Great Barrington — What if there were a way to break the stranglehold of our automobile-centric, single-occupancy travel habit that burns extravagant quantities of gasoline, contributes to air pollution and climate change, and worst of all, isolates and imprisons us – although we are an intrinsically sociable species — in rolling metal boxes in order to get from one place to another — alone.
Further, what if it were possible to establish an acceptable, safe and reliable way to share automobile rides, even as short as a mile or less, that would provide dependable conveyance and that could become particularly valuable for those unable (or unwilling) to afford the cost of a car to get to work – or go to a job interview – or get to the store or to the doctor.
And what if such an alternative could be introduced without the creation of a government bureaucracy or the expenditure of public funds.
Donald B. “Chip” Elitzer thinks he’s found a way. He calls his system “Ride$hare.”
Basically, as he described it to the Selectboard Tuesday (May 27), it is formalized, paid hitch-hiking. It works like this.
If you need a ride somewhere, you stand by the side of the road and instead of sticking out your thumb, you put up your hand with your fingers making a V sign. That’s an indication to drivers you need a ride.
But the ride isn’t free. The ridersharer pays the driver 50 cents for each 5 miles or fraction thereof, so for drivers there is an financial incentive to share your car – not enough to make money at it, like a taxi – but enough to pay for some of the gas, insurance and upkeep.
“You could call this spontaneous car pooling,” Elitzer told the board. “I think this could go viral.”
Elitzer proposed that the board adopt a resolution endorsing the concept, and noted that he will be going before selectmen and city councilors in other Berkshire communities to ask for the same recognition.
The board agreed to draft such a resolution, after consulting with town counsel, and discuss it at its June 9 meeting.
“I think this is a brilliant idea,” declared Selectboard Vice Chair Sean Stanton.
Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips agreed, but was concerned about drivers being sure to stop in an appropriately safe location to pick up riders.
Elitzer acknowledged that it will be a challenge to initiate, but he is confident that if enough people adopt the Ride$hare concept, it could revolutionize transportation networks and assist the local economy.
From his seat in the Town Hall meeting room, Tim Geller, executive director of the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire, commented that “the lack of public transportation has a huge impact on the economy. If adopted, this could be of huge benefit. And I think there is something about this area that just might make this idea work.”
“This is a grand experiment,” Elitzer conceded. “We’re doing a culture change here, but at the same time we’re establishing a sense of civic connectedness. There are so few occasions in our society where people from different economic and social backgrounds are thrown together and can interact. I want Great Barrington to be the birthplace of this ”
And this is an experiment worth trying, he maintained.
“This United States transportation system is based on a great fleet of privately-owned vehicles, which operate with substantial unused capacity,” he stated. “It wastes gas, contributes to congestion and pollution, and adds to wear-and-tear on roads and bridges compared to the same passenger miles with fewer but fuller vehicles.
“This is a people’s movement,” he said. “If it works in the Berkshires, it could work in the Commonwealth. And if it works in the Commonwealth, then in the nation. We could be saving 15 to 20 percent in gasoline consumption.”
He is well aware of the people’s caution in picking up hitch-hikers, but he points out that picking up strangers as passengers has worked famously without incident in Houston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where drivers pick up riders in order to take advantage of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on highways that usher drivers around traffic jams.
“In all these HOV rideshare networks, there’s not been one recorded crime against a driver or a passenger,” he pointed out.
Success of Ride$hare will depend, he notes, on general acceptance of the concept, and therefore the frequency of available drivers.
“If there is a 10 percent adoption rate of Ride$hare, that means that one out of 10 drivers will be willing to give someone a ride,” he said. “This means leaving the car behind. Eventually, it could even mean not owning a car.”
And he added: “I expect to be a rider and driver tomorrow morning. It starts here. Of course, the first person to do this will be a hardy soul.”
In the meantime, however, he is starting his campaign immediately. So if you see Chip Elitzer with his hand up, signaling with a V sign along any of Berkshire highways and byways, pick him up. It’s worth it.