Today, when most Americans hear “ridesharing,” they think of services like Uber and Lyft, two extremely popular apps that allow users to hail what amounts to a private taxi — a driver using her own car who shows up, takes her passenger wherever requested, and gets paid through the service that operates the app based on the time of day, miles and other factors. However, that’s not what the rest of the world thinks of when it hears the term, and until pretty recently, it wasn’t even the American norm. Ridesharing also means literally sharing a ride — a driver going somewhere who allows someone to hop in, splitting the cost of gas money and incidentals but not actually making a profit or going off-route to give someone a ride.
It’s something that helps keep cars off the road, which reduces congestion in crowded urban areas and cuts down on emissions — with fewer cars out and about, there are fewer polluters. While many U.S. cities have spent years promoting carpooling practices through dedicated carpooling lanes, sponsored carpooling services and organized carpooling groups (including those set up within individual offices), the rise of app culture created an ideal in, because it allowed people to quickly communicate to offer and find rideshares. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it worked out in the U.S., where venture capitalists tend to drive app development and they wanted proof of concept, including proof that companies could generate money by building technologies to help people connect cars, drivers and passengers. Thus, paid services arose.
But overseas, ridesharing still looks like it used to. It’s a step up from hitchhiking, because passengers don’t have to stand vainly by the side of the road and hope they can find someone who will carrier them closer to their final destination. It’s definitely better than posting on a ridesharing board at the local coffeehouse, and it’s more efficient than using sites like Craigslist, which offer their own ridesharing boards. People looking to get from point A to point B can download an app like BlaBlaCar to find a driver with an empty seat who wants help with gas money or just some company for a potentially long ride. Such applications have clear environmental benefits, of course, but they also offer a more intangible social one, because spending time with other humans can create a sense of community and common interest, something that doesn’t happen when driving alone. This particular service gets a small percentage on each ride, and drivers may make a bit of money, but the incentive isn’t to pick up fares, like it is with Uber and its ilk.
Some are asking why the U.S. doesn’t have a good ridesharing app, considering the robust tech community and the common appearance of apps and other tools designed for social good. It’s a legitimate question, and one that may be explained by the stranglehold currently held by Uber, which controls a considerable sector of the private ridesharing market. In order to compete, a service can’t just offer trusted features like identity verification and screening. It has to achieve the same name recognition, beating out Uber’s extensive and comprehensive media campaigns to appeal to potential consumers. The best way to do that may be to promote the social good aspect of such applications — sharing rides for a good cause may appeal to those who want to travel as ethically as possible.
These services are also primarily geared towards distance travelers, and might make significant inroads by targeting markets like the Bay Area, where the commute is brutal because public transit doesn’t always mesh with the needs of people trying to cross the Bay or travel down the Peninsula to get to work. Other urban areas in the U.S. have similar problems — and since Americans have come to rely heavily on apps, promoting the use of social ridesharing could help people network with each other to ride to and from work on a regular basis when they might not use a more traditional carpooling service. For companies designing these apps, that’s a clear target market, but it’s one that should be backed by cities and transportation officials as well, because congestion is a huge and growing problem in most major metropolitan areas in the United States, and while improving public transit and eradicating cars altogether should be ongoing goals, cutting down the car population with ridesharing is a good way to start, and one that will encourage people to use such services more broadly — no more solo cross-country road trips, no matter how iconic they are in the American cultural landscape.
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