalMoves.org — This site offers Capital Region residents a range of commuting resources.
But experts say certain characteristics of the Capital Region make carpooling unappealing despite the obvious benefits.
“Part of our problem is that we’re a very deconcentrated metropolitan area. We’ve got basically three city centers, so people don’t have a particular place they’re converging on,” said Dave Cotter, professor and chair of Union College’s department of sociology.
A second issue is a lack of significant road congestion. Commuters often complain that the Northway and Thruway are crowded at certain times of day, but traffic’s not a huge issue locally, said Deb Stacey, principal transportation planner for the Capital District Transportation Committee.
“If you compare it to other places like L.A. or Long Island or New York City, even though we see pretty high volumes it’s not for a very long period of time and if a person has the flexibility to flex their schedule just a little bit outside that peak, they’re not seeing that kind of traffic,” she said.
In congested metropolitan areas where highway lanes are reserved exclusively for high-occupancy vehicles, carpooling is more alluring because it can translate into a time savings. But in spread-out suburbia where traffic jams are few and commuters often live a distance apart, carpooling can sometimes add time to the commute.
“If what it means is that I have to drive to your house and this other person’s house before I can get home, then it’s going to cost me time and it might not be worth it to me,” Cotter said.
When parking’s tight or expensive, more workers are inclined to carpool, but that’s not much of an issue either in the Capital Region.
And there’s also the flexibility factor. Carpooling makes it tricky to leave work early or make a stop at the grocery store on the way home.
Safety is another worry.
“There’s a concern that you’re going to be getting into a car with somebody who’s an ax murderer. I hear that all the time,” said Steven Schoeffler, founder of eRideShare.com, a carpooling website used by Capital Region residents.
During the 13 years he has been running the site, Schoeffler said he has never heard of such a horror movie scenario ever actually playing out.
“If somebody’s got a plan to do something awful, there’s got to be easier ways than forming a carpool,” he reasoned.
Even if safety isn’t a concern, the potential weirdness factor involved with riding with a stranger can be.
“It doesn’t have to be scary unpleasant, it could just be ‘unpleasant unpleasant’ — somebody who is totally unfriendly but wants a passenger, or is over friendly,” Cotter explained.
Despite all of the apparent drawbacks, there are people who carpool locally.
Vince Aiken of Schenectady meets Ute Smith of Latham at the New York State Thruway Exit 26 Park ’n’ Ride lot in Glenville to carpool 20-plus miles to the New York State Department of Correctional Services in Johnstown, where they both work. He drives one week, she the next. The two have been sharing the drive for about five years.
Aiken, who has been carpooling for 13 years, said he makes the effort “because it saves money and it’s good companionship. It makes for good camaraderie with your co-workers.”
“With the prices of gas as they are right now, we need to,” Smith added.
Greg Royer of Glenville, an employee of ZeroDraft in Albany, was waiting for his boss at the same Park ’n’ Ride lot on a recent Wednesday morning. The two were carpooling to Connecticut.
Although he usually has the option of driving alone, Royer makes a concerted effort to carpool.
“I think it’s worth it because it cuts down on our overhead [and] in turn we can offer a more cost-effective solution to our customers,” he said.
According to the most recent American Community Survey figures, 8.8 percent of Capital Region residents carpooled in 2010, which was a step down from the national average of 11.2 percent.
To encourage more commuters to ride together, the Office of General Services Bureau of Parking Management in Albany offers discounted parking rates and special parking spots to state workers who share rides. Of the 250 parking places available to car poolers, 133 are currently in use, according to Heather Groll, public information officer for OGS.
The spike in gas prices hasn’t helped to fill additional spaces, she noted.
To further encourage carpooling, OGS offers a Guaranteed Ride Home program, which ensures car poolers up to four free taxi rides home from work annually in an emergency.
iPool2.org, a website run by the Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC), provides a free car pool ride-matching service to Capital Region residents. Car poolers who register at the site are also eligible for the Guaranteed Ride Home program.
CDTC also offers a van pool program to groups of five or more who have the same commute pattern. The commuters split the cost of leasing the van, and all repairs and insurance are included in the price.
Since 1990, CDTC has offered a way for people to advertise for a car pool free of charge. Over the years, the number of car poolers has remained fairly steady, Stacey said, noting that their most successful car poolers are those who travel every day to a destination that many workers travel to, like Wolf Road in Colonie, or downtown Albany.
Capital Region commuters most interested in carpooling are those who have one-way commutes of 25 miles or more, said Stacey, quoting data culled from the committee’s ride-sharing site.
“They’re seeing the miles rack up on their odometer, they’re seeing their tires wear out quicker, they’re seeing their repairs add up, they’re seeing the depreciation of their vehicle,” she explained.