Cash for Culture Change: Could it Be?

What if everyone traveling along major highways this holiday season found another person with a similar trip to ride with, rather than simply hopping into their car alone—adding to traffic and greater air pollution? Those travelers could spend their weekends shopping away and eating extravagant feasts, but if they all successfully carpooled I would still call it a cultural transformation.

Shifting lanes & cultures

Shifting lanes & cultures

Businesses and government programs are cropping up all around this topic. Groups like Zimride and Trip Convergence are fueling the growth in carpooling with the power of online social networks. Washington D.C. ‘s own Commuter Connections program has recently launched on a program called “Cash for Carpools” that pays folks who usually commute alone on the highway to either join another car or recruit passengers of their own. The payment is two dollars a day over a 90-day period, giving carpoolers the chance to earn up to $130 over three months.

That doesn’t sound like much to me, but apparently this model has already been hugely successful elsewhere. An NPR feature on carpooling this week detailed the cash for carpools program in Atlanta, in place since 2002. Since its launch, 19,000 Atlantans have signed up to carpool to work and those that have stuck with the program no longer need payment for their gas, money, and climate-saving deed.

A carpooling pair interviewed about the program cited the huge benefit of having company in the car during long and frustrating commutes—it makes the time pass faster. “Some days we get into a conversation and go ‘oh, we’re here already—great!’” they mentioned.

The Washington D.C. program has a meager goal of getting 750 carpools signed up for their program and the resulting impact may be just as skimpy. However, the concept could be a significant cultural nudge in the right direction. Carpooling is an activity that can make life more enjoyable, foster community, and reduce pollution. If more people were to taste these benefits they might not only change their own ways but also become advocates of change to friends and family, eventually taking the burden off the city to advertise and pay for citizens to carpool.

Peter Newman, professor at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Perth, Australia studied Perth’s TravelSmart program to reduce car traffic in the city.  Summing up the program’s success in his State of the World article entitled “Building the Cities of the Future” he says.

When people start to change their lifestyles and can see the benefits, they become advocates of sustainable transport policies in general. Governments find it easier to manage the politics of transformation to reduced car use and lower oil use when the communities they are serving have begun to change themselves.

The same goes for Cash for Carpooling in DC, yet the city remains far from achieving a culture of sustainability. As Newman says about TravelSmart, “This is not a revolution, but it has many synergistic positive outcomes.”

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