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September 22, 2009

NuRide: The 'Secret' Way To A Cheaper Commute

I have the solution to highway congestion… a simple plan to cut traffic by 50%. All we have to do is get every SOV (single-occupancy-vehicle) driver to carry one additional passenger who’d otherwise be driving alone. But don’t call this “carpooling” or it’ll never succeed.

Carpooling evokes images of sharing long rides with co-workers who have bad breath, tell dirty jokes or, like me, smoke cigars. You know… the kind of people you avoid at work and surely wouldn’t want to commute with twice a day. Plus, if you’re in a carpool you’re tied down to someone else’s schedule. Sure, you save on gas money, but at what cost?

Well, what if you could carpool “on demand”… pick your passenger or driver… and get “frequent flyer points” as rewards? Now you can, and it’s called NuRide.

Launched in the Washington DC area, and available in Connecticut since 2005, NuRide uses the power of the Internet to match drivers with passengers using a variety of criteria.

Don’t want to share a ride with a smoker? No problem. Hate loud music? Again, you can chose. Only want to share a ride with a woman. Hey, it’s your call (and hers, guys). You just log onto www.NuRide.com to set up a free account, enter your preferences and start searching for a ride. And you don’t have to be a regular commuter to use NuRide. You can use its website just to find an occasional ride to the airport or a lift to the train station (a real plus if you’re on a five year waiting list for a parking permit).

There’s even a special promotion now that will get you a $25 TransitChek if you make two NuRide trips to your Metro-North station.

Members log in their trips, both with other NuRiders and by themselves on mass transit, by bike or walking. How cool is that… getting awards points just for your regular commute on Metro-North?

Each member of NuRide also gives ratings to their partners… did the driver pick you up on time, was the rider a slob, etc.? Bad ratings mean a lower chance of getting a ride from other members.

Best of all, the more you use NuRide, the more points you accumulate redeemable for merchandise, restaurant coupons and tickets to shows. As one member put it, “it’s almost like getting paid for commuting.”

So, what’s the catch? There is none. Merchants get new customers to sample them. Motorists share commuting costs. Congestion is cut on crowded highways.
Mind you, NuRide is subsidized by the CDOT and agencies like MetroPool and RideWorks which use tax dollars to promote car-pooling. But hey, it seems to be working.

NuRide has already attracted over 9,400 members and 1,200 companies in Connecticut. Stamford’s Pitney Bowes alone says their NuRide participation has cut over 4,000 car trips by employees in a year.

Overall, NuRide says their Connecticut members have logged more than a half-million trips saving 678,000 gallons of fuel and earning members more than $41,000 in rewards.

When gasoline prices soared last year NuRide saw a surge of interest just as mass transit saw new riders sampling that service. I’d hope that with gas prices now being down a bit, those who’ve tried NuRide haven’t slid back to their “SOV”s (single occupancy vehicles).

My only wish is that such a great program weren’t so hidden. Our state-funded ride-share agencies, Metropool and Rideworks, haven’t done a very good job of explaining NuRide and promoting the program to commuters, which is a shame.
For more information on joining NuRide just visit www.nuride.com and tell ‘em Jim sent you.

September 07, 2009

The State Budget and Rail Fares

Writing a state budget this year has been like making sausage: you don’t want to watch the process, but you hope the outcome is tasty. Alas, this year’s budget is hard to digest.

As I wrote last June, lawmakers’ summer-long deliberations on a new budget would solely determine our fares as commuters on Metro-North. Back then, Governor M. Jodi Rell proposed a 10 percent fare hike for the trains (and 40 percent for bus riders!).

But she quickly canceled mandated public hearings and said she’ll await the outcome of lawmakers’ work. She laid the gun on the table. Lawmakers may just pull the trigger. Each will blame the other if we take a bullet.

On Aug. 31, at literally the 11th hour as the final touches were being placed on a new budget, legislators pulled a fast one: a pork-filled amendment providing money to a number of projects by reducing the state’s Special Transportation Fund which pays the deficit in operating costs for mass transit.

Democrats claimed the maneuvers were just accounting adjustments and all would work out favorably in the final “reconciliations” of the budget on Sept. 23. There will not be, they hoped, any fare hike.

But one document I received from those deliberations--“the smoking gun”--made specific reference to the funds transfer as being equivalent to “a 10 percent fare increase on Metro-North effective Oct. 1, 2009.” Reading that, I got to worrying.

First, it would be impossible (if not illegal) to raise fares so quickly. The law requires notification of at least 60 days, consent of the MTA Board and public hearings.

Second, any fare increase on Metro-North should really be seen for what it is: a tax on helpless commuters with little choice in their choice of how to get to work.

As for the public hearings, well, they’re really moot if the fare hike is already in the budget. Asking for riders’ input on what’s, by then, a done deal is a tepid PR effort. Nothing that gets said at such hearings can change the inevitable.

Worse yet, hearings scheduled when Rell first proposed this fare hike were set for places and times that guaranteed poor attendance by riders: Stamford’s hearings were to be at noon and 6 p.m., times when Metro-North riders were at work or on the train.

Rell is correct in pointing out that our Special Transportation Fund is running out of money to subsidize mass transit. This is the bitter fruit of lawmakers’ short-sighted decision in 1997 to cut the state’s gas tax by 14 cents per gallon. But it is wrong to now ask commuters, who already pay the highest rail fares in the United States, to pony up even more money.

We may dodge a bullet (if lawmakers kill this 10 percent fare hike), but the gun is still pointed at our head. We’ve got to replenish the Special Transportation Fund without discouraging use of mass transit by constantly raising fares.

Meantime, Metro-North has adopted a “don’t ask / don’t tell” policy in its customer relations. The railroad decided to cancel this year’s annual customer satisfaction survey as its parent agency, the MTA, aligns that questionnaire with similar surveys done on the Long Island Rail Road, buses and subways.

It couldn’t possibly be that Metro-North didn’t want a bad report card, could it? After steep fare hikes in New York State in June, overcrowded trains with little air conditioning this summer, and then the news that Connecticut’s new M8 rail cars would be months late, Metro-North must have known that this year’s survey would give them low marks.

Like a failing student facing final exams, I guess it’s sometimes easier to drop a course than face a bad report card.
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