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Can carpooling become an alternative?

Since the first Model T rolled off the production line in 1908, the car has been the habitat of a solitary creature. The idea Ford marketed so successfully was personal ownership.

Since the first Model T rolled off the production line in 1908, the car has been the habitat of a solitary creature. The idea Ford marketed so successfully was personal ownership. The attitude of “this is my car and I’ll do what I want with it” was positively encouraged.

This vision of the car still dominates. If I say, “car commercial,” the image entering your head is more likely to be a solitary male driving serenely through the mountains than four tired government workers stuck behind a bus at Bank and Slater. If you drive to work in Ottawa — especially during the transit strike — you’re going to experience a hell of a lot of traffic. Yet the car’s appeal as an instrument of freedom endures.

During the transit strike, however, the city has asked drivers to be more socially conscious and share cars. Carpooling and ridesharing are new terms to many people. But the idea has been around longer than you might think. During the Second World War, the United States government tried to reduce gas consumption with a poster stating, “When you ride alone you ride with Hitler. Join a car-sharing club today.”

The practice was again promoted during the energy crisis of the 1970s. More recently, many congested cities (including Ottawa) have encouraged carpooling by opening up high occupancy vehicle lanes for cars holding three or more people.

The foundation of carpooling is trust. You need to know your ride will be on time, and it will be safe. Until now, it’s mostly been used by younger people who aren’t afraid to arrange rides with strangers on the Internet.

Carpooling is also one issue environmentalists and city authorities agree on. But despite the attention it has received, carpooling during the strike has had mixed results. The high occupancy vehicle lane on Portage Bridge isn’t used as much as it really ought to be. But it’s not much of an incentive to share when, once you’ve crossed the river, you must merge back into the rest of the traffic on the other side.

Sure, the kindness of friends and strangers has helped many people attend work, exams or hospital appointments. But I’ve met many people who have been let down.

It would be great if carpooling could become a serious transit alternative. But for the 100 years since the Model T, people have held onto the idea a car belongs to them and them alone. Old habits die hard. I’m not holding my breath for the day drivers, en masse, change their behaviour.

 
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