Catching the carpooling opportunity
If just 1% of Victorian cars took a passenger to work, there could be 30,000 fewer trips per day. So why aren’t more people carpooling? Bruce Campbell considers what’s needed.
Have you ever counted the number of cars travelling with only one person in them? Ever counted the number of empty seats in cars at peak hour, compared to the number of empty seats on a peak hour train? I have.
In Victoria there are around 4.9 million empty car seats commuting to and from work each day. Across Australia there are over 19 million empty seats. Imagine if a small percentage of them had someone in them. The empty seats are a free resource that can also help build a more connected and resilient community.
If just an additional 1% of Victorian cars driving to work took a passenger, it could reduce the number of trips by over 30,000 per day. To put that into context, upgrades to Melbourne’s Tullamarine Freeway were forecast to cost $1.4 billion for an extra capacity of 30,000 trips per day.
Although the transport experts will have some fancy formulae, a change in the behaviour of 1% of people driving to work could save more than $1.4 billion. That has got to be worth looking at.
Based on the most recent ABS data, around 7.5% of Australians driving to work take a passenger. In the 1980s it was around 17%. What happened? Lots of us can speculate but there is very little published research on the social changes that have caused this drop. This is a social issue that requires behavioural change that could be addressed similarly to health initiatives such as the anti-smoking or skin cancer reduction campaigns.
Researching the opportunity
There is very little research into carpooling in Australia. Short research papers in 2006 and 2010 were the most informative I found (see Resources, below). Here’s what the research does point to.
The financial benefits of carpooling go to the providers of infrastructure. While there are tremendous social benefits and some cost savings to sharing a drive, the financial benefits to the providers of infrastructure are huge by comparison. A multi-level car park can cost over $50 k per parking space to build, so there’s the potential for a huge saving if fewer cars move more people.
Carpooling has real environmental benefits where there is poor public transport and it replaces others driving. On the other hand, carpooling to CBD areas can displace people using public transport and may increase the number of cars on the road.
Most current carpooling is done by informal arrangements between friends and colleagues, not using an app or online program. Only a very small percentage of the 500,000 Australians who get a lift to work use an app to arrange the trip. Websites and apps only have a significant impact on commuter travel if they are supported by behavioural change programs, usually locally delivered.
Research has shown that formal carpooling systems need a trusted group of 1000 or so potential carpoolers to be successful. A 2004 report notes that, based on employee numbers, less than 0.1% of Victorian companies are large enough to justify a site-based carpooling scheme.
A few carpooling systems based at large employers including universities and hospitals have had success.
Some local councils and state governments have made small investments in carpooling, but there are huge potential benefits that could be derived from a larger investment—however no billion dollar investments or major social change projects are being canvassed.
Finally, providing express car lanes and priority car parking for carpoolers has a positive impact.
What can you do?
- Individually: Give a friend a lift to work, sport or anywhere. Taking kids to sport is an obvious area where carpooling can work and can build strong social connections.
- At work: Hold a morning tea for people interested in carpooling or ask around to find others who are interested. If the workplace provides parking, ask for policies to benefit people who give someone else a lift. At my last workplace there was not enough staff parking to meet demand, so it was shared on a roster system—but if you brought someone else with you, you went to the top of the roster.
- Local council: Review the sustainable transport plan of your local council. Ask them to include getting a lift in carpooling as part of their plan.
- State government: Ask your local member what the state government is doing to support carpooling. In 2009, the Victorian government said it would allocate $6 million to carpooling initiatives, but the money was never spent.