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CarmaHop Aims to Turn Hitchhiking Mainstream

<img style="margin: auto;" alt="Jenny OBrien by SK-small" "="" data-cke-saved-src="/images/NEWS/Stephen%20Koranda/2014-8_Pics/Jenny_OBrien_by_SK-small.jpg" src="/images/NEWS/Stephen%20Koranda/2014-8_Pics/Jenny_OBrien_by_SK-small.jpg" height="275" width="520">Jenny O'Brien waiting for a ride in Lawrence. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)
It’s still in the pilot stage, but a new service in Lawrence is aimed at making hitchhiking more mainstream and turning it into a dependable way to get around. The program is known as CarmaHop. As KPR’s Stephen Koranda reports, it’s part of a growing trend in sharing services.



CarmaHop is a service that helps connect people who need a ride and drivers willing to give them a ride for free. It was formerly known as Lawrence OnBoard. CarmaHop was created by Jenny O’Brien to solve a problem. She moved from Lawrence to a rural area outside the city, where they have chickens and a garden.

“But the thing that let all the air out of the balloon was all the dang driving,” says O’Brien.

So O’Brien came up with an idea. She made a whiteboard sign to write where she was going, show that she was organized, and as she puts it, “not an ax murderer.”  She was prepared for a long wait trying to get that first ride.

“I was expecting to stand there an hour or two waiting to get a ride. And the very first car that came by stopped and picked me up,” says O’Brien.

Jenny and others have  been using the whiteboard signs and standing by the side of the road as part of a pilot program.

Recently, the Lawrence OnBoard organization was merged with the much larger service Carma, hence the name change to CarmaHop. The goal is to formally launch the program next month. They already have an app where you can learn about getting a special whiteboard sign and register for an account. The ultimate goal of the app is to help connect willing drivers and passengers.

“You get a profile picture on there. You get email verification, text message verification. You build your profile so people can find you and basically see who they’re going to be picking up,” says O’Brien.

O’Brien says don’t use the “h” word, hitchhiking. It’s roadside ride sharing. I wanted to see it first hand, so I joined her in downtown Lawrence on a weekday afternoon.

“You need a spot where you’re really visible, where cars can see you. It’s helpful to have a stoplight or a stop sign,” says O’Brien.

She sets up at an intersection with her sign reading “the Merc,” a local food co-op, and in under five minutes a car pulls up and asks if she needs a ride. Jenny hops in and she’s on her way.

While hitchhiking may not be as risky as horror movies would have you believe, the Lawrence Police Department says there are still some risks getting into a car with people you don’t know. Jenny O’Brien says you have to use good judgement, don’t take the ride if anything makes you uncomfortable.

There are also still some regulatory kinks to work out with local city officials.

“This program, as far as I know, has not been done anywhere else in Kansas, so we’re kind of the first. So we’re not really sure how this is done.”

That’s Maria Kaminska, an assistant city attorney in Lawrence. There are standard traffic codes that most cities and that state have adopted, and they all say blankly that you can’t hitchhike. The city is looking at amending that. But it could be complicated for rides starting or ending outside the city.

“If the city amends it to allow the program, but let's say Baldwin City or Eudora doesn’t, it would be difficult for a traveler to get a ride here from Lawrence back to Eudora and then round trip,” says Kaminska.

So the program has some wrinkles to iron out. But if it turns into a success, it could be a model for other places. Anne Dunning is a professor studying transportation at the University of Kansas and she has worked with CarmaHop. She says it uses pieces of other transportation and ride-sharing programs, but the combination put together into CarmaHop seems to be new.

“This is a unique situation. And in fact we’ve found that a large number of professionals in transportation are watching to see what we're doing, how it goes. It is something that other communities might want to try to replicate,” says Dunning.

Dunning says it could work very well in suburban areas with limited public transportation, and it could even be used on the Kansas Turnpike. The coming months could show if CarmaHop’s roadside ride sharing will be the next idea to ride the growing wave of sharing services.

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