Hitchhiking is so yesterday.  A San Francisco-based startup called Zimride is using the power of social media to connect drivers with people needing rides–saving people money, helping the environment and sometimes helping its customers make new friends.

“Zimriding is really fun,” says John Zimmer, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer.”We’ve had people who have met a girlfriend or boyfriend, or found a new job.”

When I first heard about Zimride, I was dubious. Is there really a business in car pooling, especially when it requires riding with a stranger?

After talking with John, and learning more about the company, I’ve changed my mind. Zimride could grow into a nice business. It’s off to a good start: Built on college campuses, around workplaces and events, Zimride by last summer had formed more than 26,000 carpools, created more than 100 million shared miles and saved drivers more than $50 million in expenses. Last September, Zimride raised $6 million in venture capital from investors Mayfield Fund, Floodgate and K9 Ventures. Facebook’s fbFund provided $250,000 in seed funding back in 2008.

John Zimmer

When we spoke over Skype last week, John told me that the Facebook platform is key to driving Zimride’s growth. “If it’s going to be mainstream–if I expect my girlfriend or my sister to do this–we need to reinvent the rideshare,” John said. “We don’t want anonymity.” As Facebook emerges as the identity system for the Internet, it’s a way for people to check out who their ride-sharing partners are, who their friends are, even the kind of music they like, which can be an issue on a road trip.

John, who is 28, got the idea for the company as an undergrad at Cornell’s hotel school, where he graduated first in his class. “From the time I got to college, I was thinking about occupancy,” he says. “When you look at our highway system, 80% of seats are empty. That’s a 20% occupancy rate. That’s an opportunity.” He put in a couple of years at Lehman Bros., got out just in time and was introduced to Logan Green, who had a similar idea while serving on a public transit board in Santa Barbara, where he’d gone to school. They launched Zimride in 2007 at Cornell and at UC Santa Barbara, riding on the Facebook platform. The company isn’t named after John, by the way; it got its name after Logan traveled to Zimbabwe and saw lots of people sharing cars there.

Today, the company has partnerships with more than 100 universities and companies, including Facebook, Intuit, Genentech and PwC. The colleges and companies pay Zimride a service fee to arrange rides, many of which are commutes of less than 50 miles roundtrip. Zimride doesn’t charge people who use the service on its public platform, but it will. For now, it’s most popular in California; plenty of people were sharing rides from San Francisco to LA, but there were few options for rides from Washington to Philadelphia or Boston to New York.

To be really useful, Zimride has to get much bigger, John acknowledged:  “You need enough people in the same place doing this for it to work.”

Interestingly, John thinks that the social benefits of Zimride are as important or more important than the financial or environmental payoffs. “Community is a big part of what we’re doing.”

Here’s how the company describes its ethos on its website:

 Communities aren’t born. They’re made. Built on the shoulders of shared
experiences. Created by people with a common cause,
a common history, or in our case,
a common destination.

We Zimride because we agree on music.
Because we disagree about politics.
Because we care about the environment.
Because we care about our wallets.
But most of all, because

Life is better when you share the ride.

Ride-sharing isn't a new idea

Or John wrote in a recent blog post:

As humans, we spend way too much time getting from point A to point B, often alone. We want to make life better by making travel an accessible experience where you can make new friends. Everyone should have the opportunity to travel, and no one should have to travel alone.

A final thought: Zimride is yet another example of what’s called the sharing economy [See my blogpost: The sharing economy and me], collaborative consumption or The Mesh. Like Zipcar, and peer-to-peer car sharing services like like RelayRides, Getaround and Wheelz, Zimride is challenging the idea that we need to own more stuff. But, as The Times reported the other day, young people are less interested than they used to be in owning cars:

That is a major shift from the days when the car stood at the center of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence.

In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.

That’s good news for the environment–and for startups like Zimride.