Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/31/2008 11:19:00 AM ET 2008-07-31T15:19:00

If you feel the same way about gas prices as the graffiti artist who scribbled “F*!# gas” across a south Florida service station fuel pump, maybe you're ready to take action. Joan Bougher has. This past Memorial Day weekend, she left a service station with a pricey tank of gas — and a plan.

“That $40.40 bill triggered a light-bulb moment for me,” she said.

The 65-year old Spokane, Wash., resident used to drive everywhere. In June, she decided to park her car and learn to ride the bus. Her friends thought she was “a little crazy,” but, armed with a bus pass, Bougher found her way to the mall, the grocery store, the doctor, the dentist, the hairdresser “way across town” and to her part-time job downtown. "It turns out that it takes just three minutes longer to get to work on the bus than in my car,” she said.

Now a regular on the bus, Bougher can spot the “newbies,” and she says there are lots of them: "Almost every day, but especially on Monday mornings, there are new people getting on the bus and asking lots of questions about how to get around.”

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Across the nation
According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Americans took nearly 85 million more trips on public transportation in the first three months of 2008 than they did during the same time period in 2007. Meanwhile, rising gas prices have prompted Americans to cut back on driving.

The Federal Highway Administration recently noted that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April 2008 than they did in April 2007.

Some of those “missing miles” have undoubtedly been absorbed into carpools. In 2006, the Census Bureau found about 10 percent of Americans carpooled to work. No official counts have been done since, but Marge Gasnick, who heads the RideShare program at the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) in Kansas City, Mo., says interest is rising as fast as the price of gas. She said carpool inquiries spiked after Hurricane Katrina, but dropped off a few months later. Now, something is very, very different. “It’s not just the gas prices, it's the economy itself. Food prices and prices in general. People are more stretched with their budgets and trying to find ways to spend less money,” she said.

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While it's more difficult to account for carpools vs. bus ticket sales, Gasnick says, “I can tell you that in just the last month, registrations on our carpool Web site have gone up significantly. At the beginning of 2008 we had about 2,000 people in our database [of people looking to join carpools]. Now we have more than 3,500.” The agency also has been fielding more calls from employers trying to find ways to help their workers keep a lid on commuting costs.

Carpooling — and critiquing hairdos
Jeff Madden, who works at a Kansas City marketing and design firm, is new to carpooling. During the four years he drove — alone — the 50 miles to and from work, he'd often think about carpooling, but says, “when gas prices hit $3 a gallon, I started getting serious.”

Madden's co-worker, Jody Moore, felt the same way. So about a year ago they joined forces in an informal carpool. They switch driving responsibilities each week and entertain each other on the commute by critiquing the graphic design of roadside billboards (“sort of work-related”) and the big hairdos of other drivers (“not work-related, but fun”). Moore says that while her husband had some reservations about her joining a carpool, he's all for it now that he sees how much money they're saving. “It's like I got a $100 a month raise,” she said.

It's not for everyone
MARC's Gasnick says carpooling has loads of upsides, but it's definitely not for everyone. “We tell people to meet in person at a public place before they start sharing the ride together. And we advise people not to completely change their commuting habits right away — try it out a couple of times first to see if it works for you.” MARC also warns potential carpoolers about some of the things that can be irritating about sharing rides, such as waiting for other people to show up at a meeting place. The agency also encourages newly formed carpools to use a cost-of-driving calculator to determine how much each rider should pay. And don't hesitate to re-calculate the fees as gas prices rise.

Carpool etiquette — dos and don'ts
Of course, as well-mannered travelers know, there are other etiquette issues to keep in mind. Gasnick remembers one carpool that had a driver with bad driving habits. “They wanted to know how to get that person out of the carpool. We told them to try to be non-judgmental. Instead of saying ‘your driving stinks,’ try telling that person ‘We've decided to drive with someone else because we don't feel safe when you're driving.’”

For most other carpool etiquette issues, Gasnick points carpoolers to the agency's helpful tips. Among them, carpool members should agree on some ground rules, such as:

  • Whether or not food and drinks are allowed in the car
  • How long drivers will wait for slowpokes to show up
  • The acceptable levels of perfume, cologne and cell-phone use.

There's also a handy list of advice short enough to clip, copy and distribute to all riders and long enough to cover many crucial “let's keep it civil” topics.

For example, while the tips don't specifically address critiquing hairdos of other drivers, it does advise carpoolers not to bring up “controversial topics like religion or politics unless you know your fellow carpoolers well.”

Bonus benefits
After a year of driving to and from work together, Moore and Madden know each other well enough to discuss at least one topic that might be taboo in other carpools: issues from work.  Madden says being able to debrief with his co-worker on the commute means he's ready to concentrate on and enjoy his family when he arrives home.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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