On Saturday morning I met a scuba-diving stranger in a Berlin parking lot, and she drove me to Hamburg.
Time was young travellers thumbed their way around the world. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road propelled a foot-loose generation onto the highways and autoroutes of America and Europe. The world felt vast, diverse and safe. But times changed, and people no longer trusted in the kindness of strangers. Hitchhiking came to be seen as a risky business, and travellers settled for boring old buses and overpriced trains.
To deal with the disappointment – and rising oil prices -- young Germans created carpooling centres, or mitfahrzentrale, in the 1970s. Hopeful travellers turned up at a local office and paid a fixed price to book a seat in someone’s car, then sat around waiting for the departure. In order to be financially viable, the centres charged a commission of 30-50%.
Then along came the internet. In 1998 three University of Würzburg students -- Stefan Weber, Michael Reinicke and Matthias Siedler – met and became friends. As Michael liked to travel to Munich every weekend to see his girlfriend, the trio hit upon the idea of creating a web-based carpool scheme to help him (as well as the course of true love). In 2001 they launched mitfahrgelegenheit.de. Eleven years on the site – recently renamed carpooling.com – facilitates the transport of 1,000,000 people every month, has saved one hundred million gallons of petrol, avoided 630,000 tons of carbon emissions and forged at least 174,000 friendships (as well as ten marriages). Last year the service was rolled out to eight more countries including France, Spain, Poland and the UK.
Its use couldn’t be easier. Drivers simply post details of their intended journey and travellers search for vacant seats, enabling both parties to save money, and to reduce their carbon footprint. About 600,000 rides are available every day. Safety is ensured by participants’ pre-registration and by a passenger- and driver-rating system. In the ten years of its operation there have been no serious incidents, and women tend to use the service more often than men: 53% female vs. 47% male.
On top of that, the service is free if you make the arrangements yourself (a small charge is made for those using the on-line booking service but most of the company’s income come from ads on the site.)
Berlin to Zurich for € 49. Hanover to Munich for € 31. Hamburg to Potsdam for €14. The prices – which are agreed beforehand and usually based on petrol consumption -- can’t be beaten, nor can the ecological argument. Plus carpooling is a great way to meet new people. As for my experience, I drove to Hamburg with a scuba-diving instructor and returned to Berlin with a zoo aquarium shark tank cleaner. And it’s not every day that you meet one of them.
Donnerstag, 14. Juni 2012
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