Car Pooling

Why is it not more popular? For decades now, transportation agencies and planners have urged people to carpool as a means of reducing congestion. Years ago, I worked for the NJDOT. I spent nearly a decade there. Although I was not in traffic engineering, I did a lot of reading on the causes of congestion as well as effective mitigation measures. It became a personal interest. When they were finishing the HOV lanes for Rt. 80, they enlisted DOT staff for speaking engagements with local civic groups to present how the HOV lanes would be used. I volunteered for the training and was sent out on a couple of speaking events. I was surprised at how much resistance there was to the concept. Car pools associated with workplaces often fail because people have varying schedules and need flexibility in their transportation options. Then there are the reasons any human relationships break up. People get offended. A heated political debate ensues one day and a member realizes they don’t want that kind of stress in their commute. One guy shows up late a few times, making the others late, so they decide to cut him out. People can’t agree on music. Maybe they just want to be alone after a stressful day.  For some people, it is the only “alone” time that they have. But what if the relationship between car pool driver and rider was a business relationship? The environmental benefits of carpooling need no explanation. The math of using fewer cars to move more people is easy to understand. But reducing congestion is typically addressed as a problem with engineering solutions, in the form of wider roads, or as something that can be solved with altruism and concern for the greater good with using car pools or transit. What if the solution is economic? Making it a business relationship would force a higher degree of professionalism on the part of the driver and different expectations of the rider. An Uber Pool type of situation could create such circumstances. A casual look at the cars using the Holland tunnel during peak times reveals that about 60-70% of the cars are single-occupant vehicles. Since most of those cars are four-seaters, this means that much of the time, the “system” is only operating at 25% capacity in terms of the number of people it could be moving. Going from the Port Authority’s own statistics for May of 2015, when 1,320,456 eastbound trips were made, you get an average of 44,015 cars per day. If 60% of those are indeed single occupancy, you would get 26,409 cars. If each of those held 3 more people, 79,227 people a day could get into Manhattan through the Holland tunnel without any new Hudson crossing or major infrastructure investment. That is only one tunnel. If the same opportunity is made available at the other Hudson crossings, major traffic reductions could be made. Considering that roughly 400,000 New Jersey residents commute into Manhattan daily, there is a lot of potential for capturing trips from other modes. Taking into account how many cars that could remove from the crossings or riders from the crowds on the PATH trains, the option should be taken seriously. The numbers pencil out even better if more of those drivers can be moved to the autonomous shuttles carrying 10 to 15 riders.

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If the drivers were earning a modest rate of, say $4 per person to cross from a pickup point near the Holland tunnel to a drop-off point in lower Manhattan, 3 riders would cover the toll. If they manage to get 3 riders every work day for a typical month, it would be $240 in their pockets, just for doing something that they already do. For a lot of people, that would mean a car payment, or being able to afford a nice vacation. Over a year, it would add up to $2,760, allowing for 2 weeks when the driver is not working. If you frame it as a way that people can get a raise of nearly $3,000 in a year with no major change in their life, I believe people would jump at the chance. When they see that it is actually reducing congestion and pollution, they will feel even better about it. It is assumed that riders would come from both the groups of commuters that will park on the NJ side and from the group that currently uses PATH or the ferries. Obviously, the idealized participation rate will be difficult to achieve. Many people are not comfortable with the idea of allowing strangers into their car. However, the incentive would be there for commuters who want to make a little more money in their commutes to purchase a larger vehicle for commuting, such as a minivan or SUV, and use it to bus 7-8 riders per trip through the tunnel, grossing $28 to $32 per trip. The commuters who formerly drove into Manhattan would also see a substantial savings from not having to pay Manhattan rates for parking. Considering the $600-$700/month rates for parking in Manhattan, the commuters who leave their cars on the New Jersey side could see savings of $300 a month or more. All of those savings would translate into greater spending power for commuters, which should have a positive effect on the regional economy. It is obvious that a lot of people in the region are already financially stressed, and this is a way the stress can be reduced. Another possible incentive program would be to have a lottery for those who use the HOV lanes and have full cars and for those who commute at off-peak times. Winners would be chosen at random, and cash prizes could take the form of a credit to their EZPass account or discounts to local businesses via Groupon. A lottery incentive program was proven successful in India in getting people to use transit at off-peak times. The big idea is to get more people to park outside of Manhattan, in places where the land is cheaper and there is better access to highways. Reduce the cars going into the city to create conditions more amenable to walking and biking, and more people would opt for these modes. Major cities in other countries are creating car-free zones. Perhaps it is time for New York to start considering the idea.

Collection Nodes

Current literature regarding how cities could better accommodate services like Uber and Lyft suggest the creation of what they call “collection nodes”, as locations throughout a city where a rider could count on being able to find a car waiting, thus minimizing the effect on traffic caused by app-hailed cars driving to their riders. Throughout Manhattan, create secure environments with where drivers could pick up riders who are going in a common direction. These locations would become the “stations” of the autonomous buses described above. This would simplify driving patterns if the Ubers and autonomous buses had a few locations where they could go where there is assurance of finding passengers. Any reduction in vehicle movement is a win for reducing congestion.

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Studies have shown that app-based car services such as Uber have worsened congestion in Manhattan. Collection nodes would reduce congestion by reducing the trips where the Ubers are driving to a fare. The fare might walk a block or two to a node where there is already an Uber or autonomous shuttle waiting. Granted, “Collection Node” starts to sound like doublespeak for “Bus Stop”. Uber and Lyft are aware of the fact that their model works better if you have more riders in a vehicle with the same destination. The ultimate evolution of app-hailed car services may indeed be autonomous buses.

One of the spin-off effects of autonomous cars will be that parking space needs will be dramatically reduced. The companies that operate large parking facilities are aware of this and have stopped investment in new parking garages. It is imagined that part of existing parking garages could be adapted for this use. To further enhance the efficiency of the nodes, they could be identified as being for a certain trip. For example, in Midtown, you would have nodes designated for the Lincoln tunnel and for those who need to go to Queens via the Mid-town tunnel. The parking structures described in the queuing structures section would basically function as large collection nodes. The most basic aspect of this plan, of using autonomous buses to reduce congestion, could be implemented for a very low cost by just turning some curbside parking lanes in Manhattan into collection nodes and some areas of existing parking lots or garages on the New Jersey side into commuter parking collection nodes.  

Autonomous Busway and Queuing Structure Conceptual Plan

Holland Tunnel Area of Jersey City

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Autonomous Bus and Queuing Structure Conceptual Plan

Holland Tunnel Area of Manhattan

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