That's a queue for car pooling, not transit. Every day 10,000 commuters in the Washington DC area car pool (source: Pacific Standard)

According to a report in The Age yesterday, City roads crowded with solo drivers, the Victorian government has “reprioritised” $5.4 million originally earmarked for setting up 110 car pooling schemes. (fn 1)

That’s a pity in a city where around 85% of motorised work trips are made by cars and average occupancy is 1.2 and falling. Spending a minor sum to promote higher occupancies seems like it would be worth doing.

Although the contribution of car pooling is likely to be small, the benefit-cost ratio for these sorts of low-cost interventions is frequently remarkably high (a key reason, I suspect, is first-wave programs harvest the very lowest-hanging fruit).

Just as public transport is much more efficient in terms of cost and environmental impact in peak periods when load factors are high, so cars would perform much better if they carried more passengers.

When I was an undergraduate at UQ back in the day, hitch-hiking to and from the university was commonplace and unremarkable. There were informal but established “hitching” posts at the edge of campus and at key suburban activity centres.

I’d be surprised if it’s still as common. Nowadays we’re more conscious of personal safey, cars are much cheaper to buy, public transport’s better, and authorities worry about the potential for accidents (and legal problems) at pick-up and drop-off points.

Car pooling is more common in the US than Australia. This article, Slugging – the people’s transit, reports on a long-standing car pool in Arlington, Virginia, which sprang up spontaneously without government or institutional support.

Researchers asked 284 Arlington sluggers (a slang term for those who accept an offer of a ride) what they like least about slugging:

Only 31 people mentioned “riding with strangers.” In the three-decade history of the activity, there has not been a single known incidence of violence or crime. When safety was cited as a concern, slugs worried about safe drivers, not personal attacks.

There are another 13 pools in Arlington and neighbouring DC that also sprang up without external organisation, according to the article.

A number of factors create a favourable climate for slugging/car pooling. The key one is there has to be an incentive strong enough to make relative strangers share a vehicle with each other.

In the US, that incentive is provided by High Occupancy and Tolled (HOT) lanes on freeways. They provide the option of a significantly faster journey on congested freeways.

Drivers pay a hefty toll to use the HOT lane. However if they have a minimum number of passengers, they can use it for no charge.

The toll is high enough to give drivers the motivation to pick up sluggers. But no money changes hands – the saving in journey time is sufficient incentive for both drivers and passengers to participate.

Car pooling is also likely to be more attractive if jobs are concentrated in a large centre or institution with good freeway access.

A number of US cities have organically spawned large car-based “edge cities” like Tyson’s Corner located at the junctions of freeways.

According to the man who coined the term, Joel Garreau, edge cities have at least 465,000 sq m of office space and 65,000 sq m of retail space.

Tysons corner has 4.3 million sq m of office and retail floor space. As a point of comparison, Sydney’s Chatswood has 266,000 sq m of office space.

Another helpful factor is a common interest. People who work or study at the same place – like a university or large corporate or government office – have something in common.

It can engender a degree of trust between travellers. It also means large employers can organise a car pool for their staff.

Poor public transport also makes car pooling a more attractive alternative. I expect the kind of people who’re sluggers in Arlington are also the kind of people who’d travel by public transport if it were available.

In Australia, I’m aware of a car pooling program organised by World Vision for the 500 employees at its suburban Melbourne head office. It reduced the number of staff driving alone from 65% to 58% through a TravelSmart program conducted in partnership with local and state governments. (Fn 2)

Cars will continue to have the lion’s share of travel in Australian cities for decades yet, so improving their efficiency should be a no-brainer.

Car pooling should be part of that push, but I don’t want to over-promote its potential. It seems to require an uncommon combination of special conditions to work really well.

It’s not likely to make a big difference in Australian cities and is certainly not a substitute for better public transport. For one thing, we don’t have as many large firms in the suburbs as US cities do.

However the set-up costs of car pooling are low and it can provide benefits at the margin. Employer-organised schemes are likely to offer more potential than the US slugging model.

It’s certainly seems worth spending $5.4 million to set up 110 schemes (I assume they’re pilots). HOT lanes on freeways would be a smart idea in Australian cities for other reasons, but they’d likely make car pooling a more attractive option too.

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(fn 1) Curiously, although The Age’s report leads with the car pooling angle in the first three sentences, it goes on to talk about congestion and doesn’t mention car pooling again. Nor is there a quote on the subject from the Minister, from VicRoads, or from any other interested groups like the RACV.
(fn 2) World Vision had even greater success with encouraging staff to walk, cycle or use public transport – the number of staff who drove to work fell from 88% to 69%. Of course if you work for World Vision it’s likely you’ll make a greater effort to support more sustainable transport than the average employee.