The Decline of Carpooling in Missouri: Time for a Rebound?
The discussion around urban transportation is usually confined to how planners can get people out of cars and onto public transportation. But perhaps the most cost-efficient way of getting people out of their cars is not to build a train, but rather to get them in someone else’s car. While governments can claim limited success in boosting transit ridership, carpooling has been on the continuous decline for decades. However, with new technology abetting the rise of the sharing economy, carpooling could be due for a resurgence, if governments allow it.
Carpooling is the second most popular method of commuting in Missouri. In 2013, around 9 percent of Missourians carpooled to get to work, more than five times the number that used transit. Carpooling and ridesharing are undeniably efficient. More people per car mean lower pollution per person and less congestion on highways, all utilizing the existing resource that more than 90 percent of Missouri households own: a personal vehicle.
Despite advantages, carpooling is an increasingly less popular form of commuting. As recently as 1980, one in five workers carpooled. That percentage fell quickly between 1980 and 1990, and has continued to slowly decline.
The culprits of carpool decline are mostly market-based: more people own cars, population and work centers are more diverse, work schedules are more variable than in the past. Declining carpooling rates in the United States also may be due to structural changes to the U.S. economy (carpooling is far more prevalent for those in the manufacturing sector). However, government policies may be preventing the rebound.
If increasing wealth of Missourians and an increasingly diverse economic environment have led to the decline of ridesharing, new technology that matches potential drivers with riders represents a market-based opportunity for carpooling to rebound. Far from encouraging the rise of a car-sharing economy, Saint Louis and Kansas City have attacked companies that make use of this new technology to protect vested taxicab interests.
If cities in Missouri are serious about reducing congestion and pollution, they should focus more on encouraging carpooling and ridesharing, not just expanding transit. And like many other cases, the best policies are for the city to reduce regulation, stop trying to plan the economy, and let the market operate.