Baton Rouge drivers are often trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but that hasn’t made carpooling an attractive alternative for the vast majority of commuters.
The Capital Region Planning Commission would like to see that change, not only to help relieve the Baton Rouge area’s oppressive traffic congestion, but also to reduce a source of pollutants that contribute to the formation of ozone. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set to come out with tougher ozone air pollution standards soon, getting more cars off the road can only help the Baton Rouge five-parish area meet whatever new standard is announced.
The commission, along with other partners, will unveil this month a new Web-based carpooling site to match commuters who have similar schedules, interests and workplaces. Signup is free, and information will be kept secure until an individual wants to share something with a potential fellow carpooler.
A public information kickoff for the program will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 16 at Town Square along North Boulevard in downtown Baton Rouge. There will be information about the program, along with a free jambalaya lunch on a first-come, first-served basis. If it rains, the event will be held at the state Department of Environmental Quality in the Oliver Pollock Room, 602 N. 5th St.
A soft launch of the Geaux Ride website was released about a month ago for employees of several state agencies, including DEQ, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation and Development, since they all have a large presence downtown, said Jamie Setze, Capital Region Planning Commission executive director.
So far, about 150 people have signed up, but not many have logged their carpooling trips so it’s hard to say how often it’s been used, explained Ravi Ponnapureddy, commission’s director of transportation.
Other cities that have had success with carpooling programs have offered small incentives that reward the highest number of miles, or most trips taken, with rewards like free coffee or better parking spots. It not only encourages participation, but it also gets people to fill out the trip information on the website, vital data for state planners to figure out what’s working.
In cities where the program hasn’t taken off, experts attribute part of the problem to a lack of marketing and incentives offered to get people to change their driving habits.
The Baton Rouge program is trying to be proactive in promoting the program.
“The next step we’re working on is offering incentives,” Ponnapureddy said. Even with cash-strapped state agencies, something as simple as a coveted parking space could make a difference. State offices are currently working out what those incentives will include.
One sticking point for some participants is what happens if they carpool to work, but something unexpected happens — like a sick child needing a pickup from school — and they have to go home early, said Kim Marousek, director of planning with the commission. Being able to offer a “guaranteed ride home” is a necessity for any program that is going to work.
Some larger industries might even be able and willing to provide that resource for employees once they see how much of a difference it makes in participation, she said.
Setze said ride-hailing company Uber has agreed to give users one free ride home as the program gets underway, and the planning commission will continue talking with the organization and looking at other options to make a ride home part of the program.
Interest in carpooling has declined nationwide since the 1980s, which effectively means there are more cars on the road.
According to the Census Bureau 2009-2013 five-year estimates, almost 82 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish workers get to work on their own, while 10 percent carpool.
That reflects a national trend since the oil crisis of the 1970s lifted, people increasingly moved away from the carpools that were a necessity at that time. Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of Americans who carpool dropped from 19 percent to 9 percent. Gas prices have had an impact, but it’s also about people’s lifestyles, Setze said.
In 1980 there were many more families that had one parent going to work while the other stayed home with children. With both parents working, as is more typical now in two-parent families, errands like grocery shopping are piggybacked onto the drive home — making carpooling less attractive to some.
The program will underscore that people who carpool can realize cost savings by leaving their vehicle home even a couple days a week. But in addition to personal benefits, it also sells larger regional benefits in terms of air quality.
“Every two people who carpool together, you’re taking a car off the road,” said Vivian Aucoin, senior environmental scientist with DEQ’s air permits division. “So you’re going to take that added pollution out of the air.”
Although the entire state meets current federal regulations for ozone pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release tougher standards in the next two months that could put some areas, including Baton Rouge, out of compliance.
Getting more people into fewer cars can only help the ozone-causing pollution in the Baton Rouge area, but only time will tell if people embrace ride-sharing after decades of going it alone.
“I really believe it’s going to be your 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds who will make this work,” she said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.