The drop in carpooling has occurred in cities across the country.
Remember the 1970s? Watergate, disco, oil embargoes and, of course, car-pooling. Many big companies organized group rides for their employees, and roughly one in four Americans who drove to work shared a ride with others.
But now far more people are driving alone, as companies have spread out, Americans are wealthier and cars have become cheaper to own. The percentage of workers who car-pool has dropped by almost half since 1980, the first time the Census Bureau started systematically tracking the numbers, according to new data from the bureau.
The sharp decline has confounded efforts by urban planners, who over the years have tried to encourage the practice by setting aside highway lanes for car-poolers, as well as offering incentives like discounted parking.
They thought they were getting some help from amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 that would have required many companies to develop plans to increase car-pooling and mass transit use. But Congress, after hearing from critics who said the proposal was unworkable, scrapped the idea in the mid-’90s.
Today, advocates point to the increase in social networking tools that would make it easier to identify potential ride-sharing mates — yet the national car-pooling rate continues to fall, and today it is below 12 percent of all drivers.
The drop has occurred in cities across the country. For example, the car-pooling rate fell by more than half since 1980 in Rochester and its suburbs, as well as in Worcester County, Mass., and in the suburbs of Kansas City. Even in San Diego County, Calif., the state where modern car-pooling began, the rate was down by more than a third.
Here in the fast-growing suburbs of Washington, the number of people driving alone has more than doubled since 1980. That is a sharp contrast from a generation ago, when Washington had one of the highest car-pooling rates in the nation, with one person car-pooling for every two driving to work alone. Today, for every one car-pooler, there are six solo drivers. This trend crawls to life every weekday morning before dawn, when a stretch of Interstate 95 turns into a glittering river of headlights moving so slowly that drivers need to leave up to two hours to cover a 30-mile trip.
“Painful,” said a 55-year-old accounting firm employee who tries to pick up other riders at designated places in Woodbridge so she can use the restricted, faster lanes.
“Books on tape, music, it doesn’t help,” she said about the daily trip (most of the commuters interviewed here asked that their names not be used). “All I’m thinking is, ‘Oh, God, this is going to hurt.’ ”
The grind of the drive provokes such frustration that commuters do odd things to stay calm. One commuter waiting for a ride at a meeting point here said that one driver had become notorious among the regulars — “the puppet guy,” who apparently used hand puppets to act out arguments to manage his anger over being stuck in traffic.
The population of the Washington suburbs has exploded in recent years, up by more than 60 percent since 1980. Still, the congestion has not served as an impetus for car-poolers, whose numbers, as a portion of all drivers, have fallen.
In fast-growing Prince William County, where Woodbridge is located, the number of car-poolers has actually grown, but not nearly as much as number of people driving alone, which has tripled since 1980.
The census data also show that different races car-pool at different rates. According to the census, black, Hispanic and Asian commuters car-pool far more than white workers.
In 2000, the car-pool rate for Hispanic workers was 28 percent, double the rate for whites, partly because of new immigrants sharing rides to jobs at construction sites or factories. But even Hispanics are relying less on group rides: by 2009, the rate for Hispanics had fallen to 19 percent.
“As cars became more affordable and life became easier, the big car pools broke up,” said Alan Pisarski, a consultant who studies transportation trends.
Car-pooling first cropped up as a policy idea in the United States in the 1940s, when oil and rubber shortages limited the use of personal cars, according to Erik Ferguson, a professor of urban planning and the author of a 1997 article called “The Rise and Fall of the American Carpool.”
Car-pooling was first seriously studied by academics and urban planners in the 1970s, the decade of the oil embargo, “a time of great hope for car-pool enthusiasts,” Mr. Ferguson wrote.
Lew Pratsch, who organized shared rides for federal workers while working for the Energy Department in the 1970s, remembers that decade as a golden era for car-pooling, when big companies like Xerox and Chevron organized car pools for their employees. He picked up his future wife on their first date with a car-pool van.
But since then, profound demographic and economic shifts occurred. Companies spread out more, and the workday became less predictable. Women went to work in large numbers, raising the incomes of households as well as their ability to own a car.
“It’s economic,” said Roger F. Teal, a former professor of civil engineering whose Illinois software company, DemandTrans Solutions, helps municipalities with transportation issues. “If people have a car available, they will use it.”
With today’s high levels of car ownership, “the strongest motivation for people to car-pool disappeared,” said Mr. Teal, who conducted one of the early comprehensive studies of car-pooling. Car ownership has outstripped even population growth, as the number of cars parked in American driveways has risen by nearly 60 percent since 1980, while the number of Americans has grown by a third.
What remains, of course, is traffic, and in places like Washington, where it adds hours to commutes, people car-pool to take advantage of the fast-track car-pooling lanes.
People car-pool here with strangers in a practice called “slugging” — the term comes from fake bus tokens, because bus drivers sometimes mistake car-poolers, who often wait near bus stops, for bus riders. Each waiting spot has its own destination, like the Pentagon or L’Enfant Plaza, and drivers call them out as they drive up.
The practice can bring surprises, some more welcome than others. One commuter said she picked up some great financial advice from her carmates.
But another said she once had to defend a fellow passenger after the driver started lecturing her about Christianity. “It’s O.K. to spread the word of God, but technically he was holding her hostage,” she said.
As car-pooling has continued to decline, mass transit use has increased in the past decade. In the Washington area, it represents about 14 percent of commuters, compared with 11 percent in 2000, according to the data.
Another big change has been the number of people working from home at least one day a week, which has tripled since 1998, to about 600,000, according to Nicholas Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections, a network of agencies and local governments that coordinates ride-sharing programs.
Some car-pool enthusiasts remain hopeful that the shared rides will grow more popular. For example, at the annual meeting of the National Transportation Research Board this week in Washington, the schedule of panels included “How We Double Ride-Sharing in 10 Years.”
But Mr. Teal, who attended the meeting, said he has heard such bold claims before, but does not believe them.
“The belief was that if you created the right incentives, it was something just waiting to happen,” he said. “Well, it didn’t.”
Via New York Times