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Running on empty

Peter Kelly is just trying to save the environment. Instead, six months after joining BU’s RideShare program, he still doesn’t have a carpool buddy.
Kelly, the Assistant Dean of the School of Management, joined a carpool program at his previous job and immediately registered for RideShare at Boston University after he read about it in a BU Today article about Earth Day last April.
Kelly is one of just 35 people listed on the RideMatch public search page. A mass email to the entire listing ‘-‘- which included eight students and two former students ‘-‘- yielded 14 responses. Only one BU employee said he found a match through the program, and he has been listed on the site for six years.
‘ ‘I would recommend it because I know one of the problems is there are no participants. If there were 500 participants, there’s a reasonable likelihood I would end up with a match; it’s not like I’m recommending it because it’s been a fabulous success,’ Kelly said.
As gas prices and concerns about the environment continue to increase, more and more Massachusetts businesses and colleges are taking advantage of ride sharing, either through a state service partnership called MassRides or through their own programs.
BU Parking Services hosts RideShare, a program helping faculty, staff and students find alternative methods of commuting, such as carpools, vanpools, the T and the BU Shuttle, according to the Parking Service’s website.
The users register on the website with their zip code and driving schedule and can also specify their preferences for gender and’ smoking habits. The public listing allows anyone to check the profiles of those already listed.
Ron Slade, Office of Environmental Health and Safety assistant director, said he first put up a listing to find a driving partner when the program began at least six years ago. Six months ago, someone not listed on the website found Slade’s name and contacted him directly to carpool. The two live in Andover, and Slade’s match works across the street from BU.
‘After all, I’m the assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety,’ Slade said. ‘I’m conscious about the environment, but obviously I want to save money, also. If you can find the right partner, it can be a real win-win.’
Slade said because only about 30 people have registered for RideMatch out of thousands of employees and students at BU, he thinks the program is not well marketed. BU could provide incentives to encourage participation, like cheaper parking tickets or more priority parking, he said.
‘It would be nice if someone could research what some other companies are doing to help promote their programs,’ Slade said. ‘Certainly a no-brainer would be to advertise it more. It’s a terrific concept with traffic jams, the cost of gas, pollution ‘-‘- there are numerous reasons to try to make this program work.’
A lack of interest is the only problem. Slade said there are only three parking spots designated for carpool vehicles in the Warren Towers lot, and he finds the spots full every day. He and his RideMatch partner both have green parking stickers on their cars, but he suggested that partners should be able to buy their passes at a reduced rate.
‘It’s not an effective program right now,’ Slade said. ‘For whatever reason, people are not yet using it.’
Kelly, a Newton resident, said RideMatch is ‘under-promoted,’ but he thinks because many BU employees use the T, there is not much incentive for people to seek out a carpool program.
‘It’s hard to imagine why there would be so few participating,’ he said. ‘I’ve mentioned it to different people, and they were unaware the program existed, but they were not people motivated to participate.
However, Kelly said BU is a community concerned with environmental issues, and if more people knew about the RideMatch program, they would use it for conservation reasons. He said finding a perfect match with two schedules is impractical, but commuting even a couple days a week helps.
‘People in general are becoming more aware as their role as actors in the environment,’ Kelly said. ‘It’s a very big part of our lives at work, and the workplace is an important place for us to exercise that responsibility.’
John Hall, a College of Communication professor, said he was successful in finding a one-time carpool partner last Thanksgiving for a trip to New Jersey. He said he heard about the program from BU Today or an email and posted a note on the RideMatch listing on which he is no longer registered.
‘I think it’s an easy-to-use service connecting people who can help each other out,’ Hall said. ‘I imagine students don’t have a lot of money and could use a ride going home. I only used it once, and I didn’t see any problems with it.’
Some of those contacted said they have found matches on their own. Bob Given, database administrator for BU Information Systems, said he signed up for RideMatch eight years ago when he saw the program’s website, and he forgot about it until contacted for this article.
Given, who lives in Watertown, has commuted with three other people he met at BU, and now he commutes with his wife, who works at a BU library. He said the administration can only do so much to promote RideMatch, like sending out mass emails, and people should seek out rides themselves.
‘Most of the time, you just hear about people who live in the area,’ Given said. ‘There’s quite a bit of responsibility on the individual. If they need a ride, they need to go out and see what’s available.’
Melissa Sankey, a School of Education graduate student, put her name on the RideMatch website in August, but she has since found her own commuting partner, Sankey said in an email.
‘I live on the Cape and wanted to share the long ride and expenses with someone else,’ Sankey ‘-‘- who found a carpooling buddy in class ‘-‘- said.
‘I don’t think people know about the RideShare program,’ Sankey said.
Paul Kelly, environmental manager in the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said Parking Services is responsible for promotion of the RideShare programs. Parking Services failed to respond to four emails over the past three weeks, and it refused an interview during several phone calls and two visits to the office.
Kelly said he worked with Dwight Antherton, director of Parking Services, to update BU’s RideShare program a couple years ago, to comply with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection standards.
‘We have to submit a RideShare program report, and we have to meet certain criteria for the state,’ Kelly said. ‘We have to provide carpooling parking, because of the size of the university and the size of the employee base.’
He said the DEP awards points for certain transportation services that companies offer their employees, such as carpooling, incentives to use the T, ZipCar partnership, carpool parking and bike racks. Companies are required to have a certain number of points.
