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If you want a real-world example of how $4 a gallon gas began reweaving the fabric of what it is to be American — or at least what we're willing to put up with — surf over to one of the numerous online carpool-partner-matching websites and type in “Little Rock.”
At erideshare.com, a recent search yielded a crop of 38 desperate souls, most trying to line up a weekday ride downtown from one of the bedroom communities that blossomed back when a gallon of gas was cheaper than a gallon of distilled water: Beebe, Benton, Bryant, Conway. Judging by the length of time some of their posts have been up, most folks aren't having a lot of success.
Tammy Gray is a state worker who commutes daily to Little Rock from Cabot. She has a posting on the Little Rock page of erideshare.com, and chatted via e-mail with Arkansas Times. “I have joined several groups in the hope of finding a car pool/ride share arrangement that works for me, but have so far have not had any luck,” she said. “I have also contacted Central Arkansas Transit [about] a park and ride route from Cabot or thereabouts. They were quick to respond, but not with anything that helped my situation.”
A more successful pooling story is shared by Arkansas Children's Hospital employee Rosemary Pierini. Since 1994, the Sheridan resident has been taking part in the vanpool program offered by the Arkansas State Employees Association. Every day, 27 ASEA vans from as far away as Des Arc, Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and Rosebud make their way to Little Rock, depositing workers at locations all over town. Officials at the ASEA said that since the price of gas skyrocketed, they've received enough applications to fill at least seven more vans if they had the funds to purchase them. Pierini, who jokingly calls herself the “social director” on her 15-passenger vanpool, drives three miles every morning to catch her ride in a church parking lot in Sheridan. Even with stops to drop off other riders, she's at work in a little over an hour. She said that if not for the vanpool, she wouldn't work in Little Rock.
“One, I do not want to drive to Little Rock every day,” she said. “Two, I do not want to find a parking place everyday. Three, I cannot work overtime. So, how many perks do you need? … I can sleep coming in, I can sleep going home, and I'm in a much better mood by the time I get home because I've already had time to chill. I just wouldn't have it any other way.”
Though the rates for riding the van have gone up with the price of gas — Pierini pays around $164 a month these days, while a ride from Des Arc will cost you $230 a month — she said that she has learned to live with the drawbacks that come with mass transit. Her husband, who works closer to home, runs any errands that arise, and if she needs to go somewhere in Little Rock during the day, a friend from work usually drives her. Twice during her time on the van, she said, family medical emergencies have arisen, and her co-workers either took her halfway to Sheridan to meet a family member, or drove her all the way home.
Pierini said that conflicts between van riders over the years have been minimal, with any slight disagreements usually arising over who sits where on the van. Other than that, she said, the riders on her van are like family.
“Honestly, if I didn't ride the van I wouldn't know anybody from Sheridan,” she said. “I don't work there, so I just don't see people. If they don't go to my church or they didn't have a kid who knew my kid, I just don't know anybody. We [on the van] have become close. We attend funerals, we help plan weddings, and most of us know all about the others.”
Even if you can't get one of the ever-more-rare seats on an ASEA van like Pierini, take heart. By the end of the year, Metroplan — the agency that oversees traffic planning and congestion busting for much of Central Arkansas, plans to launch a new carpool-matching website for their 30+ year-old Rideshare program, They say that even if you prefer to bike, walk, or take public transit, their new system will soon be able to hook you up with a travel partner.
John Hoffhauer is part of the team that's helping implement the new Rideshare service. He said the new online system will have “all the bells and whistles,” including filtering would-be carpoolers for traits such as location, time of departure and return, smoking and gender. Once you sign up, the system will send a notice directly to your e-mail address any time a carpool participant that meets your pre-set criteria applies. Metroplan is even exploring the possibility of helping connect “transit buddies” — those who want to travel together by bus, bike or on foot.
Though the service will be under Metroplan control, the software and website will be administrated by a yet-to-be-named provider. According to Metroplan, the service — funded in part by a federal grant — will cost an initial $15,000, and then $750 a month to maintain.
“We're not buying software, we're buying a service,” Hoffhauer said. “It's all going to be somewhere else. They're going to host it, they're going to maintain it, and we'll have administrative privileges.”
Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan, said that the tipping point when large numbers of drivers in Central Arkansas begin seeking other forms of transportation seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 per gallon. “When gasoline reached $3.50 to $4, we started seeing changes in behavior,” he said. “Transit ridership started going up; we got inquiries about carpooling and people started driving less. Apparently the point of pain reached a critical mass. When it got up to between $3,50 and $4 a gallon it really started making an impact on people.”
The recent sharp drop in gas prices undoubtedly had a similar reverse impact, but most presume gas prices and a rising urge to conserve will continue to stoke interest in more efficient commuting.
McKenzie said that before Metroplan's new Rideshare program is rolled out at the end of the year, his office will be making a push to get workers at big Little Rock employers interested and signed up.
“I think our first area of emphasis will be along the I-630 corridor,” he said, “the employers downtown, the medical campuses that are 24/7 operations, the government buildings. It's a major concentration of employment, so that will probably be our lowest hanging fruit in terms of getting a lot of riders signed up.“
Even though the new system will make it easier to find a carpool, McKenzie knows it's not the magic bullet for congested highways and expensive gas. Americans love their cars, McKenzie said, and the family dynamic has changed. Schedules have gotten more complicated, and a carpool can't always accommodate the demands of working people.
“With mom and dad both working, sometimes in different directions, somebody has got to pick up the kids,” McKenzie said. “You've got to hit the laundry. You've got to hit the grocery store. Those kinds of demands on a modern family make it a little tougher. Employment is not as centralized as it used to be. Back when everybody worked downtown, you knew that if you were going to work you were going in the same direction.”
Even at that, for commuters to popular Little Rock destinations like the hospital campuses or downtown, the option of Rideshare might look a lot better than the prospect of watching another chunk of cash go swirling into the gas tank.
“The money that we're using is federal money dedicated to the metropolitan area,” McKenzie said, “so as long as the origin or the destination is inside the metro area, then we can help them out.”