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Don’t Let a Good Seat Go to Waste

Many sustainability officers are accustomed to thinking about waste in physical terms: something tangible that takes up space and must be hauled away. But oftentimes the most pernicious forms of waste are those we don’t even recognize.  

The inefficiency of our transportation system represents one of the most difficult challenges we face for precisely this reason. If one wanted to design the most wasteful transit system possible, they could hardly do better than our current model. Every day, millions of Americans spend an average of 50 minutes driving alone in a 5 or 7 seat automobile to and from their workplace. In suburban areas, 81.5% of commuters drive to work alone.

Every commuter driving alone spends an average of $0.21 per mile in gas and maintenance. That translates to $6.30 in expenses per day for the average commute, or $126 per month. For four commuters in single occupancy vehicles (SOVs) that’s a total of $378 per month and $4,536 per year, excluding additional potential costs for parking and tolls.

Once those four drivers arrive at work, they each require their own parking space. Although parking may be free to the employee, the cost of building and maintaining that space must be borne by someone, usually the employer. Employers spend an average of $1,776 per parking space. Our four drivers can save their employer $5,328 a year by carpooling.

Though they may not be commuting via toll roads or bridges, the wear-and-tear their vehicles inflict on our transportation infrastructure is a cost we all must bear, if not through tolls then through higher taxes. We also bear the costs of the additional environmental degradation and respiratory illnesses. In a city like San Francisco, this can translate to external costs of $3,627 per year per car.

The result is that our four SOVs are generating quadruple the waste they could be: quadruple the gas and maintenance expenses for themselves, quadruple the parking costs borne by their employer, and quadruple the societal costs to maintain and repair our roads and environment.

This is unnecessary. There are perfectly valid reasons for why our system has evolved the way it has. After all, individual car ownership is certainly more flexible. Low gas prices made operating costs relatively easy to bear. In the US, land use cost for parking has been relatively cheap. And finding other people with whom to carpool (who live nearby and have similar travel schedules) has always been challenging.

But new technologies, particularly in social networking and smart phone apps, have significantly lowered the barriers to finding appropriate carpooling partners at the same time the costs to individual car ownership are rising.

Sites like Amovens and others make use of these advances to help commuters monetize one of their most valuable unused assets: the empty space in their cars. By letting users “sell” their empty seats, Amovens and other ridesharing websites encourage users to reduce waste in our transportation system by giving them the tools to reduce their own expenses by sharing their resources in a collaborative way. Smartphone tools, such as our iPhone app, let users change their plans on the go and find new rideshare partners when needed. 

Corporations, meanwhile, can reduce and measure their Scope 3 emissions by implementing employee ridesharing programs. In fact, employer-sponsored programs are some of the most effective carpooling programs in existence.

Our current transportation habits evolved to maximize flexibility, rather than efficiency. However, recent technological advances are making it increasingly possible to have both.  

Jef is the Director of Amovens USA, an internet startup dedicated to promoting carpooling through social networking technology. A former journalist, he has reported on subjects including science, medicine, environment issues, and the financial world. [Read more about Jef Cozza]

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