Seattle Times Web

Can "hitchhiking" help commuters? Consultant seeks to ease congestion

By Eric Pryne, Seattle Times staff reporter

Steve Raney has a new idea for getting suburban commuters out of their cars that isn't really new at all: hitchhiking.

The Palo Alto, Calif., transportation consultant has come up with a scheme that he says would let people who live near major thoroughfares catch rides to work without the uncertainty of traditional hitchhiking or the rigidity of organized car pools.

They'd do it with technology instead of their thumbs, using transponders, the Internet and cellphones to connect with co-workers driving through the neighborhood on their way to work.

Raney calls his brainstorm "digital hitchhiking" or "casual car-pooling." He wants to test it with one employer Microsoft on one corridor: 148th Avenue in Bellevue, a four-lane arterial many Microsoft workers use to reach the company's Redmond campus from Interstate 90.

Raney has pitched the idea to Microsoft, King County Metro, and Redmond and Bellevue city officials, so far without success. All have told him they have higher transportation priorities.

Raney has nothing critical to say about the people who have turned him away. "It's not Microsoft's job to pioneer new commute-trip reduction ideas for the entire nation," he says.

But he maintains his idea could someday make a dent in the large number of commuters who live just a few miles from their suburban jobs and drive to work alone.

It's a market that has been especially resistant to transit, car pools and other alternatives to solo commuting, Raney says: "Currently, there is no solution."

Tool to fight congestion

Raney isn't the first person to think of hitchhiking as a tool to fight congestion.

Drivers in Washington, D.C.'s, Virginia suburbs looking for enough passengers to drive in freeway high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes have been giving lifts to strangers since the 1980s. They connect in the morning at bus stops and in restaurant parking lots.

The small Marin County, Calif., community of San Geronimo began registering prospective hitchhikers and drivers willing to pick them up in 1997, then designated official hitchhiking stops along the town's main road. Hitchhiking has since been largely replaced by a shuttle bus, according to the project's Web site.

Raney says he began exploring the "digital hitchhiking" concept several years ago while he was pursuing a master's degree in transportation planning at the University of California, Berkeley. His interest in technological approaches to traffic came naturally: Before going back to school, he had worked for Microsoft and several other high-tech firms in Silicon Valley.

Raney says he spent about one day a week on Microsoft's Redmond campus in the mid-1990s and gained some familiarity with the geography of workers' commutes. He says the work he's done so far on a digital-hitchhiking pilot project there has been financed by retired Microsoft employees.

Here's how he envisions it would work:

For his hitchhiking guinea pigs, Raney would recruit about 100 Microsoft employees who live within one-third mile of 148th between Interstate 90 and Highway 520 and work at one of nine closely spaced buildings on the Redmond campus.

He also would recruit 200 Microsoft solo commuters who funnel onto northbound 148th at I-90 each morning from points east, west and south. Transponders would be affixed to their windshields so a "reader" on 148th Avenue Southeast, just north of I-90, could identify them when they enter the 4-mile-long corridor.

When a prospective hitchhiker who lives near 148th is ready to leave home, he'd contact a server through his home computer or by cellphone. In turn, the server would send a text message with estimates of when the next few hitchhiker-friendly cars are likely to arrive at his preferred pickup point.

Drivers and passengers would hook up at designated zones at bus stops on 148th. Hitchhikers could walk or bike there all the drivers' cars would have bike racks while checking the status of their ride continually if they choose.

"Tech workers tend to like control," Raney says.

How about security? "They can flash their Microsoft ID cards at each other," he says.

And getting home from work? Hitchhikers could use their office PCs to arrange rides.

Raney says he hasn't worked up a precise budget for the pilot project, but figures it wouldn't top $200,000. The software that would make everything run wouldn't be a big challenge to write, he maintains.

Providing an incentive

But Raney acknowledges he hasn't worked out all the details. One of the biggest questions: Just what incentive would hitchhikers or drivers have to participate?

There are no HOV lanes on 148th; participants still would be stuck in traffic. The trips could take longer than driving alone.

Raney says there's some evidence people might be motivated simply because they'd be doing something about traffic. If that doesn't work, they could be rewarded with coupons from retailers. Or drivers might be given cash say $2 per day per passenger.

Dmitriy Nikonov, a Microsoft program manager who drives 148th to work from his home in Newcastle, says he'd pick up digital hitchhikers in return for a reserved parking space on campus. Now, he says, he spends five minutes every morning searching for one.

Nikonov, one of several Microsoft workers who recently accepted Raney's invitation to discuss digital hitchhiking over lunch, says he likes the idea because it doesn't require the commitment of a formal car pool: "I don't have to do it every day, or at any specific time. It works around my schedule."

Other projects on table

So why haven't Microsoft and local transit and planning officials embraced the concept?

Microsoft won't say much about it. In an e-mail, spokeswoman Tami Begasse said the company is working to increase bus service from Seattle and the Eastside and to improve campus shuttle service.

"In addition, we are waiting to complete other projects related to our campus before diving deeper into other options," she wrote.

Others, while praising Raney's creativity, foresee problems making digital hitchhiking work.

Liability could be a concern for any employer sponsoring such a program, says Redmond planning director Roberta Lewandowski.

Kris Liljeblad, assistant director of Bellevue's transportation department, says that bus stops on 148th have their own pullout lanes, but a car stopping to pick up a hitchhiker could slow traffic.

What's more, he says, the project could poach riders from Metro buses and cost the transit agency money.

John Resha, executive director of an association that works with Microsoft and other Redmond employers to reduce solo commuting, says Raney has some good ideas. But he questions whether all the gadgetry Raney envisions would be too much for some. And he says Redmond civic and business officials already have plenty on their transportation plates.

A partnership with Metro has produced more than 30 new van pools in the Overlake area over the past year. Sound Transit is exploring extending rail or some other kind of high-capacity transit to the Eastside. And finding money to widen the 520 bridge remains a priority.

So where does that leave Raney? He says he'll continue to polish the digital-hitchhiking concept, write an academic paper on it, and keep fishing for a large employer who's willing to give it a real-world test.

"Let somebody else try it and work out the bugs," Lewandowski says.

"It may make sense as he does more of the academic work," Resha says. "If it pencils out over time, it could work out."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or