Imagine being stuck for six hours in car with a total stranger. It´s terrific.
For a while I was a long-distance taxi, ferrying strangers from the middle of Europe northwards and sometimes from the north of Europe downwards. I´d get a message via an in-box on a web-board that,say, someone wanted to get from Cologne to Hamburg, or to Flensburg or to Aarhus. After some short discussions on price (the passengers dictated as supply exceeded demand) I´d arrange to meet the passengers at an agreed point and off we´d go on a six or seven hour trip together. “Hi, I´m Richard….you must be Helen/Erich/Jonas…”
Cars aren’t that social, I feel. We might talk to family while driving but apart from this incursion into the sacred chamber of plastic and plasticised leather, there are very few other chances for strangers to get into the car and make conversation for extended periods of time. Mitfahrergelegentheit.de is a German website that makes it possible for people to connect with total strangers and share a trip. The obvious advantage is that you can defray the cost of a €120 trip from Cologne, to Aarhus, for example, by selling those empty seats in your car. Passengers (around 2005/2006) paid about €20 each for their seat which is more than nothing though not as much as you’d expect since a train fare for the same route can be €50-100. If I got three passengers that would mean half the cost of my trip was covered, though I usually only ever got one.
When I told them about it, people tended to view this arrangement, of having to spend time with strangers, as risky or unsettling. You get the same reaction when you say you share a cabin with five others on the European night trains that run from Hamburg south (it´s often a great chance to talk with very varied people). I found car sharing made my long trips vastly more interesting as I got to meet and have unavoidable conversations with totally unexpected people. During one conversation I suddenly understood the mistake made with China when it opened up to world trade in the 70s (I´ll l explain later). I would not have had that thought if I was alone with a bar of Rittersport chocolate. Another time I met a rock musician and we talked about synaesthesia. I have all the albums his band have released as a result (I went and bought them) and from time to time I help out with his lyrics (spelling mostly). None of the dozen times I had these temporary friends in the car did I feel anything other than interest though perhaps talking for six hours was a little more tiring than smoking a few cigars. Make that very tiring indeed.
As I mentioned previously I like it that my passengers can enjoy my car´s rear compartment; it was really nice to offer an unusual car to the passengers on these long trips. I got the feeling the car was fulfilling its role. Most of the riders really seemed to appreciate the comfortable seats of my XM and while they would have got from A to B as quickly in a Golf, I don´t think it would have been as memorable as in the XM. I like to think they all have good memories of what otherwise could have been a really boring trudge up the Autobahn.
With this in mind, I might suggest that people find a way to share their cars more. There is a lot about cars that´s quite nice: the speed and the comfort and the freedom to pack a lot of junk in the boot. But they have had a really atomising effect on society which I regret. People seldom even use their cars for long trips with friends (they have a car too). People who own cars tend to sneer at public transport because it means they might meet other people. Yet other people, for all their faults, are mostly okay when you stop to talk to them. Some of them are great to talk to and will tell you about things you´d never otherwise have considered. And having passengers in your car for half a day means talking to them is unavoidable. You learn about them and you can learn about yourself. The three other seats in your car are meant for far more than storing jackets, crisp packets or a weekend hold-all. Wear out those rear seats.