Magazine

Critical Mass Isn’t Nuclear With This University Program

By John Van Horn

If you don’t have a “critical mass,” you will fail. Nuclear fission? No, it’s John Zimmer discussing Zimride, an online network for ridesharing he co-founded, which is used at numerous colleges and universities across the country. “If you can’t find rides, why use the program? There must be enough choices so that the system is useful.”
Sirinya Tritipeskul, rideshare coordinator at UCLA, explained it another way: “Ridesharing is hard work. You need to find the right person, who is on a similar schedule and lives near you. That’s difficult. How do you know who you can trust, even if you can find someone?
“Previously, at UCLA,” Tritipeskul said, “the program was available. We’d tried other rideshare programs, but not very many people signed up. We knew we had hundreds, if not thousands, of possible ridesharers living in, for instance, Long Beach, but there were only a handful of potential matches on the site. It made it extremely difficult to find a driver or a rider even if you wanted.”
“We knew that we had to solve that problem before attacking any other,” Zimmer said. “We needed a lot of people in the program, both drivers and riders, from each area. That way when people were put together, they would have a lot of choices. This is our critical mass.”
Zimmer and his company did that by building an online ridematching solution that integrates with Facebook, the social networking website most popular with college students. “Virtually all students and most staff at a university are on Facebook and use it daily,” he said. “By creating a web service that can integrate with Facebook, we’ve built a platform where people are comfortable signing up.”
Whereas the former rideshare program at UCLA had only a handful of participants, after six months, the new campus program had more than 2,600 users and had logged more than 9,500 trips.
“It’s a second generation of rideshare software,” Tritipeskul said. “There are a number of companies that use social networking sites (like Facebook and MySpace) to assist in getting the program to ‘go viral’ in a university.”
“Critical mass is only one requirement for a successful program,” Zimmer said. “Trust is also extremely important. The integration with Facebook allows participants to get to know a bit about a person before jumping in their car.
“Also, the (Zimride) system requires that all participants have a university e-mail address. This means you are talking to someone who is actually a student or a staff member at the school. All this permits an element of trust to develop,” he said.
Each Zimride system partner is assigned a marketing specialist. “They assist the school in promoting the program, give presentations to groups on campus, open booths at campus events, and work to ensure our schools quickly reach the critical mass of users necessary to ensure a successful Zimride program,” Zimmer said.
Zimride began as a program to match people who needed to take single, longer trips. For example, at Cornell, where more than 3,000 students use the system, it matches people who need to return to New York City for the weekend. In California, many who live in Northern California but attend UCLA will use it to find rides home at breaks and on holidays.
Now, Zimride is building successful programs around daily commuting populations at schools such as the University of California San Francisco, where students, staff and faculty are sharing their regular trips in and out of campus.
A rideshare system begs the question: Who is most often looking for a ride, a driver or a passenger? “We get an even split between drivers and ride requests. Many are one-shot rides, and many develop longer-term rideshare relationships,” Tritipeskul said.
“We find that many in the program may have different ride partners on different days. A person could be in two or more carpools, depending on their schedule. Staff has a tendency to gravitate toward a more consistent schedule.
“I live in the San Fernando Valley about 15 miles from UCLA and tend to take the bus to work,” Tritipeskul said. “Via Zimride, I have found a potential driver who lives in my area. Naturally, we connected via Facebook.
“The potential commuter and I have exchanged messages and become Facebook friends, which meant he and I could see each other’s profiles. I now know that this person is around my age, went to the same high school as some people I know, and what he looks like.
“The Facebook integration demystifies ridematching. I may not be able to ride with him every day, but having a ride even a few days a week is a great help,” Tritipeskul said.
Zimmer noted that these programs are of great benefit to a university, particularly those that can’t build more parking due to lack of space. “Every rideshare takes one car out of the system. It lowers congestion, is environmentally healthy, and reduces the need for more parking.
“This type of program needs no infrastructure and offers the lowest cost per trip of any type of commuter program,” Zimmer said. “We take existing infrastructure and make it more efficient.”
John Zimmer, a Co-Founder of Zimride, is the company’s COO. He can be reached at john@zimride.com.

Article Abstract from September, 2009




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