Gas prices inspire commuters to carpool

Wednesday, September 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:23 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jim Lynn and two fellow lawyers from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Jefferson City made their decision two weeks ago after the price of gasoline in Columbia topped $3 per gallon. They would begin meeting at a public commuter lot in Columbia and driving together to work.

“I always knew carpooling would be a good idea, but it took the spike in gas prices to really get us going,” Lynn, an assistant U.S. attorney, said.

The rise in gas prices after Hurricane Katrina has squeezed supplies and has driven some motorists to adjust their budgets — and their driving habits. City transit officials have reported increased ridership, and more people are taking advantage of carpooling.

The commuter lot Lynn uses at U.S. 63 and Route AC is one of two in Boone County and 101 in Missouri operated by the Missouri Department of Transportation. Commuters can park their cars in the lots at no charge. They arrange their own carpool groups and determine who will drive the group on which days.

In addition to increased use of commuter lots, membership in the Mid-Missouri Rideshare Program has doubled since May, according to Larry Archer of the Energy Center at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The commuter database was started in the early 1980s, in response to earlier oil crises, to help people make connections for carpooling.

In May, 123 people were registered in the Mid-Missouri database. By this week, the list increased to 286.

“We’ve seen quite a bit of an increase in the last three weeks when gas got to levels that made people shake their heads and made their jaws drop,” Archer said.

The state has boosted awareness of the program in response to high gas prices and an increased number of telephone inquiries. Archer said his agency is promoting the program in government buildings in Jefferson City because the state is the largest employer in the capital, and many of its employees commute from Columbia. Through the rest of September, drivers may sign up to join the interested commuter list at several promotional sessions DNR is holding at state buildings.

He said the commuter lots provide a safe place for people to leave their cars.

“You save money on gas and wear and tear on the car,” said Tom Neubauer, who works at the Department of Conservation and parks at the commuter lot in Columbia.

Archer acknowledged that interest in the Rideshare program rose even before Katrina hit.

“Before Katrina, when gas was around $2.50 per gallon, people were getting more serious about it,” he said. “I think somewhere in that $2.50 to $3 per gallon price range, we cross a mental barrier where people say, ‘This is enough.’ I think we passed that point with a lot of commuters.”

Barb Danuser had always driven alone from her home in Columbia to her office at William Woods University in Fulton, but two weeks ago she started sharing the drive with a co-worker. She intends to continue carpooling even if gas prices return to a more reasonable level.

“If I can save money, that’s always a good thing,” she said.

The 1990 U.S. Census reported that 13.3 percent of workers in Missouri over the age of 15, or 304,956 people, traveled to work in a carpool. The 2000 Census reported similar numbers: 11.6 percent of workers, or 306,179 people. The prevalence of carpooling in Missouri in 2000 was similar to that of the U.S. as whole — 12.2 percent of workers, or 15.63 million people, reported they use carpools.

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