Workers steering clear of car pools Only 78 join county's ride-sharing program

June 14, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

If you commute from Carroll County, you know the routine.

Each weekday morning, it's just you and the steering wheel. You battle traffic down Routes 30, 97, 26 and 140 toward Baltimore, Washington or maybe another suburb. You push through the crush of commuters racing to get to work. Most are driving solo, just like you.

Take that same trip with a co-worker or two, and you've done something very unusual for a Carroll County resident.

The state's second-fastest-growing county, where more than 80 percent of the working population commutes to jobs outside Carroll, has one of the metropolitan area's lowest ride-share participation rates. Just 78 commuters are registered in car pools or van pools, according to a report released by the Carroll County Bureau of Planning.

Others not officially registered by the county might also carpool, said Carol Reed-Wightman, the county's commuter transportation coordinator. But the small number indicates that the county's 150,000 residents have little interest in seeking alternative transportation.

For residents drawn to Carroll County by its open spaces, privacy and distance from urban centers, the automobile is a necessity of rural living. It provides a freedom residents will not surrender easily, the report concluded.

Not open to ride-sharing

"Carroll County is not as open to ride-sharing as some of the more urban areas. The county is still considered a rural county, and most people prefer to commute in their own personal vehicles," said Reed-Wightman. "We're trying desperately to change the sentiment in this county. But it's difficult."

The phone rarely rings at Reed-Wightman's office, a desk and personal computer tucked into a corner of the Planning and Zoning Department.

Reed-Wightman said she receives about three calls a week from commuters inquiring about car and van pools.

Nationwide, participation in ride-sharing is falling, said Christine Walsh, executive director of the Annapolis Regional Transportation Management Authority.

Families, she said, have grown more dependent on automobiles to fulfill the demands of the day: running to the store at lunchtime, driving the children to practice, going to the gym after work.

Carroll County residents not only resist ride-sharing -- they are also negative toward public transportation. Reed-Wightman said most residents view public transportation as a vehicle for promoting crime and urban sprawl.

More in other counties

The number of participants in the county ride-share program has doubled in the past year, from 39 to 78. Still, it is far less than the department, funded by a $50,000 federal grant, had hoped for when it opened in 1991.

Howard County -- the state's fastest-growing county -- has about 1,000 commuters registered in its ride-share program. South Anne Arundel County has 1,500. North Anne Arundel County had no figures available, but estimated that about 15 percent of the population, or about 20,000 people, are in car pools. Baltimore County does not have a ride-share program, after the County Council voted to refuse $95,750 in federal money for the program in 1996.

Only Harford County has fewer participants than Carroll -- 67 at last count. Harford, however, has an active public transportation program. Carroll has no public transportation out of the county.

In a county survey of seven Carroll County employers, 75 percent of their workers said they were not willing to try ride-sharing.

When Reed-Wightman receives inquiries about ride-sharing, she rattles off the benefits: You save money on gas, oil changes and parking. You save wear and tear on your own vehicle. You save the ozone.

'Flexible lifestyle

Many commuters, however, are not swayed.

"We're bad people," joked Debby Ellis, a supervisor at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, who drives her 1994 Acura 25 miles to work alone each morning.

Some of her co-workers live near her Sykesville home and she could arrange a car pool, but Ellis said she cannot sacrifice the flexibility of driving on her own.

"I don't have a set routine every single day. I have a flexible lifestyle, and I need to have a flexible driving schedule," she said.

Some days, she needs to leave work early to attend her stepsons' lacrosse and baseball games or run other errands, she said.

"There is a cost to driving alone," she said. "But the flexibility is more important to me than saving money. If they start charging $5 a gallon for gas, I'd still drive alone."

When Sylvia Bellak and her husband moved to Carroll County five years ago, they knew the commute to Washington, D.C., would take more than an hour each way. But they agreed to drive together.

That plan fell apart after her husband switched jobs, leaving Bellak to commute alone.

Van pool

Bellak called Carroll County's ride-share office, which linked Bellak with a van pool to Washington.

Bellak's van pool leaves Carroll County at 5: 35 a.m. from a park-and-ride lot on Route 97 and Old Liberty Road, and returns by 5: 30 p.m.

"The morning is quiet time. We don't have the radio on. If some people want to talk, we ask them to talk quietly. Some people are sleeping," she said.

Gail Becker, a crime prevention specialist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has struggled to keep her car pool together.

Two years ago, a group of four drove from Winfield to Bethesda. But two riders dropped out, leaving Becker and her driving mate to search for a third and fourth rider. Both their cars need the rest. Becker's 1990 Honda Prelude has nearly 100,000 miles on it. Her friend has a 1989 Honda Accord with more than 228,000 miles on it. They've wanted to add more commuters to their pool, but it's been difficult.

"It's hard because they're not flexible enough," she said.

Reed-Wightman has also experienced trouble coordinating rides. Her car pool from Eldersburg to Westminster fell apart after her driving partner dropped out. She's trying to find another.

Until then, she'll drive alone.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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