California Governor Jerry Brown intervened to stop another BART strike this week, and observers say he’s likely to impose a 60-day cooling-off period on negotiators, meaning Bay Area commuters may not have to worry about transit disruptions again until October. But memories of last month’s 4.5 day strike, which left 200,000 commuters stranded, spurred long lines at buses and ferries, and added an extra 60,000 cars to the roads, are still fresh in people’s minds. And that’s inspiring some employees to find creative ways to get to work.
Mackenzie Vaillencourt, a reverse commuter who lives in the city and used to use BART to get to her job at an insurance company in the East Bay every day, had already found a solution. A few months prior to the July strike, she stumbled upon Carma, a ride-sharing service that allows drivers to connect with commuters in need of a ride in or out of the city. The app makes it easy for the two parties to find each other, and helps offset the costs of commuting for the driver: riders pay 20 cents per mile. Instead of BARTing across the Bay for $10 per day, she found herself riding with some friendly strangers for about $4.16 per ride.
“I was able to get to and from work successfully during the strike,” Vaillencourt says. “Due to the nature of my job, I am unable to work remotely and must be present at the office. Without Carma, I would have not been able to work.”
New transportation services have been popping up everywhere, from crowd-sourced cab services like Lyft and Sidecar, to FlightCar’s airport-based car sharing, to corporate buses from RidePal, to the black cars of Uber. But Carma is different, says Paul Steinberg, who is director for the Americas at Avego, the Cork, Ireland-based startup behind the service. It’s not about making money for drivers. “Even if you put five people in the car, you’re not going to make more than it costs to operate your vehicle,” he says. “You’re not going to make any profit here. It’s the right thing to do. If you give someone a ride today, someone will be giving a ride.”
The other bonus: drivers who pick up some spare passengers can ride in coveted carpool lanes, shaving time—and gas money—off of their commutes.
Because drivers aren’t making money, they also don’t have to worry about things like paying taxes or special licensing, DMV checks, or insurance. They’re just regular drivers, giving a ride.
Carma riders and drivers can meet up at designated casual carpool stops, or they can connect through the app and get picked up or dropped off at home or work. They can commit to a regular route with someone in the neighborhood if they want to, or they can be more flexible and figure out new options every day, based on whether they need to run errands or work late, or just want a change of pace. It’s a tech approach to the casual carpooling phenomenon that’s a normal part of every day commuting life in places like the Bay Area and Washington, DC.
“We’re taking the organic approach and adding technology and social media to move it somewhere else,” Steinberg says. “You don’t have to stand on the corner; instead you can book in advance and know who you’re riding with.”
Knowing who you’ll be riding with can also help assuage some safety fears. Though, Steinberg notes, there has only been one casual carpool-related crime in the Bay Area in the last 20 years, it’s important for riders to take precautions, and Carma makes sure riders know who is in the car with them. Smart phone users can bump their phones together to authenticate; flip phone users can do it via SMS with a pin number. (Passengers can access the site via computer, so a smart phone isn’t required.) Carma drivers can also associate themselves with a group—-for example, Steinberg has a group from his daughter’s Girl Scout troop that can ping him for rides. But, he notes, “If you look at the passenger and are uncomfortable, you should just pass.”
Unlike Lyft and Uber, Carma isn’t just about just getting across Oakland or San Francisco. The service is aimed at helping commuters find rides and riders, shortening commute times, easing rush hour congestion and cutting down on carbon emissions.
Avego is more interested in providing a service than making money, according to Steinberg. Managing director Sean O’Sullivan (the Irish equivalent of a CEO) made his money in desktop mapping software, then moved into more humanitarian efforts. “He’s close to being a billionaire, but he’s the kind of person who still uses public transit,” Steinberg says. And as he used it, he grew frustrated watching cars with empty seats fly by while he waited for a bus to show up. “If you just knew where they were going, you could probably hop a ride instead of waiting 30-40 minutes for a bus,” he says. “We have plenty of empty seats on the highway, but no easy way to know where neighbors are going to ask them for a ride”—until now.
Carma is available in the Bay Area; Santa Barbara, CA; and Austin, TX. It’s also used by military personnel in Washington, DC. Avego has also been working with local, state and federal government to put programs together to make it easier for commuters in its markets. For example, some counties in the Bay Area have designated carpool parking at BART stations to set aside coveted spots until 10 am. During the last strike, Carma ran buses and vans in addition to regular carpooling to help people get into the city.
If there’s no cooling-off period and a strike does occur next week, the company plans to hand out $25 vouchers to help cover parking to anyone who stops at one of the designated carpool pickups.
For commuters, it’s been a big help to get to work, and for Vaillencourt, there’s been an added bonus. “The added pressure of other drivers/riders timetable helps me get out of bed in the morning and not hit the snooze button,” she says.
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