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Car-Pooling Makes a Surge on Apps and Social Media

The annual ritual of piling into the car for the great American summer road trip has a new twist as more travelers are inviting strangers along for part of the ride.

Jupiter Images | Workbook Stock | Getty Images

Long-distance travelers as well as commuters are connecting on sites like Zimride.com, Ridejoy.com, Avego.com, Nuride.com, Rideshare.com and eRideShare.com.

This summer, a German company with a quintessential American name, Carpooling.com, will try to break into the United States market with a trial run in the Northeast. In June, the company announced that 30 million rides had been offered through its 10-year-old network, which now has 3.8 million registered users.

Ride-sharing and car-pooling, it seems, are having a moment in the United States after many fits and starts.

“It’s been a tough sell in the U.S. for a long time,” said David Burwell, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “A lot is due to not only the fact that people have different places they want to go, but also safety and other concerns about going into a car with strangers.”

What is different now, Mr. Burwell said, is the advancement of digital technology and social networking, “which removed a significant amount of barriers.”

To that end, eRideShare, which was started in 1999, is testing a mobile app this week for iPhone and Android phones. “I see a lot of new entrants this year” as well as new technology, said its founder, Steven Schoeffler. “I think it will be a very interesting time for ride-sharing.”

The sites vary in the process of matching drivers with passengers, security protocols and how payment is calculated and made. Some sites allow participants to settle on the cost of a ride; others charge by mile traveled. The profit-making sites take a percentage of the fee charged to riders, but it’s free to sign up for the service.

Proponents of ride-sharing say that, by design, it is an effective way to reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emission, as well as to save money on gasoline and car maintenance.

America’s love affair with cars is not fading into the sunset anytime soon. By Sunday, 42.3 million Americans will have journeyed 50 miles or more from home during the weekend after the Fourth of July, according to AAA estimates. That is up 5 percent from last summer.

On any workday, however, most drivers are riding solo. The percentage of people car-pooling has hovered near 10 percent for several years, according to Census survey data. About 5 percent of commuters use public transportation, and 76 percent drive alone.

“The reality is, we do it because it happens to be the most convenient best option for us,” said Paul Steinberg, director of Americas at Avego, a multinational transportation company that is conducting several real-time ride-sharing tests in the United States.

“We are trying to convince 85 percent of the population to give up their car — not every day, but a couple of days a month — and pick up someone or share a ride,” Mr. Steinberg said. “It’s a big challenge; it’s harder in the U.S. than other geographies.” American culture is partly the reason, he said, as is sprawl and subsidized gasoline.

In Sonoma County, Calif., Avego is helping to run a private-public nonprofit program called WeGoRideShare.com. Two testers, Monika Loose and Cyndi Mills, employees of the Sonoma County government, found each other through a ride board on the Web site and have recently shared rides a few times a week.

Ms. Loose is a passenger and helps pay for gas. She drives from her home to a nearby Park and Ride lot, where Ms. Mills picks her up. Together, they can ride in the high-occupancy vehicle lane, which reduces their commute time.

“For me,” Ms. Loose said, “I’m not an everyday car pooler, maybe three days a week. I like to have my car other days to do other errands.”

That also works for Ms. Mills, who says the few days add up and help defray her monthly gas costs. Because she is often transporting her children, she said, “I don’t want people dependent on me every day.”

Tara Weingarten, founder of the automotive site vroomgirls.com, said ride-sharing could work regionally for some commuters but faced resistance in car-centric places like Southern California, “where drivers are used to being cocooned in their private auto bubbles padded with comfy seats, satellite radio, climate control and privacy, where they don’t have to make chitchat if they’re not in the mood.”

Even so, companies that promote the exchange of rides are joining a wave of so-called collaborative consumption sites that use social networks to build communities like Airbnb.com, for finding a place to stay,Swap.com, for exchanging goods, andTaskRabbit.com, for outsourcing tasks and errands.

On Zimride, in the days leading to July 4, the owner of a 2009 Ford Focus in Pullman, Wash., was seeking passengers for a round trip to Rochester, Wash., for Independence Day. The driver had three seats available at $25 apiece each way.

A would-be passenger on Ridejoy, another ride-sharing and car-pooling site, requested two seats traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Monday “to visit relatives and surf!”

“We want a better alternative than the Greyhound (it takes 10 hours),” the rider posted. “We will help with gas and we would love to hang out, get brunch/drinks/and kick it if you perhaps know the cities (either of them) well.”

Next week, Ridejoy plans to introduce digital identification verification and background checks to its other safety mechanisms, which include Facebook integration, user reviews and references, plus a safety checklist sent to users. Kalvin Wang, a founder, said, “We understand that there may be people who love the concept of ride share, but are still on the fence due to safety concerns.”

Those willing to experiment have found that ride-sharing in 2012 — driven by technology and enabled by social media — is a far cry from the somewhat risky hitchhiking phenomenon of decades past.

Consider music festivals, for example. A generation or so ago, rides were given and received spontaneously along the way.

In the age of Facebook the connections are made in advance, with built-in safeguards.

Tyler Hall, 23, of Brooklyn said he used Zimride in June to find three passengers when he drove from his parents’ house in North Carolina to the Bonnaroo music and arts festival in Manchester, Tenn. “It did not seem as sketchy as it sounded in concept,” he said. “It totally covered my gas. I was a chauffeur with no overhead.”

For the same festival, Vanessa Coletto, 22, who is completing a summer internship in Knoxville, used Zimride to find a ride and a campmate. The site requires users to log in using Facebook, which she said inspired confidence “to see that someone is who they say they are.”

Zimride, which has more than 350,000 users, is testing a mobile app called Lyft for “real time and intracity ridesharing” in San Francisco.

John Zimmer, a founder, said his site was part of a movement of services “taking online social networks offline,” meaning people who connect on social networks ultimately meet in person.

Carpooling.com hopes social networks will help ease its entry into the stubborn United States market. “If car-pooling is done right,” said its chief executive, Markus Barnikel, “you’ll likely have a better sense of the person driving a ride-share vehicle than you do a bus or taxi driver, and can even forge a relationship with them.”

Responding to a Silicon Valley blog that issued a call this year to build a future without cars, Mr. Barnikel wrote on GreenBiz.com that one way to change how cars are viewed is through ride-sharing. “If Americans could arrange ride sharing as easily as they could check e-mail or Facebook,” he offered, “you might see a shift.”

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