A Brief (Illustrated) History of Carpooling


Uber and Lyft are trying to make carpooling cool again. We look back at its long history in this country.

taxi cab toy cars

Sometimes you find gems in the strangest places: Yesterday’s post on Lyft and Uber launching carpool services lead to a lot of digging around the internet for background on carpooling, and we were surprised—pleasantly—to find two pieces of pretty interesting information. One, some car insurance companies actually offer discounts for carpooling. And two, carpooling has enjoyed quite a colorful history in this country that is arguably tied to who we are and what we value. Worth digging into, right?

First things first: The discount.

A carpool discount on car insurance?

This Today piece explains: “Many insurance companies offer “low-mileage discounts” to policyholders who carpool to work or drive a lower-than-average number of miles each year. You can call your insurer and find out whether you qualify.” Do keep one thing in mind, though. The Zebra licensed insurance agent Neil Richardson cautions that most companies will require proof, either in the form of an in-car monitor (like Progressive’s Snapshot) or copies of oil change receipts. For reference, the average driver logs between 12,000 and 15,000 miles each year. To qualify for a discount, you’ll likely have to come in under 6,000.

You might be eligible for a car insurance discount by joining a carpool.

In states like Virginia, drivers can qualify not just for a low-mileage discount, but for a carpool-specific discount if their carpool allows them to drive to work two or fewer days per week. Get in touch with your insurance company by phone or visit them online to see if you can save more than just the gas money by carpooling. Still not sold on the idea of sharing your commute? What if we told you it was a totally American thing to do?

A History of Carpooling

Well, have you?
Well, have you?

Shareable writer Jeff Cozza posted this great piece on the topic, which provides a bit of historical context and some brilliant vintage marketing campaigns, both of which are worth sharing.

  • Circa 1914: Carpooling as American scrappiness. Cozza writes,

    Ridesharing began shortly after the introduction of the Model-T, America’s first automobile priced with for the middle-class. By the end of 1914, the US had fallen into a recession at the same time it was seeing a flood of cheap new automobiles on city streets. In San Francisco, enterprising car owners began offering seats in their cars for the same price as a street car fair, known as a jitney. Within nine months, the “jitney” craze had spread all the way to Maine.

    This one's not subtle.
    This one’s not subtle.
  • Circa 1944: A second surge in carpooling popularity. Cozza writes,

    Facing the need to conserve resources for the war effort, the government worked alongside the oil industry to mount an $8 million ad campaign (roughly $100 million in today’s dollars) to push drivers to take passengers along when they drive through so-called “car clubs” (US PAW, 1946). It is this ad campaign that is responsible for the famous “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler” poster. Interestingly, carpooling was promoted in cooperation with oil and car companies, (Amey, 2010). The partnership between private industry and the government, along with the substantial ad campaign and sense of national emergency, proved extremely effective in changing consumer habits.

    Looks dangerous!
    Looks dangerous!
  • Circa 1973: A crisis reignites a trend. Cozza writes,

    Participation in carpooling again died down as resource conservation was deemphasized in the post-war boom. But government support picked up again in 1974 after the Oil Embargo when President Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, in which the federal government provided funding for ridesharing initiatives.

President Carter would follow Nixon’s lead in supporting carpooling, including the creation of the National Task Force on Ridesharing and attempts to slash parking subsidies that encourage the overuse of single occupancy vehicles. Ridesharing was also promoted as a way to reduce local air pollution and saw the establishment of the first regional carpool services.

All of which served to help make the late 1970s one of the most active eras in the history of ridesharing. According to the Census Bureau, by 1980 roughly 23.5% of Americans were carpooling, compared with 11% in 2011. Participation again declined as the price of oil fell precipitously in the 1980s, disposable incomes rose, and government support disappeared.

  • Circa 2014: Carpooling goes modern. Cozza writes,

We are now seeing a renaissance in ridesharing activity, although for the first time since the jitney craze this is occurring in the absence of support from the government, major automobile manufactures, or oil companies. Commuters in the Washington DC area are joining “slug-lines”: impromptu carpools created between strangers to share the cost of tolls and gas and to gain access to the faster carpool lanes.

And then of course there are the powerhouses like Uber and Lyft—not true carpooling services, but poised for major disruption nonetheless. So what do you think? Is it more American to own a car—or share one?

  • carmabob

    Uber & Lyft = taxis
    UberPool & Lyft Line = taxi-sharing
    Carma Carpooling = carpooling/ridesharing

    Remember, if you are paying more than $0.56 per mile, you are sitting in a taxi – period.

    • The Zebra

      Interesting! How do you come by that specific amount?

  • Kristian A

    I like the Dilbert jokes about carpools: http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Carpool and also Scott Adam´s thinking back in 2009: http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/ridesharing_in_the_future/?Page=1 All it takes is a dedicated community, the technology is already there as in the app Carma Carpool (iOs and Android)

  • Sean OSullivan

    great summary of the history of carpooling! and yeah, I agree Uber and Lyft aren’t carpooling… they are just neo-taxis/car services… it’s a big headfake to call them carpooling…

    but great comments in general about the many advantages of carpooling. Nice reporting!

  • DaveB

    Jaime – nice history of carpooling; all you need to do is remove the references to Uber and Lyft and it’s completely accurate. Unless you’re talking about LyftLine or Uberpool, the trip isn’t a shared ride, it’s a taxi ride. Sharing means the driver was going to the destination already and is taking extra passengers. I call Uber et al P2P Taxi. Perhaps you can edit the title to remove the reference?