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A SPECIAL REPORT ON TRANSPORTATION : DIVIDED WE DRIVE : Many Drivers Say Car-Pooling Is a Great Idea--for Someone Else

December 11, 1988|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

Charity Gavaza organizes car pools for companies in Irvine, and Margaret Peterson has the same kind of job in Costa Mesa.

But both women drive to work alone. Ironically, their jobs and personal situations make car-pooling too difficult, they say.

"I'm in a unique commuting situation where I have a new baby," said Gavaza, who car-pooled until her new child complicated her schedule.

Calling herself "typical of most people in a sales-type industry," Peterson said, "I have client calls on my way in and on my way home. We're in that group of people who have to have their car to do their job."

Unfortunately for those who think that car-pooling will be the answer to freeway congestion, the experiences of Gavaza and Peterson seem typical. In fact, while a poll for The Times Orange County Edition found significant support for car-pooling and mass transit, most people apparently think these are good ideas for someone else.

Thirty-nine percent of those polled believe that car pools and mass transit offer "the single best solution for reducing future traffic congestion in Orange County," but only 9% said they personally car-pool.

Despite best-laid plans and ever-worsening congestion, car-pooling has failed to capture the imagination of commuters. To the vast majority, it simply seems to be more trouble than it is worth.

For example, the percentage of Orange County commuters who car-pool is down to about 12%-14% from about 16% in 1980. That is a bit better than the national average of 10% in metropolitan areas but well below the 23% during the peak of the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

The Orange County Transit District's Commuter Network matching service reports it gets about 12,000 car-poolers together each year, but the average duration of a car pool is about 2 years.

"It has plateaued," said Peter Gordon, associate dean of USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning. "We have about as much as we are going to get, given the incentives we have right now."

Commuters avoid car-pooling for a variety of reasons, experts say, including free parking at work, the difficulty in finding a convenient car-pool partner in sprawling Orange County, jobs that require automobiles and an unwillingness to give up personal freedom.

Those who do car-pool tend to make longer trips to work than those who drive alone, according to a 1988 study of car pools on the Costa Mesa Freeway by the Orange County Transportation Commission. They also come from larger households, leave earlier in the morning, return later in the evening and are less likely than solo drivers to have changed jobs in the past 2 years.

For years, computerized services such as the one operated by OCTD and the Los Angeles-based Commuter Computer have tried to promote ride-sharing. Government, corporate and nonprofit organizations, too, have organized similar efforts on smaller scales to match up motorists by destination and starting point.

Yet all of this friendly persuasion has failed to get most drivers out of their own cars and into someone else's.

"Car-pooling and (mass) transit are considered to be inferior commuting choices by most workers," Roger Teal, UC Irvine assistant professor of civil engineering, said in a 1978 study that found only 1 in 12 commuting workers were likely to share a ride.

The explanations are simple, USC's Gordon said. Motorists "would have to go too far out of our way to have a car-pool mate."

Lee Gislason, UC Irvine professor of psychiatry and human behavior, suggested that the appeal of driving alone may be "the obvious."

"People like to have the freedom of being able to come and go (as) they want to," Gislason said.

However, when trips are lengthened, costs increased and vehicles not so readily available, Teal found that "at least 20% to 30% of all vehicular commuters engage in car-pooling without any organized assistance."

Although his national study was conducted 10 years ago, Teal said subsequent studies in Orange County show identical tendencies.

Even among motivated motorists, Teal found, a majority were unable to car-pool. Their reasons ranged from irregular work hours or inconvenient location (44%) to the "need" for their vehicle or a desire for independence (15%).

"These obstacles to car-pooling are very difficult to overcome," Teal said.

As Gordon put it: "There are other reasons that have to do with all the reasons . . . people want to be alone."

Motorists are "not anti-social, stupid or acting wrong" when they oppose car-pooling, Gordon said. "People are responding quite rationally to the system we have."

While some individuals seem to find little benefit to car-pooling, the benefits in the aggregate are more apparent.

In a 3-month period in Orange County, car pools arranged by Commuter Network saved 1.5 million gallons of fuel, 31 million vehicle miles of travel and 750 tons of air pollution while saving commuters $15 million in commuting expenses, said Gary Edson, OCTD's program director for the network.

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