‘Believe it or not, we already had things in place anyway; it was just a formality we had to make a report,’ Kelly said. ‘There were some things we had to change ‘hellip; otherwise we were fine.’
Other colleges and businesses around the state said they are having more luck with ride matching programs. Some are using MassRides, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation’s program for commuters and students. Kay Carson, MassRides project manager, said the government initiative works directly with employers to develop methods of alternate transportation.
MassRides, like BU Parking Services, uses a computerized system to match up workers with similar routes and schedules for carpooling. Other MassRides options include preferential parking for carpoolers, vanpools, bicycle parking and promotions about other services.
Carson called the program ‘travel demand management.’ The EOT initially intended to reduce traffic congestion and infrastructure wear, but employers are looking into MassRides for financial or environmental reasons.
‘With gas at $4 a gallon, people are much more interested in our services,’ Carson said. ‘All of a sudden people are contacting us, either companies or individuals, asking, ‘Can you help me find some alternatives for my employees?”
Businesses also want to reduce the number of employees commuting to work because they can reduce the parking demand and purchase less land for lots, Carson said. In other situations, when a company relocates, it will establish a vanpool to transport employees to the new facility.
Brooks Automation, a manufacturing company based in Chelmsford, is a MassRides partner that began using vanpools after its Mansfield location closed in 2006, Human Resources specialist Linda Artz said. Nine employees still use the van every day, but the company has been adding more services in light of rising transportation costs.
‘Monthly, we were getting communications out here to employees encouraging them to go online and find a [ride] match,’ Artz said. ‘Mainly, the company was trying to be proactive.’
Donald Alger, senior environmental engineer for Allegro Microsystems, said his company’s MassRides program ‘has been going very well’ since its implementation several years ago. Allegro, based in Worcester, has about 600 employees, of which, 125 people are carpooling or interested in carpooling.
Alger said the company’s biggest carpool includes four people, three from Connecticut and one from Beverly. When employees cannot find a ride with coworkers, they can search more than 10,000 entries on the MassRides statewide listing.
‘We’ve been doing it even before MassRides came around, but it’s grown a lot over the last three to five years, especially since the price of gas is going up a lot,’ Alger said.
Judy Tarr, ‘head scooper’ and owner of an Eastham Ben and Jerry’s shop, said the MassRides program allows her to hire teenagers from all over Cape Cod. She learned about the program from sitting on a public transportation committee with a MassRides representative.
‘It’s a great perk when you’re hiring people,’ Tarr said. ‘It really increases the pool of employees you have to pick from.’
A number of private ridesharing websites have also developed and offer a national base of customers. Google ranks as the No. 1 rideshare website in online traffic and media coverage, with 463 listings in Massachusetts, the site’s Executive Director Steven Schoeffler said.
The website, founded in 1999, is similar to MassRides in that users fill out a profile including their destination and travel times to find a match. The service is free to everyone except companies with more than 200 employees, in which case the employer pays a fee for public or private group postings.
Schoeffler said the website markets not only to employees and students but also to travelers, seniors and parents of children pursuing activities such as clubs, sports and music classes. He said he started promoting the site through search engines.
‘I was really excited about power of the Internet to connect people,’ he said. ‘I think there’s a huge need for senior transportation.’
Shoeffler said eRideshare’s traffic nearly quadrupled between February and July this year probably because of gas prices. He said this suggests people carpool for primarily financial reasons over environmental concerns, but drivers do not realize that the depreciating mileage value of their cars is more significant than the cost of fuel.
‘People don’t get it,’ Shoeffler said. ‘They don’t understand how much they’re paying for the vehicle itself. The IRS and American Auto Association estimate the per-mile cost of driving a vehicle at about 55 cents a mile, including gas.’
Carson of MassRides said the state program caters to colleges by hosting events with participation incentives, such as trips and iPods, to inform students of different travel opportunities. It also solicits schools and businesses to find an interest.
‘We do a regular series of events with them when semesters change so people can sign up,’ Carson said. ‘Student schedules always change, so we have to keep their commute profile updated.’
Boston College, Cape Cod Community College, Salem State and the University of Massachusetts’-‘-Boston are a few partners in the area, she said.
Boston University is also listed as a partner on the MassRides website ( BU Parking Services declined to confirm RideMatch’s affiliation with MassRides, and there is no mention of MassRides on Parking Services’ website.
David Biggs, director of student development for Cape Cod Community College, said the MassRides program did not work well for students who claimed the program could not set up matches quickly enough. Instead, the Office of Student Life developed its own program.’
Biggs said the office posted a bulletin board in the cafeteria with sign up sheets, which are collected every Friday. The office sorts through the forms and finds similar routes, then it passes on the students’ contact information to each partner.
‘ ‘As far as our office is concerned, students are responding, that’s good news,’ Biggs said. ‘The bad news is they’re coming from so many different areas of the Cape at so many disparate times, it’s hard to find matches.’
Biggs said students need to be flexible with their schedules to find a ride, and there are not enough students willing to drive instead of ride. However in some cases, as many as four to five students might be sharing one ride.
‘The government program is still there,’ Biggs said, who didn’t know how well MassRides was doing at the college. ‘But ours is alive and well and doing its job.’

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