It only seems fair that if Washingtonians are going to spend what seems like half their lives stuck in traffic, they ought to get some free stuff out of it. Well, God bless America, now they can.
A blossoming commuter service, called NuRide, pays people who carpool. The service works something like frequent flyer miles: For each trip, drivers and riders earn NuRide miles that convert to gift certificates at retailers such as Starbucks, Home Depot, Target, REI, Amazon.com and Blockbuster.
The nearly 1,500 people who have signed up since the service was launched in March schedule their trips through the company's Web site, www.nuride.com. The detailed list of options even lets users see what kind of car they will jump into and whether other riders smoke.
Trips must be at least five miles, and carpoolers are required to log on to the Web site and confirm the trip. Chief executive Rick Steele acknowledged the potential for abuse but said none has occurred yet.
Riders get at least 100 NuRide miles per trip, and each mile is equivalent to a penny, so riders get at least $1 per journey. Two carpoolers earn 100 NuRide miles, three earn 150 and four or more earn 200 per trip. Participants are limited to two trips a day and 10 trips a week.
In a matter of days, riders could earn a $25 gift certificate for a retailer such as the Gap. (You may be stuck on the Capital Beltway all night, but at least you'll look great in those new button-fly jeans.) And if commuters participated every day of the week, all year long, they could earn more than $500 in freebies. Users are not allowed to earn more than $1,000 a year.
The Web site for NuRide also has a calculator to figure out how much money commuters save on gas and wear and tear to vehicles, plus how much pollution they are sparing the environment.
So what's the catch?
"What do you mean?" Steele asked.
Well, it seems too good to be true.
"The catch is how hard it has been for us to convince governments that this is a new way to look at the [congestion] problem," he said.
So far, Virginia has kicked in $450,000 for the program, almost enough to cover start-up costs, Steele said. He said the firm makes money from retailers who pay to have access to NuRiders.
The program benefits everyone, Steele said. Riders connect with other commuters to carpool and get free stuff, while companies reach customers who might use their products.
If there is a catch for customers, it's that their profiles -- what kind of car they drive, where they live, their spending habits -- may not appeal to all retailers, so they may not be able to cash in with all NuRide partners. If riders don't drink coffee, for instance, Starbucks probably will not offer them a gift certificate. Steele said that companies never see users' personal information and that riders do not receive direct-marketing e-mails or phone calls.
"We don't sell e-mail addresses; we don't sell home addresses," Steele said.
The service has signed up some high-profile advisers, including former U.S. transportation secretary Rodney Slater and former Virginia transportation secretary John G. Milliken. Also sitting on the firm's board of advisers is Tony Coelho, a former congressman who led Al Gore's presidential campaign and lately has been dishing campaign advice to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Democratic nominee.
Still, Steele said, there's always time to try to crack one of the real challenges facing Americans.
"One of our big problems is traffic and how can you relieve it," said the Arlington resident, who works from home and has never used the service. "We've got to keep looking at alternatives."