WASHINGTON – Carpooling in Maryland dropped 15 percent during the 1990s, despite a population increase and worsening traffic conditions, according to an analysis of data from the Census Bureau.
The figures showed that more than 320,000 Maryland workers shared a ride to work in 2000, about 55,000 fewer carpoolers than in 1990, despite a 10 percent increase in the state population during the decade.
Carpooling was still more popular than public transportation, according to the Census, or walking to work. But the number of carpoolers paled in comparison to the 1.9 million people who chose to drive to work alone, the most popular mode of commuting in 2000.
“People in this area like their cars,” said Amanda Knittle, spokeswoman for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the AAA.
And they apparently don’t like to share. Knittle said the automobile association this month released a poll of Maryland drivers that found that while 50 percent believe that traffic conditions are very bad, only 16 percent said carpooling was a way to relieve congestion.
Carpooling can be a hard sell for people who have grown used to the independence that a car brings, said Heather McColl, executive director of the Anne Arundel Regional Transportation Management Association. She said commuters have told her that they worry about being stranded at work if an emergency, like a sick child, arose and they did not have a car.
Local officials aim to answer that concern with programs like the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Commuter Connections program. In addition to giving drivers a free database of others who are interested in sharing a ride to work, the program guarantees carpoolers a free ride home, up to four times a year, in case there is an emergency at home or the employee gets stuck at work on unexpected overtime.
State and local groups are taking other steps to encourage carpooling. The state started phasing in High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes on some highways beginning in the 1990s, for example, and governments have set up Park-and-Ride lots near highways and Metro stations where commuters can park their cars and board carpools.
But not everyone is worried about the drop in carpooling — as long as the people who give up carpools get into another mode of mass transportation.
The expansion of subway and light-rail systems since 1990, for example, has given commuters more options, said Robin Briscoe, rideshare coordinator for the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland.
“You have more services,” Briscoe said. “People are staying away from carpools.”
Linda Greene, executive director of BWI Business Partnership Inc., said carpooling is “not as big as we would like it to be,” but attributes that lack of interest to options like Baltimore’s light-rail system.
Commuter Connections Director Nicholas Ramfos said that getting people to carpool is a challenge but “if you look at it (carpooling) as a percentage of the whole, we are still doing what we need to be doing.”
Statewide, about 12 percent of all workers carpooled in 2000, down from 20 percent in 1990, according to the Census. Only two counties posted carpooling gains during the decade, with Calvert County reporting an 8 percent increase and Garrett County seeing a 3 percent rise. Kent County had the biggest drop in its rate of carpoolers, falling 33 percent.
The drop in ride-sharing comes at time when traffic conditions have worsened.
A September report by the Texas Transportation Institute said that the Washington, D.C., area had one of the most congested road systems in the country in 2001. It said Washington-area commuters waste an average of 34 hours a year stuck in traffic, the seventh-highest rate in the nation, and Baltimore-area commuters spend an extra 22 hours a year behind the wheel, the 25th-worst of 75 metropolitan areas studied.
“Right now the average commute is horrendous and it will only continue to get worse as people realize they are part of the problem as they sit in the Beltway,” McColl said.