Are you finding your commutes to work getting more and more stressful? Are the commutes taking longer and longer, especially during times of construction? It pays, literally, to consider commuter options beyond the Single-Occupied-Vehicle or SOV. An option that should get serious consideration is the setting up of a new vanpool for you and your fellow employees/close neighbors. They are becoming more and more feasible to set-up and vanpool services may be more available than you realize.
First of all, what is a vanpool? It is a group of individuals, usually seven to fifteen, who have joined together to ride to and from work in the same vehicle. Normally it is a non-profit entity in which one of the members volunteers to drive and the others share in the cost of operating the van, including any cost of owning or leasing the van. The whole group enjoys the economy of sharing their commuting expenses and the convenience of sharing the ride to work. Another alternative is a for-profit vanpool where a fare is charged by the owner or operator, who retains the profits from the excess of revenues over expenses.
The history behind vanpools goes back much further than I thought. Though some of you may not be so surprised, if you remember the so-called company towns in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the fact that some large companies put together company vanpools to provide transportation to their workers every day. Today, you may hear these called employer shuttles. Btw: in a company town, practically all stores and housing are owned by the one company that is also the main employer.
In 1973, the 3M company saw an opportunity in providing a high-capacity commuter vehicle for suburban employees. In other words, higher than a capacity of one. As part of a pilot project, 3M purchased 6 vans and designed vanpools with eight riders with fares covering all expenses for the vanpool. The program was successful and 3M purchased more vans after only three months.
You can click here to read more about the history.
Today, successful vanpool programs are running throughout the country. For instance, the City of Seattle has been very successful in promoting vanpooling. King County’s Metro program has nearly 1500 vans running in the city and throughout King County, according to 2016 data from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This makes it the largest public vanpool operation in the nation. Metro reported that the number has grown since then. So far in 2018, there are more than 1600 vans with over 10,000 commuters participating in the program. Read more about it here.
Other successes include:
- Los Angeles with 1,378 vanpools,
- Houston with 686 vanpools, and
- Arlington Heights IL with 664 vanpools.
Closer to home, Woodbridge, VA had 404 vanpools in operation in 2016. According to the Vanpool Alliance, which oversees the operations of vanpools in northern Virginia, the number of vanpools has increased to 590 vanpools and is still growing.
Why should you consider a vanpool for your commute? The Vanpool Alliance, again here in northern Virginia, breaks it down into five strategic reasons for considering setting up or riding in a vanpool:
Reduced Traffic Congestion – If there are more vanpools out on the roadway, there are fewer SOVs on the road.
Reduced Cost – You may not realize it, but research has shown that with gas, parking, maintenance, tolls and insurance, driving a SOV to work is the most expensive way to get to work.
Air Quality – Most personal vehicles emit large amounts of pollutants like nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If there are fewer vehicles on the road due to more vanpools, then there are fewer pollutants in the air.
Better Quality of Life – As I said before, driving in congested traffic can be very stressful and downright miserable, especially for those driving very long commutes. Vanpooling offers people a much more pleasant way to travel and many of the vans these days are modern and wi-fi accessible.
Benefits for Businesses – Companies whose employees vanpool to work frequently report reductions in turnover, improved employee recruitment, better on-time arrivals, decreased demand for parking and lower payroll taxes.
With all that, what will it cost? Well, that can vary depending on the distance the vanpool has to travel and the type of van. The average is right around $170/month in the Washington, DC market, where I live. However, there could be financial incentives to help stave off those costs. These incentives may be a direct subsidy to reduce the cost of fare, payments on your transit subsidy card, and gas card incentives for the operators of the van. Check through the commuter assistance programs within your local or state government, and speak with your employer to see what may be available to you. Happy riding!
James Davenport is a TDM Employer Outreach Specialist, on contract with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Before that, James worked for Prince William County/Department of Transportation as a Regional Planner. In that capacity, he represented the county in regional forums and worked with planners and staff from other localities and transit agencies to help the region plan for its transportation future. For many years, James worked with the National Association of Counties as a project manager providing education and outreach to county officials, staff and key stakeholder groups on planning issues such as transportation, water quality, collaborative land use and economic development.