Commuters who travel to jobs near Baltimore Washington International Airport by car pool, bus or train are joining a new service that guarantees a ride home in numbers far greater than anyone expected.
More than 500 commuters have signed up for the service since it started at the end of March, said Nancy Van Winter, executive director of the Greater BWI Commuter Transportation Center Inc.
"We're absolutely ecstatic about having 500 people in the first four months," said Ms. Van Winter, noting that similar programs in other metropolitan areas drew only about 100 commuters halfway through the first year.
The service, known as Guaranteed Ride Home, promises ride-sharing employees a free taxi or rental car to ride home when emergencies arise or they need to work overtime. Similar services have developed across the country as government and private officials attempt to combat air pollution and gridlock.
Ms. Van Winter said it's too early to tell how successful the service will be. But she predicted that it will lure more than the 13 percent of the BWI area's 75,000 workers who use car pools or mass transit, based on the results of the first four months of the pilot program.
In the next seven months, she predicted, more commuters will join the service. "We're getting applications daily," she said.
Commuters from 11 area businesses have called on the service 90 times since March, usually after they or a child became ill, Ms. Van Winter said. National Security Agency employees, who have relied on van pools for years, make up a large percentage of the users, she added.
Just two years ago, only about a dozen guaranteed-ride home programs existed nationwide, said Jesse Glazer, a transportation consultant in Southern California. "Since then, there's been an explosion of them, many hundreds," he said.
Employers in Southern California often set up such services to meet the 3-year-old air-quality regulations that require major employers to offer incentives to share rides or use mass transit, he explained.
The BWI "numbers are quite strong," he said. "I'm surprised they're that high when there's no law requiring ride-sharing programs."
In most programs, employees use the free rides relatively infrequently, said Christopher Park, executive director of Warner Center Traffic Management Organization, a consortium of employers in the San Fernando Valley and one of the first nationally to set up a ride-home program.
"It's like an insurance policy," he said.
The Warner Center TMO tracked over 500 commuters, all of whom listed the service as a strong inducement to get into a car pool.
In Anne Arundel County's program, any employee of one of the transportation center's member companies who commutes by car pool, train, bike or bus at least three days a week is eligible for a free ride home by taxi or rental car in cases of personal or family emergencies or unscheduled overtime.
The center, a non-profit partnership among businesses and government that works to solve commuting problems near the airport, has found that commuters avoid ride sharing or public transit because they fear being marooned at work. However, the guaranteed-ride program eliminates that risk.
The Federal Transit Administration awarded the center an 18-month, $60,000 grant, through the Baltimore Regional Council Governments, to pay for staff and program promotions. The center also is using the grant to determine whether free emergency rides induce more people to use public transportation.