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By connecting riders and drivers online at Facebook, Robin Chase hopes to make carpooling the hip, socially conscious way to get around
Consider this: Nearly 80% of the American workforce drive themselves to work each day. That's nearly 98 million people driving to and from the office every day, according to the latest Transportation Dept. statistics. Multiply that by the five-day work week and that's a lot of car-fueled travel. And that doesn't even account for those who have to drive for personal reasons—to buy food, say. But given current assessments of finite oil and gas reserves, not to mention the impact of private transport on the environment, it seems clear that this situation is not sustainable long-term. What's less clear is a viable alternative.
Not for Robin Chase. The Cambridge (Mass.)-based social entrepreneur and transportation design visionary has a very clear idea of what can be done—now—to make an immense difference, at least within the U.S. And her vision takes on an all-American icon, the car.
Zipcar, Version 2.0
Chase's latest venture, GoLoco.org, is an online service linking the worlds of social networking and transport design, underpinned by an environmentally aware philosophy. Its mission is simple: to connect drivers with passengers and thus instantly cut down the number of cars on the road. Ride-share agreements are made online, as are financial arrangements, thus neatly circumventing any potentially awkward moments between strangers. "I see GoLoco as an immediate solution," says Chase. "It means I don't have to wait for the government to introduce carbon taxes or congestion charges, or put in smart development or light rail or transit. Today, with the infrastructure we have, we can do something which dramatically reduces costs and emissions."
Chase isn't just spewing the latest politically correct green-speak. She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, where she studied transportation design, urban design, and city planning. She serves on the Kyoto Cities Initiative International Advisory Panel, the Boston Mayor's Wireless City Task Force, and she's also the founder and chief executive officer of Meadow Networks, a consulting group that recommends and develops open-source wireless technology applications for the transportation sector.
What's more, this isn't the first time that Chase has put her money where her transportation ideas are. In 2000, she founded the car-sharing service Zipcar. Intended as a practical alternative to car ownership, Zipcar allows members to rent a car for a day, or even an hour. The company now has more than 100,000 regular drivers worldwide, and though Chase left Zipcar in 2003, she retains an undisclosed holding in the company.
The Social Network Connection
Of course, carpooling is not a new idea. Some 9% of commuters operated some kind of carpooling system in 2005, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes are common in certain urban areas, allowing faster passage for those making the most of the space in their car. But consumer-focused ride-sharing businesses have mostly foundered. "Over the past decade I've heard a dozen people invent dynamic ride-sharing in one form or another, but the programs usually die out fairly quickly," says Todd Litman, executive director and chief researcher of Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Canada.
How does Chase plan to get better mileage out of GoLoco? Well, the service is currently available exclusively through an application within Facebook, allowing GoLoco to take advantage of the social network giant's recent expansion to the world beyond college. Matching up with the popular social networking site makes sense. Facebook's primary audience, college students, provides an ideal demographic for ride-sharing—they're young, they care about the cost and environmental impact of transport, and they're already comfortable with the nuances of social networking. For this demographic, it's the obvious alternative to the paper-based college ride board of yore.
"GoLoco may be the one with the legs to keep moving," says Litman. "The technology is finally there—you can count on everyone having Internet access in some form or another—and she's been very clever to use Facebook as the lubricant that will overcome the resistance."
Sounds Like a Nice Ride
Litman is referring to the natural resistance some folks might have to sharing either their car or their journey with a complete stranger. And while GoLoco can't guarantee the upstanding character of all its members, checks and balances are in place to make the system as safe as possible. Each participant must confirm membership (which is free—a 10% transaction fee is added to any agreed ride fare) by phone. Users get to choose privacy settings for their overall Facebook network. And there's obviously no obligation to accept an offer or a request for a ride.
The real beauty and advantage of Facebook, Chase believes, is that it allows users to be connected, however loosely, to an extensive network of nonthreatening strangers. "This young guy I know has 700 friends on Facebook," says Chase. "Now they may not be his real friends, but all those people would ride with him." Signing up to GoLoco also means signing up to Facebook—with one additional step. Members must record a voice clip detailing what they ate for breakfast that day. It's a small thing, but Chase believes it's crucial. "You can tell a lot about a person from their voice," she says. "Our goal is to meet a person's expectations when they're in a car. And a voice clip conjures up a huge amount of mental status, education, and social status in a way you might not glean from text."
Is Chase discouraged by the burned-out wrecks littering the ride-sharing business highway? "I'm not daunted," says Chase, 48, and the mother of three. "I know what they did and I can tell you why they failed. They tried to do things in very low-tech ways with terrible marketing. They never figured out what it is that drives people to want to do something. I know I can get the marketing right—I know how to appeal to the larger America. And I know I can get the technology right."
Building Critical Mass
Facebook, she believes, provides the right technology and platform. As for the marketing, she confesses she "stumbled across" the answer with Zipcar, and plans to continue along the same road with GoLoco: providing honest, positive anecdotes from happy drivers and passengers to set the tone for all other users of the service.
There are clearly still kinks in the GoLoco system: being asked for a cell-phone number immediately after signing up is off-putting when you haven't had a chance to explore the application, and if you're the first to start a network of potential rides, it's hard to see how you'd get others to jump into your carpool.
But it's early days (the service only became available on Facebook in the last weeks), and while Chase refused to share specific numbers, she declares that the pace of uptake is "thrilling." And she's confident the system works. Her immediate challenge is to gain critical mass of uptake so that the venture virtually can run itself. Then she needs to ensure that use of the service becomes second nature for drivers and passengers alike. To that end, a mobile application is already in development.
Share a Car, Get a Halo
"I never drive but the other week I [had to fly] to India," says Chase. "My husband was driving me to the airport, so I posted the trip that morning. Three minutes later I got an e-mail from a friend who lives in my neighborhood who was taking her son to the airport and who wanted a lift. It's not like anyone has the time to call all their friends to tell them where they're going [and see if they might need a lift]. But because I persuaded her to join GoLoco, she knew where I was going."
Zipcar, Chase's earlier venture, is still thriving in many cities, but GoLoco could be the way to reach out to many more people. The problem with Zipcar, Chase acknowledges, is that it doesn't account for the majority of Americans, who don't live in a major urban area and who don't have an alternative when it comes to transport. "Zipcar only works where people don't need cars to get to work—in cities or in university towns with dense populations. The larger percentage of Americans living a car-dependent life are screwed. They have no way to address their CO2 emissions and they have not one wit of choice."
Her dream now is to see a world in which Zipcar and GoLoco provide the bulk of transportation options. Of course, it'll be hard to shake the emotional attachment and associations of car ownership, but Chase is up for the fight. "My goal is to reshape the way people feel about car ownership," she says. "We're going to train people that driving alone should make you feel lonely and pathetic. And that sharing a ride with someone is way more fun, you save money, and you get an environmental halo."
Chase has already earned her halo.
For more on Robin Chase's GoLoco venture, see BusinessWeek's slide show.