High-Tech Hitch-Hiking

High-Tech Hitch-Hiking

Several new companies are working to turn an age-old phenomenon into a hip, attractive way to green up the country's commutes.

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a series of columns that Alan Durning, executive director of Seattle-based Sightline Institute, is writing about living car-free with his family. Read the whole series at http://www.sightline.org/carless.

"Don't you college boys know? People don't like hitch-hikers no more." That's what the state trooper told us --- my friend John and me --- 25 years ago. We were standing in the rain, on the edge of an Ohio highway, our thumbs half extended, bedraggled from a sleepless night and unseasonably cold temperatures. Twelve hours earlier we "college boys" certainly had not known, but we had caught on in the meantime. For lack of rides, our planned hitch-hiking road trip to see America was going nowhere.

For most generations of North Americans before my own, thumbing rides was routine, even a rite of passage. Today--outside of a few islands and national parks--the United States and Canada have become virtual no-hitch zones. But the confluence of expensive fuel, climate-conscious entrepreneurs, and cell-phone text messaging may soon reintroduce hitchhiking --- redubbed real-time ride-sharing --- to the transportation scene. In fact, the start-up company Goose Networks (as in, "flocking together") is already executing instant matches between would-be riders and driving commuters five days a week in Seattle.

Why is this important?

From a community-wide perspective, high-tech hitch-hiking would conserve a lot of resources. The more that people share rides, the fewer moving vehicles are required in our cities. And the fewer vehicles, the less fuel gets burned, the fewer collisions happen, and the less congestion strikes our streets.

At the same time, ride-sharing could be a gusher of profits, because it taps radically underutilized assets. The typical moving car in the Pacific Northwest has a driver and no passengers: it has four or more spare seats. (If you doubt this, do a quick visual census on the roads. Seeing even two people in a car is unusual.)

So, if someone can figure out how to broker the rental of some of those unused seats, she or he will be rich, and the driver and rider will save money by the oil barrel.

Up to now, the biggest obstacle to such a market has been information. How can drivers and riders find each other? How can they know whether to trust each other? How can they ensure payment?

That's where the Seattle start-up Goose Networks comes in. Goose has built a real-time ridesharing system that links riders with drivers by combining text-messaging mobile phones, mapping software, a clever database, and a billing system for splitting the cost of fuel.

Some 200 Microsoft employees who live in central Seattle are currently testing the system. Here's how it works: a Goose member sends a text message about her impending departure and location to the central computer, which instantly looks for matches with others going the same way. The service is free for both rider and driver (except for the cost of the text message). Goose's costs are paid by the employer. (The phone company also makes money on the text messaging. In fact, cell phone companies might do well to underwrite digital hitchhiking just for the texting it generates.)

At some time in the future, Goose Networks believes it can move beyond commute trips, once text-hikers are commonplace and text-hiking is ubiquitous. For now, though, Goose's whole business plan pivots on employers and commuters.

The company aims to grow by adding one large employer after another, capitalizing on the trust among these firms' employees; their similar commute schedules; and these firms' obligation under state laws in California, Oregon, and Washington to plan for reduced solo-driving commuters. (Compared to the cost of vanpools, employee transit passes, and showering facilities for cyclists, paying for a corporate Goose program is likely to be a good deal.)

Goose is not the first to pursue the ride-matching grail, but its chances seem better than its predecessors. The advent of text messaging on most cell phones makes Goose a much simpler proposition than earlier ride matching systems that relied on email. Also, "slugging," or casual carpooling, has begun to take off, which adds to the cultural currency.

At the transit center closest to Microsoft's main campus, for example, Microsoft employees have begun to station themselves on the westbound ramp toward Seattle and display their employee badges. Other Microsoft employees happily pick them up, to gain access to an HOV lane that can shave 45 minutes off their commute.

Slugging is widespread and officially sanctioned on a key bridges and highway corridors in suburban Virginia and in the Bay Area. And it was commonplace early in the automotive age. In Seattle, for example, Model T drivers picked up riders at streetcar stops for a nickel a ride. Before street-car companies convinced cities to ban the practice in favor of regulated taxis, this informal pay-carpool system moved some 50,000 riders a day in Seattle.

The chances for a rebirth of hitching also seem riper given the growing sophistication of conventional, public-supported carpooling programs. Most U.S. counties and Canadian metropolitan areas have online ride-matching services. (Here are typical ones in the United States and Canada.) For example, Washington's state rideshare website offers to suggest carpools not only for recurring commute trips but also to concerts, sporting events, and ski areas. CarpoolCrew offers to match riders based on their favorite radio stations. And Nuride awards drivers and riders points that accrue toward gift cards and other corporate rewards.

A technology trend that may accelerate the rebirth of hitching is the continuous satellite monitoring of GPS-equipped vehicles. For example, Google's Ride Finder gives moment-by-moment locations for taxis and airport shuttles in several cities.

So whether or not Goose Networks itself hits the jackpot, high-tech hitch-hiking seems likely to catch on before long. How big it ultimately becomes is unpredictable. Might goosing ultimately become as commonplace as "pay hitch-hiking" is in Moscow? There, a well-established black market system of thumbing rides in exchange for money provides a transport network parallel to, and almost as large as, the official public transit system. In fact, Goose CEO and co-founder Nicholas Shiften's experience with this ride-sharing system in Moscow was one of the inspirations for his new company. In Moscow, Nicholas realized, "at the right price, every car is a taxi."

How big high-tech hitch-hiking ultimately grows probably depends on three things.
  1. How averse North Americans are to sharing their cars with strangers. Would you use a Goose-like system to get or give rides? In what circumstances? Compared to old-fashioned hitch-hiking, text-hiking seems vastly safer: you're not riding with an anonymous stranger but with someone whose identity and whereabouts is on record. Would that make you feel safe enough or not?
  2. Public policy about things like fuel taxes, climate protection, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes (which encourage drivers to pick up riders). How high would fuel or carbon taxes have to be before your Hummer-driving uncle would start "texting" for rides (or riders)?
  3. Perhaps most importantly, whether the taxi industry sees text-hiking as a competitor or a compliment to cabs.
Throughout the Northwest, private car owners are prohibited by law from selling rides: that's operating a taxi without a license. They're allowed to run carpools, but they're only allowed to recoup a share of the costs of fuel and operation.

If the taxi lobby wanted to, it could make life miserable, and possibly short, for text-hitching. I hope it won't, not only for my sake but for the taxi business itself. Opposing text-hiking would be short-sighted for taxi companies because ubiquitous text-hiking would help to shift the transportation market from one in which consumers buy their transportation by the vehicle to one in which consumers buy their transportation by the trip.

Taxis would thrive in cities of one- and no-car households that choose from a menu of options: driving, busing, cycling, walking, taking a Flexcar, car-hopping, text-hiking, and taxi-ing. Even today, the world's best taxi cities are the least auto-dependent. Think of Manhattan.

Twenty-five years ago, as my friend John and I learned, people didn't "like hitchhikers no more." They still don't. But the turn against hitching may be destined to reverse itself, and that's very good news for North Americans. Alan Durning is the founder and executive director of Sightline Institute (www.sightline.org), formerly Northwest Environment Watch, a Seattle-based nonprofit think tank whose mission is to bring about sustainability -- a healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in place.