Suddenly, Sharing a Ride Looks Good

Published: August 22, 2008 (http://www.nytimes.com)

South Farmingdale

Phil Marino for The New York Times – ROAD BUDDIES Randi Mitzner, left, commutes with Charlene Middleton.


RANDI MITZNER watched in alarm as the cost of driving to work rose from $15 a week three years ago to $35, then $40. One day last spring, she had had enough. Ms. Mitzner, a senior director of human resources at Education and Assistance Corporation in Hempstead, popped the question to her co-worker Charlene Middleton: Want to drive in together?

Now, four mornings a week, Ms. Middleton, a benefits manager, leaves her tidy brick-and-shingle cape in South Farmingdale at 8:10 and drives the two miles to Ms. Mitzner’s house in Wantagh. They alternate daily on who drives the next 10 miles, but on a rainy morning recently, it was Ms. Mitzner’s turn.

Ms. Middleton is mild; Ms. Mitzner is brassy. As the car wove through Jerusalem Avenue traffic, they fell easily into chitchat. They talked about weather and gardening (both have tomatoes), last night’s Mets game, the coming workday, Ms. Mitzner’s body temperature (“Am I freezing you out in here? Sorry, bad flash morning”), and — it came up three times — the price of gas.

“Last night I saw $4.19!”

“Where?”

“Right by the Seaford-Oyster Bay. A Gulf station.”

Car-pooling, seen by many as a relic of the oil-shocked 1970s, is one of those worthy ideas that people always found easier to admire than to do. But in sprawled-out suburbs like Long Island, it is creeping back for brand-new hard times. High gas prices, road congestion, limited mass transit options and fears of global warming are giving Long Islanders a powerful incentive to change their ways.

After 23 minutes, the Middleton-Mitzner team arrives in Hempstead — a car-pooling success story at a time when not much else about driving a car feels exalting. Ms. Mitzner says the arrangement saves her $20 a week; Ms. Middleton maybe as much as $30. For both it’s their first car pool. “I could see it continuing into the future,” Ms. Middleton said.

There are plenty of signs that Long Islanders’ attachment to the one-car, one-driver habit is breaking down. Ridership in the Long Island Expressway’s high-occupancy-vehicle lane — for cars with two or more people — continues to climb, while it is down in the regular lanes from last year, says Eileen W. Peters, spokeswoman for the State Department of Transportation. Use of the roadway’s seven park-and-ride lots was up 12 percent in the first six months of this year, compared with the same period in 2007.

Web sites that match up potential car-poolers on Long Island report a spike in traffic over the past few months. The online classified service Craigslist reported a 67 percent surge in posts for Long Island ride-shares from May to June.

And spurred by state grants, a growing number of companies have, for the first time in a generation, begun offering incentives to car-pooling employees, like better parking spaces and gas allowances.

Some transportation officials and advocates even speculate that an actual long-term change in drivers’ behavior is under way, despite Census Bureau figures that have shown an overall decline in car-pooling since its post-oil crisis peak in 1980.

“Right now the behavior focus is on saving money and getting more bang for the buck,” says Lisa Daglian, spokeswoman for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, an association of governmental transportation bodies. Throw in anxiety over the environment, she said, and “this is an opportunity for sea change.”

“Three dollars a gallon was my breaking point,” said Elizabeth Torbenson, 32, a financial analyst and first-time car-pooler from Stony Brook. Some days her husband commutes with her — he to the Hicksville train, she to her job at Cablevision in Bethpage. She has another car-pooling partner for the other days, so they can use the H.O.V. lane.

Car-pooling has its challenges — tardiness, heavy perfume, clashing musical tastes — that can tax the fragile dynamic of the two-person ride-share, by all accounts the standard arrangement these days (three-or-more ride-shares are uncommon because of the difficulty in scheduling).

“You know, it’s sometimes very hard to car-pool,” said Henry Carlender, a project manager at Computer Associates in Islandia, whose ride-share arrangement collapsed, he says, after he was once left stranded. “There is a question of character, temperament. You need to be very careful about the people you choose.”

Politeness counts, particularly in the morning, said Aaron Gao, who car-pools daily from Shirley to Jericho. When his partner drives, he says, she tunes to WBLI. “I don’t like that radio, but I just keep quiet,” he said. When it’s his turn, he plays classical. “I don’t know if she likes it, but she doesn’t say anything.”

Preparation helps, too. “It’s a matter of planning: ‘I’m not going to have my car today, so I’ll do what I had to do tomorrow or the next day,’ ” said Brenda Litzky, director of vendor relations at Clear Vision Optical in Hauppauge, which won a $30,400 state grant in June to promote transportation alternatives for employees. So far 35 of them, about 32 percent of the staff, have signed on for car pools since November, she said.

Green impulse notwithstanding, Alan Pisarski, a transportation behavior analyst and author of “Commuting in America,” doubts that most drivers are in the grips of a teachable moment. It’s more like a simple cost-benefit adjustment, he says: time versus fuel. “If gas prices went back to two bucks tomorrow,” he said, “everyone would go back to driving alone tomorrow.”

Mr. Gao, whose employer, Harmon Associates in Jericho, allows him flexible worktime so he can coordinate with his ride-share partner, says he would happily call it quits if gas prices dropped to $3.50. “It’s not convenient,” he says, even with the $250 to $300 he and his partner save monthly and the hour he has shaved off his weekly commute. “Of course, you know what?” he says. “The H.O.V. lane is getting busier and busier.”

Overloaded H.O.V. lanes, in fact, could actually end up driving the car pool trend more than fuel costs, Ms. Peters said, especially if it someday takes three in a car to use the lane, not two. “Three people in a Prius,” Ms. Peters says. “That would be the ultimate commuter car, wouldn’t it?”

Marianne Carillo, president of Long Island Transportation Management, or L.I.T.M., a Melville company with a $2.5 million state contract to promote transportation alternatives in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, says bringing government agencies and private companies on board is crucial to stemming the traffic tide.

L.I.T.M.’s “Commuter Choice” program offers many services, from help with ride-matching and taxi vouchers (for missed rides) to Long Island companies with at least 30 employees. Participation is up 25 percent since June last year, she said.

“With that number we are able to outreach to approximately 110,000 employees,” she said, at places like Geico, Honeywell, the Northport Veterans Affairs Hospital and Brookhaven National Laboratories. Adelphi University, Oyster Bay Town and both Nassau and Suffolk Counties received awards this year from L.I.T.M. and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council for their traffic-reduction programs.

The Web site (www.litm.org) is open to anyone looking for a way to cut their driving time, and offers information on where to find bicycle lockers and park and rides and how to arrange for van pools, telecommuting and flex time.

Ms. Carillo said the number of Long Islanders using the car pool match-up site NuRide.com, linked on L.I.T.M.’s Web site, jumped 70 percent — about 2,000 people — since June 2007, perhaps reflecting an openness among younger riders.

But she says she would like to go younger, getting the word to children before they develop the drive-alone habit. Her company runs a poster contest in Long Island schools with the transportation council; last year there were 802 entries.

“Schools should run curriculum campaigns — like with smoking and safety belts,” she said. “Young riders are much more aware.”

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