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A SPECIAL REPORT ON TRANSPORTATION : DIVIDED WE DRIVE : Many Drivers Say Car-Pooling Is a Great Idea--for Someone Else

Times Staff Writer

Charity Gavaza organizes car pools for companies in Irvine, and Margaret Peterson has the same kind of job in Costa Mesa.

But both women drive to work alone. Ironically, their jobs and personal situations make car-pooling too difficult, they say.

“I’m in a unique commuting situation where I have a new baby,” said Gavaza, who car-pooled until her new child complicated her schedule.

Calling herself “typical of most people in a sales-type industry,” Peterson said, “I have client calls on my way in and on my way home. We’re in that group of people who have to have their car to do their job.”

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Unfortunately for those who think that car-pooling will be the answer to freeway congestion, the experiences of Gavaza and Peterson seem typical. In fact, while a poll for The Times Orange County Edition found significant support for car-pooling and mass transit, most people apparently think these are good ideas for someone else.

Thirty-nine percent of those polled believe that car pools and mass transit offer “the single best solution for reducing future traffic congestion in Orange County,” but only 9% said they personally car-pool.

Despite best-laid plans and ever-worsening congestion, car-pooling has failed to capture the imagination of commuters. To the vast majority, it simply seems to be more trouble than it is worth.

For example, the percentage of Orange County commuters who car-pool is down to about 12%-14% from about 16% in 1980. That is a bit better than the national average of 10% in metropolitan areas but well below the 23% during the peak of the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

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The Orange County Transit District’s Commuter Network matching service reports it gets about 12,000 car-poolers together each year, but the average duration of a car pool is about 2 years.

“It has plateaued,” said Peter Gordon, associate dean of USC’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. “We have about as much as we are going to get, given the incentives we have right now.”

Commuters avoid car-pooling for a variety of reasons, experts say, including free parking at work, the difficulty in finding a convenient car-pool partner in sprawling Orange County, jobs that require automobiles and an unwillingness to give up personal freedom.

Those who do car-pool tend to make longer trips to work than those who drive alone, according to a 1988 study of car pools on the Costa Mesa Freeway by the Orange County Transportation Commission. They also come from larger households, leave earlier in the morning, return later in the evening and are less likely than solo drivers to have changed jobs in the past 2 years.

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For years, computerized services such as the one operated by OCTD and the Los Angeles-based Commuter Computer have tried to promote ride-sharing. Government, corporate and nonprofit organizations, too, have organized similar efforts on smaller scales to match up motorists by destination and starting point.

Yet all of this friendly persuasion has failed to get most drivers out of their own cars and into someone else’s.

“Car-pooling and (mass) transit are considered to be inferior commuting choices by most workers,” Roger Teal, UC Irvine assistant professor of civil engineering, said in a 1978 study that found only 1 in 12 commuting workers were likely to share a ride.

The explanations are simple, USC’s Gordon said. Motorists “would have to go too far out of our way to have a car-pool mate.”

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Lee Gislason, UC Irvine professor of psychiatry and human behavior, suggested that the appeal of driving alone may be “the obvious.”

“People like to have the freedom of being able to come and go (as) they want to,” Gislason said.

However, when trips are lengthened, costs increased and vehicles not so readily available, Teal found that “at least 20% to 30% of all vehicular commuters engage in car-pooling without any organized assistance.”

Although his national study was conducted 10 years ago, Teal said subsequent studies in Orange County show identical tendencies.

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Even among motivated motorists, Teal found, a majority were unable to car-pool. Their reasons ranged from irregular work hours or inconvenient location (44%) to the “need” for their vehicle or a desire for independence (15%).

“These obstacles to car-pooling are very difficult to overcome,” Teal said.

As Gordon put it: “There are other reasons that have to do with all the reasons . . . people want to be alone.”

Motorists are “not anti-social, stupid or acting wrong” when they oppose car-pooling, Gordon said. “People are responding quite rationally to the system we have.”

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While some individuals seem to find little benefit to car-pooling, the benefits in the aggregate are more apparent.

In a 3-month period in Orange County, car pools arranged by Commuter Network saved 1.5 million gallons of fuel, 31 million vehicle miles of travel and 750 tons of air pollution while saving commuters $15 million in commuting expenses, said Gary Edson, OCTD’s program director for the network.

“How much would it cost to reduce a ton of pollution? It costs us $216.86,” he said, calculating the operating costs of car-pool service versus environmental savings.

However, Edson conceded, his studies have found that “ecological responsibility” is a minor factor in commuters’ decisions about how to get to work.

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“The major attraction of driving alone is in the convenience it affords,” he said. Those who do car-pool seem to agree.

“I only live . . . a mile away from my work,” explained Julie Groscup, 19, who is employed at a Fountain Valley hospital dietary department. “The person I ride with lives right next door. . . .

“Why take two cars when we’re going to be there at the same time? It would be kind of stupid.”

Of the 45,000 drivers requesting car-pool partners each year, the OCTD’s Commuter Network matches up about 90%. But only about 12,000 in this county of 1.8 million registered vehicles end up car-pooling.

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“You can’t get car-pooling to happen by a cute poster or advertisement,” Edson said. “You need companies to get programs.”

Yet only about 12% of Orange County firms have coordinators to assist employees in setting up car pools, Edson said.

Employers do not get all the blame. Before state law was changed in 1987 to conform with the revised federal tax code, there were tax incentives for car-poolers.

Incredibly, in 1986, only three Californians took advantage of employer ride-sharing tax credits on their state personal income tax returns, according to the Franchise Tax Board.

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Some suggest that a more direct approach might work better. How interested would you be in car-pooling if you had to pay $100 each month for a parking space at work?

At the Newport Center business complex in Newport Beach, 90% of the 10,500 employees drive alone. Not coincidentally, a survey by Centeride, the complex’s ride-sharing program, found that 89% do not pay for parking and 90% have no difficulty finding parking spaces.

“I pay $25 a month to park at USC,” Gordon said. “It’s probably worth $100 a month.”

Donald C. Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor, has suggested that employers be allowed to pay a tax-free travel allowance in lieu of a tax-free fringe benefit in free employee parking.

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At Flojet Corp., a pump manufacturing plant in Irvine where van-pool costs are subsidized, parking is scarce and about a third of the 150 employees van-pool or car-pool. Operations manager Richard Rapozo said the travel allowance sounds like “an ingenious idea.”

“The problem we have,” Rapozo said, “is we are tied to our vehicles.”

For a travel allowance to work, alternatives other than car-pooling may be needed, said Joan Dyer, administrative secretary in the transportation policy and planning division of the Irvine Co.

“But the bus system isn’t all that convenient,” she said.

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Some preferential covered parking spaces are available now for Irvine Co. employees willing to pay for them. But the majority of employees prefer to use the more distant free parking, Dyer said.

State Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee consultant Patti Habel said it is certain that some measures will be introduced in the coming legislative session to provide financial incentives. For now, however, there remains ample--and generally free--parking in Orange County. And most motorists continue to have no trouble just saying “no” to car-pooling.

METHOD OF COMMUTING

People who work for large employers are as likely as those employed at smaller concerns to drive alone to work. People who presently drive alone were also asked about other options.

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1-500 500+ All Workers Workers Drive alone 83% 85% 81% Car Pools Now car-pool 9 8 11 Ever car-pooled * 32 32 32 Would car-pool * 47 42 53

* Asked only of those who currently drive alone.

Source: Times Orange County Poll, September, 1988

Staff writers Marcida Dodson and Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this article.

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