For decades after World War II, the carpool to work was a daily ritual for millions of Americans, mostly suburban (and, in those days, mostly male). Through the 1960s and into the mid-1970s, one in five workers carpooled to their jobs.
How times have changed.
Most suburban and even many urban households now have at least two cars. Today, fewer than one in 10 commuters nationwide shares a ride. The overwhelming majority of Americans -- 77 percent -- drive to work alone.
But the news on the ride-sharing front isn't all discouraging. Despite the 30-year decline in carpooling rates, several factors -- new technologies enabling real-time ride-matching, changing attitudes toward car ownership, the growth of the sharing economy, and an increasing number of managed lanes that provide incentives for carpooling -- offer significant opportunities to revive ride-sharing.
The beauty of ride-sharing lies in the fact that it taps into an abundant yet underutilized resource: the empty seats in cars. These empty seats represent a huge amount of waste in our transportation system but potentially a huge opportunity for improvement.
What is the potential impact from reducing this waste? Deloitte used geospatial analysis of demographic data to calculate the number of likely ride-match pairs within each census tract who live within one mile of one another, leave for work at the same time in the morning and travel to the same workplace tract. Based on our analysis, we estimate that almost 19 million commuters in metro areas across America could switch from driving to ride-sharing if current barriers were eliminated.
This switch -- admittedly representing a best-case scenario that would take years to be fully realized -- could have enormous societal benefits: We project the maximum potential savings from increased ride-sharing at more than $30 billion annually. These savings would accrue from several sources: $15.8 billion in direct annual savings to new carpoolers due to reduced vehicle upkeep, $11.6 billion in indirect savings from lowered congestion costs, and $1.8 billion in reduced annual road-infrastructure costs. Furthermore, traffic-related accidents could fall by 22,915 annually, yielding $847 million in annual savings, while carbon dioxide emissions would fall by 9.1 million metric tons a year, producing societal savings of $338 million.
So how could ride-sharing's potential be maximized? The following strategies could help to spur carpooling's resurgence:
These strategies are relatively cheap compared to major infrastructure changes and are likely to offer a significant return on investment for state and local transportation systems. There's a lot of value in all those empty car seats.
This column was orignally published by Governing.