Facebook hitches a Zimride

New ride-sharing program coming to Menlo Park

Facebook will soon launch a new way to connect -- by car. In an Almanac exclusive, the company announced a partnership with Zimride, a ride-sharing service that relies on social networking online, that will debut in Menlo Park by December.

Jessica Herrera, Facebook's transportation coordinator, said her goal is to get people out of their cars.

"Zimride's really great on matching people," she said. "And ride-sharing clears up congestion over the long-term. That's really what our goal is, these types of green initiatives.

"We have a robust system at Facebook and we're now at 47 percent of employees using alternate transportation. ... I'd like to see where (Zimride) goes, see how it works, and see how far we can get with it."

Zimride's CEO, John Zimmer, is no stranger to social networking or to Menlo Park. His company, which started locally before moving to San Francisco, received some of its original funding in 2008 as part of a group of businesses selected by Facebook that could showcase its potential.

The company's main revenue comes from contracts with universities, businesses, and municipalities. Facebook is footing the $35,000 one-time fee for Menlo Park. The city's interim public works director, Chip Taylor, said the city just found out about the program, and is now looking for the best way to get involved.

Mr. Zimmer said the company started thanks to a couple questions. "How do you make carpooling work? How do you make it more mainstream? And it turns out the big challenge is: Who are you riding with?"

The solution was to let people meet online first. The more than 300,000 users currently using the site registered using their Facebook accounts, giving them a way to check out each other's profiles and interests before accepting a ride.

They can offer or ask for a lift, with passengers indicating how much they're willing to pay. Over 90 percent of the users help split the cost of the trip, according to Mr. Zimmer.

Of course, you're still getting into the car with a stranger. "One of the reasons we started the company was because the alternative was Craigslist," he said, explaining that the idea was to help people make informed decisions.

"We take safety really seriously. On Facebook you can see pictures, friends in common, interests, and how many friends they have on there," Mr. Zimmer said. "It's an important indicator of true identity. If someone has 500 friends on Facebook, that's a real person with real ties in the area."

Zimride's users also post reviews of their rides, and a community manager follows up.

Asked whether Zimride's sociability runs counter to Bay Area etiquette that dictates no conversation and as little eye contact as possible between people sharing a ride, he said there are two types of commutes: With casual carpooling, such as a Bay Bridge commute, the etiquette applies, but with Zimrides, the idea is to get to know the person because they're going to share rides often.

The site gets its share of offbeat requests -- Mr. Zimmer remembered someone asking for a walk buddy for a commute by foot to work. It's also had unexpected payoffs; some people found romance on a Zimride, and others found themselves studying abroad after riding with a person from a different culture.

"It's a lot about the community bonds that form, and saving money," he said.

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