The effects of the October 1973 oil embargo hit Washington area commuters hard. Gas prices topped 50 cents a gallon for the first time ever. Long lines formed at gas stations as fuel supplies dwindled. Getting to and from work by car suddenly became much more expensive -- in some cases, prohibitively so.
Seeking short-term relief and with an eye toward possible future disruptions, regional leaders in June 1974 launched the region's first-ever carpool matching service, known as Commuter Club. The service, initially a partnership of the General Services Administration, Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the Transportation Planning Board, used early computing technology to help people who normally drove to work find or form carpools to save on fuel costs and conserve energy.
Fast-forward to today, 40 years after the launch of Commuter Club. The program, now known as Commuter Connections, has expanded to help commuters take advantage of a range of alternatives to driving alone, including transit, bicycling, walking, and teleworking. Advances in technology have made it easier to find carpool matches and other information. And nearly every local government in the region, plus numerous federal agencies and transportation management associations, has joined the regional partnership.
Recently, dozens of elected leaders, government officials, and employer representatives from across the region gathered to celebrate Commuter Connections and its four decades of service to the region. The event highlighted several major milestones in the program's evolution over the last 40 years.
The program's first big leap came in the early 1980s, after gas prices hit $1 a gallon, having doubled in just six short years. The jump in prices and the growing popularity of Commuter Club attracted new partners, including Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince William counties, and the City of Alexandria. The program acquired a new on-site processing computer and established a new dial-up network with connections between local ridesharing agencies to help speed the return of ridematch results to commuters.
The 1990s brought further advances, including the use of GIS mapping tools to match potential carpool partners and the launch of new online websites to allow commuters to access ridematching and other information remotely. By 1994, nearly every local government jurisdiction in the region had signed on to be part of the network.
Today, as gas prices hover near $4 a gallon, commuters have greater access than ever to information about available alternatives. In May 2014, Commuter Connections announced the launch of a new mobile-friendly website and new mobile apps to allow individuals to easily access commuter information on the go using their smartphones or tablet computers.
Commuter Connections also hosts a number of regional events to highlight and promote commute alternatives. The annual Bike to Work Day event it helps organize each May encourages commuters to try biking to work instead of driving or taking transit. Its annual Car Free Day event, held in September, encourages drivers to try any alternative to driving alone.
Beyond helping commuters save on fuel costs, Commuter Connections also helps reduce congestion on area roadways and improve the region's air quality. Last year, officials estimate that Commuter Connections was responsible for removing 126,000 vehicle-trips per day from area roadways and reducing emissions of smog-forming pollutants by nearly two tons.
As the Washington region continues to grow, Commuter Connections will continue playing an important role in helping area commuters save time, money, and stress getting to work each day and will continue helping to improve local air quality, making the region a better place to live, work, and do business.