In search of cheaper modes of travel

Commuters: Gas prices make car pools, biking and mass transit more appealing.

Energy Costs

September 07, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Rachel Blizzard lives in Fells Point, works for a nursing staffing firm in Owings Mills and hasn't carpooled since high school.

But now that a stop at the gas station can cost more than a trip to the mall, she's looking for someone to share the pain.

"It cost me $47 to fill my tank," said Blizzard, who placed an online classified ad last week to find someone else who heads northwest in the morning and is just as sick of fuel costs. "It's nonsense that we're all paying these prices, and we're all going in the same direction."

The 24-year-old said she also is considering bicycling to a Metro station, taking her bike on the train and then biking to the office from the Owings Mills station.

After a historic surge last week, gasoline prices might have peaked, economists said yesterday. But with the cost for a gallon of regular still well above $3 in the Baltimore region, car pools, buses and trains are becoming more appealing to commuters who otherwise enjoy the freedom and flexibility that come with going solo.

These days, drivers are seeking each other out like singles looking for love - calling ride-share programs, eyeing colleagues in the parking lot and placing classified ads in an effort to find other cash-strapped commuters.

Administrators of ride-share programs across the region are reporting a sharp increase in inquiries about car pooling, mass transit and telecommuting.

"With prices creeping up to $4 a gallon, I think everyone is considering alternatives," said Douglas E. Franklin, a marketing specialist at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government's Commuter Connections. "Last summer, when the prices got to $2, folks seemed to just grin and bear it. But now, we're starting to see the floodgates open."

Commuter Connections reported a 33 percent jump last month compared with August last year in traffic on its Web site, which matches commuters with car and van pools, offers guaranteed rides home for emergencies and provides information about telecommuting.

Commuter Connections is funded by the transportation departments in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. Last month, about 8,000 people visited its Web site. "We're seeing a lot of interest," Franklin said. "But I'm not sure it's reached the point where people are changing their behavior."

Kirsten Jabara, an attorney in Southern Maryland, is approaching that point. She and her husband are trying to decide whether to give up their flexible work schedules to carpool.

"We're also talking about what else we can cut - eating out, renting movies, that sort of thing - to keep the flexibility of our schedules," she said.

The lure of the high-occupancy-vehicle lane or the bike path has never been greater, transportation experts say. "The challenge for local government leaders is to enable people to use alternatives to one person in one car - i.e., more bike lanes and better transportation," said Stacey Mink, director of One Less Car, a Baltimore group that promotes bicycling and walking.

Mark Cameron started biking to work about two weeks ago to save money on gas.

"I just thought, `This is getting ridiculous. I need to bike,'" said Cameron, 43, who lives about nine miles from his job in South Baltimore, where he is director of the Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit planning group. "I also thought it would be healthy option."

Transportation officials say the interest in public transportation is rising. Ridership on buses, light rail and Maryland Rail Commuter trains and subways increased last month, said Cheron Wicker, a Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman. Exact figures weren't available. Wicker said some MARC parking lots have been expanded to meet new demand.

Nearly 1,000 commuters from Baltimore City and Carroll and Baltimore counties requested information last month from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council about mass transit, said Barbara Herron, a spokeswoman. That was more than three times the number in August 2004.

Requests for car-pooling applications and for information about mass transit were 50 percent higher last month than in August last year at Commuter Solutions of Howard County, which matches commuters with car and van pools, and provides information about mass transit, said coordinator Gary Sightler.

Blizzard is searching for a car-pooling partner online on the Craigslist site, where commuters outnumbered people hitching rides out of state in recent days.

Virtually all the ride-share classifieds posted on the site this week mentioned gas prices.

Ebony Kenney of Randallstown, a software tester, posted a query on the site nearly two weeks ago after she swiped her credit card at a gas station, checked her oil and then saw the pump stopped at $29. "I wasn't even on E," said Kenney, who drives a Dodge Neon.

She modeled her classified after a personal, saying she figured that if she made readers laugh, they'd be more inclined to carpool with her. "$3/gallon, is all I have to say!" her posting reads. "Carpool is my option. Save on gas. Save on stress from road rage and save on sleepy nodding into someone else's lane."

It ends: "Let's save our tanks, one traffic camera light at a time."

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