You know what a "California carpool" is? It's when everyone gets into separate cars and drives to the same place.
Any New Yorker, recently transplanted from a subway culture into Los Angeles' car culture, almost immediately begins to feel the drain on her pocketbook -- car, insurance, gas, incidentals -- and on the environment. With every pump of gas, or whiff of the filling-station odor, you see Mother Nature shaking her head in disapproval. If only there were a way to find someone else who's going where you're going, when you're going there.
Enter HitchARideNow.com, a website designed to provide virtual hitchhikers with actual rides to real places. The site's in beta -- it doesn't currently seem that any rides have been matched with riders -- but more than 100 people, a majority of them from California (mostly in the Central Valley and L.A. area), have signed up, indicating a willingness to share a ride and save both cash and the environment.
"The idea started as gas prices were climbing," says site co-founder Roger Flud, who works as a registered home-visiting nurse by day. "I was driving home-to-home all day in my car, and sitting in traffic and other people are also sitting with one person in the car. I'm crisscrossing town and other people are doing the same thing … how can we get people to link up and save on fuel? There's a financial aspect, and environmentally it makes sense, too."
Hitching a ride online attracts the same people it attracts offline, Flud notes; the site's registered users are either "free-spirited and out for a good time, traveling and enjoying life, or serious people commuting from one place of business to another." Flud sees the service as being particularly valuable to people in the latter category, who could use the site to identify other people employed by the same company, and would feel more comfortable and secure commuting with someone who's traveling to the same place. As a nurse who does house calls, Flud also indicates that the elderly as another population that would benefit.
The registration process involves more than just a name and a ZIP code; the site guides registrants through a lot of questions on sign-up that, ideally, create a profile for every driver and ride-seeker, complete with ebay-seller type feedback about past rides taken. "Some people want company; some want to share the gas expense. People who wanted to save the environment or money could find someone they wanted to ride along with. If you could find someone with similar interests, the same hobbies, you'll feel more comfortable in linking up and taking a ride with that person," Flud says.
Co-founder Steven Jones, who is responsible for the site's functionality, is working to link up the profiles and rides with ZIP codes and a Google Maps interface, to make hitching a ride online much easier, no matter what the individual's motivation. Another step will concentrate on developing an active user base in one geographic area to see if the rides are happening.
Because the site is free, there's no way to guarantee that people leave feedback about their riding experience, and so far -- either because they haven't taken rides or because they're too busy to write up the experience -- they haven't. "Interest is gradually building as the word gets out there," Flud says. "My hope is that at some point there's a large enough user base that people are able to find rides. We wanted to create it to be a social network; it puts a face on it if you know a little bit about who that person is -- we don't recommend just jumping in a car; it takes common sense. Get a phone number and talk to the person first."
If hitcharidenow.com has 38 states represented, why aren't there more matches resulting in glowing feedback, or for that matter, any feedback at all? This could be the manifestation of user concerns about safety, or general social anxieties about sharing close quarters with a virtual stranger. Or maybe it's just a numbers game: In this crazy world, not everyone is going your way. But leave it to tomorrow's Internet sites to attempt to bring you companions that will be more compatible during the ride.