In recent years, Casual Carpooling has seen a slow but notable increase in the East Bay of San Francisco, with new pickup locations emerging sporadically where there is a need. This increased demand for an alternative, unregulated sharing solution can tell us a lot about the trends we should watch out for in society. With a cross-section of incomes, ages, and ethnicities reflecting the local environment, Casual Carpoolers are an excellent mirror of society.

1. The Casual Society

We don’t even need to look as far as Casual Carpooling to recognize that a war is being waged on formality (but I’m a transportation nerd, so that’s exactly where we’ll look!). Rules, etiquette, social structure, which used to be the very foundations of society, are now seen as but a thorn in our sides, a barrier to true, unfettered self-expression. Our relaxing social norms can be seen across the board; language, attire, business, even relationships are being approached with a try-and-fail attitude.

As the name suggests, Casual Carpooling is unplanned and somewhat spontaneous—rider and driver arrival and departure times are restricted only by the HOV lane hours of operation (without these, both time and cost savings would be lost) and they have little control over who they share a ride with each day. What did surprise me, however, was the extent of this spontaneity: 83% have different drivers daily, 56% frequently alter their role from rider to driver, and 69% of riders aren’t even loyal to Casual Carpool*—they simply opt for the fastest travel mode each day, whether that is bus, train or Casual Carpool.

You may assume that because this mode of travel has been around for over 30 years, the habits of its participants show us nothing new about society. However, it is its persistence, its growth, and its strong Millennial contingent (36%), which prove that casual behavior is not just something that works, but something that is desired by today’s society. This is an era where uptight workplaces are being replaced by funky open spaces where flexible hours, limitless supplies of Odwalla, and doggy day care are highly ranked job perks. It is an era where 20-somethings can be CEOs and where peer-to-peer funding has been made commonplace by awesome platforms like Indigogo.

Perhaps a decade from now, we will rebel against the seemingly lackadaisical attitudes of the 2010s and yearn for the constraints of yesteryear. Maybe in 5 years time we won’t be traveling in Ubers anymore or staying in AirBnBs. However, I take great solace in the knowledge that at least one sharing system has stood up to the test of time. It is the Casual Carpooler who gives me hope for a future of efficient resource use and casual work environments.

2. The Technical Society

The number of mobile phone owners in the U.S. who use a smartphone reached 74% in 2013. Among Casual Carpoolers, that number is 85%*.

You can call me a nerd, but these stats give me goose bumps. This community, which has embraced an entirely no-tech solution to their complex commute problem, is just as tech-savvy as its Silicon Valley counterparts traveling to work in luxury, wifi-enabled buses. The endless potential to improve lives through these powerful pocket-sized computers forces us to think bigger, to be bolder and to embrace crazy ideas. Most importantly, they help us buck the trend of wastefulness in society.

They give us access to apps that let us compare green products while shopping (GoodGuide), reduce carbon emissions on our commute, and recycle clothes that would have otherwise ended up in landfills (Poshmark).

While these Casual Carpoolers may not have turned to technology to find commute partners, they still use Waze to feed traffic information into the broader community as they drive, listen to Pandora on their ride, and fire up their to Starbucks app, buy a coffee when they reach the city. These people are not technology-adverse, they are commute-savvy. 

3. The Sharing Society

I could probably spend an entire paragraph just listing out the names of the companies that have emerged in recent years to promote sharing of all varieties (wouldn’t that be a fun read!). Today you can share your parking spot, your desk, your car, a seat in your car, your second bedroom,

that power tool you never use and probably don’t even know the name of. Why is it, however, that we have seen this recent surge in their growth, such as the spread of AirBnB to 192 countries? Is it a greening society looking for a more efficient use of resources? Is our society more disposed to connecting with strangers because of the rise in social networks? Is it a mere coincidence or causality that this sector emerged towards the end of the economic recession of the 2000s?

Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know, is that no one can claim that this is a new concept - sharing is age-old. TimeBanking emerged in the 1980s (although, as we all know time is money - so this one is a grey area for me), the concept of communes came from the 12th century, and religions such as Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all promote sharing in their teachings.

It is the monetization of sharing that is new and that places the Sharing Economy somewhere between barter, sharing, and commerce. Even the monetization of Casual Carpooling is in its infancy and only emerged in 2010 when a toll was introduced for carpools on the SF Bay Bridge. Prior to 2010, 3+ occupant vehicles traveled for free; this was raised to $2.50 or half of the regular vehicle toll. After this price increase for drivers it became commonplace at certain pickup locations for the rider to offer a $1 contribution towards the toll. That means that technically it was only in 2010 that Casual Carpooling joined the Sharing Economy. Beforehand there was no economy, just pure sharing based on mutual benefit. Over 10,000 people Casual Carpooled into San Francisco before you read this article today; this is one thriving Sharing Society!

The Casual Carpool community is a very interesting prism through which to view today’s society. It shows us that, although there is a tendency to distrust strangers, by our estimates 12,500 people meet and trust at least two strangers daily. Through mutual benefit a Sharing Society has grown, through fading rules and etiquette a Casual Society has emerged, and through our continued focus on making crazy ideas a reality a Technical Society has developed. Who ever thought how we commute could tell us so much about ourselves?

 Statistics from research run in late 2013 and early 2014 with Carma and the TSRC  in UC Berkeley