Levy: Is Carpooling With Strangers the Way of the Future?

Kate Sydney had never met me, but on the basis of sharing a mutual acquaintance, and knowing what I like for breakfast, she unhesitatingly opened the door of her 1998 Nissan so I could ride to Target with her. The trip—from a Cambridge, Mass., street corner to a shopping center in Watertown—didn't take long, but it spared the world 10 pounds of carbon dioxide. Multiply that by millions, and you have one reason Robin Chase started GoLoco, an Internet-based service that uses social networking to create instant car pools. If Chase has her way, GoLoco will be the behavioral equivalent of the Prius, zapping enviro-guilt while cooling off Gaia.

Chase, 48, whose previous start-up was the Web-based car-rental service Zipcar, saw a big problem: 75 percent of all auto trips transporting only one human, driving Earth to ruin with toxic emissions. Her idea was to let drivers and riders use the Web to turn solitary rides into shared ones, saving fuel and cutting costs. She'd also build a business by taking a cut of the fees that passengers on the site would pay drivers to share the costs. When brainstorming the company, she saw three obstacles to her goal: A fear of strangers. The difficulty of finding rides. And a feeling that the effort really isn't worth it.

That last concern, she asserts, is no longer valid—awakened by the threat of climate crisis, lots of people are now eager to win greenie points. The connection problem, she believes, will be solved by a virally growing online network where members routinely post their intended commutes, trips and errands. Close friends will share all their travels with each other. (Hey, Sharon is going to the garden store, I think I'll go along!) Other rides will be posted more widely. The more people sign up to GoLoco, the better the chance that someone is going to the same place you are. Meanwhile, GoLoco will handle the payments that let riders pay their share, without cheesy discussions of who owes what.

That leaves the safety issue. How do you make sure that your GoLoco experience has the joie de vivre of "Little Miss Sunshine" and not the grim outcome of "The Hitcher"? "It's all about framing," says Chase. When you sign up for GoLoco, you submit a picture and share information about yourself from sites like Facebook and Flickr, as well as a list of groups you belong to. You speak into your computer mic to describe your favorite breakfast so that potential ride-sharers can hear your voice. You also indicate what other Olo's you trust enough to ride with, so that others can see if you know people in common. Also, as you use GoLoco, drivers or passengers who accompany you will write reviews of your behavior, eBay style. After taking all that into consideration, Olo's can accept or pass on potential riders. "People will make those decisions the way they make judgments in daily life," says Chase. The crucible for GoLoco will be whether people are willing to open that car door. "There's a great hunger for ride-sharing, and some do it with us," says Craig Newmark, founder of craigs-list. "But the limiting factor is trust."

GoLoco goes live on April 22 (Earth Day), and some Boston-area institutions (MIT, and a consortium including Verizon and Mass General) have agreed to promote it. But rides can be posted to and from anywhere. Will fuel-efficient Internet ride-sharing trump America's belief that single-vehicle occupancy is a God-given right? "It's not for everyone," admits Kate Sydney, the MIT grad student who noted on GoLoco that she was headed to Target, and wound up with me. (Sydney is helping the company for a class project.) "But I plan on posting other trips, because driving alone makes me feel pathetic." If GoLoco makes it, its fuel will be guilt.