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Could a Vanpool Work for You?

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:

  1. Los Angeles with 1,378 vanpools,
  2. Houston with 686 vanpools, and
  3. 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.

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The Future of Transportation – Part III

As an alumnus and a member of the Advisory Council for the Civil Engineering Department at Cornell University, I was asked to lead a workshop during the summer CURIE Academy at Cornell’s main campus. The purpose of the summer program was to inspire young women in high school to consider a future in engineering and at Cornell University. The students were exposed to engineering through a series of workshops and exhibitions. My workshop entitled “Transportation: How you can be part of the Future” included a presentation and a group activity.

 Last summer, I gave a presentation on the future of transportation to high school students in Cornell’s CATALYT Program. It was followed by a group activity, which included some ideas that blew me away. This summer I gave an updated version of the presentation that included a new group activity. Last summer, I had the students design a transportation system of the future with no constraints to geography. For this year’s activity, the students worked in twelve teams of four to design Cornell’s Campus of the Future with a focus on mobility options. While designing the campus, the students were required take into consideration populations that are historically ignored when public spaces are created: persons with disabilities, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and international/non-native English speaking students.

The highlights of the workshop are:

  • The young women were shocked at the idea that people can have access to a car without owning a car. Of all my slides, we spent 20 minutes on a slide about car sharing programs such as Zipcar, Car2Go, and Getaround. The students asked me how the program works, the technology behind the programs, and what is being done with the data. One young woman suggested using the data in transportation models to get a better sense of how people move. (Did I mention these are high school students?). The biggest discussion was around the need to own a car and the impact on communities. They were excited about the idea that carsharing reduces the number of cars people owned, but they were concerned carsharing doesn’t do enough to reduce congestion. They also wondered if it was practical to do a carshare program with electric vehicles to reduce the air emissions.
  • Presenting as a team. While my instructions were to select a representative to present the ideas on behalf of the team, every single group presented as a team. They made sure everyone had a speaking role. One team told me, “we worked as a team, so we will present as a team”.
  • Cornell should consider e-bikes. Of the twelve groups, almost all of them included e-bikes in their campus of the future. They noticed that people bike around Cornell’s campus. However, they were also aware of the steep hills. (True story: I walked up E. Seneca Street exactly one time during my 2.5 years at Cornell. I almost died trying to get to the top). The students believed that having e-bikes allows people to have a sustainable and reliable form of transportation, while also having an electric motor assistance to get up the hills. Since e-bikes can be expenseive, they recommended an e-bike sharing program to ensure affordability for all students. One group wanted to see an autonomous e-bike sharing program to help students with disabilities be able to move around the campus.
  • When you can’t fix the weather go underground. Ithaca, NY gets cold and it snows. About half of the groups took this into consideration when designing their future transportation system. They recommended some form of underground transportation. Some recommended an underground subway or hyperloop. Some kept it simple and recommended underground tunnels for people to walk, bike, or use a mobility device such as a wheelchair. (For the record, I would’ve appreciated any of these options as a student).
  • Teleportation from a watch? I didn’t put any limits on their creativity. One team decided that by 2058, students would be able to teleport to their desired location on campus by punching in the coordinates. It sparked some interesting questions from their peers around the practicality and the science behind teleportation.

The more I work with young people, I’m confident the engineering profession is going to be in good hands. They are compassionate, idealistic, collaborative, inquisitive, and super smart. Yes, I’m going to hire all 48 of them (I wish!).

Photo of a classroom at Cornell University with 48 participants in the CURIE Academy

Photo of some of the participants in the CURIE Academy

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Richard Carson - RTX3DKUO

The Impacts of Heavy Rainfall on the Environment

The recent rain events this past week caused extreme flash flooding throughout the Northeast region. Parkways, streets, and metro or subway stations in New York, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts flooded leaving motorists, pedestrians, and commuters stranded and exposed to horrid conditions. I have become worrisome, not particularly of the increase in the intensity and frequency of torrential downpours, but of our current incapacity and mismanagement to handle all of this water. Every time we face intense rain, I have to think to myself: What towns or streets will face flooding? Who would want to walk through a transit system with murky water past their ankles with absolutely no knowledge of what bacteria or toxins lurk in that water? How much more can our water systems take from the toxic materials and untreated wastewater due to outdated infrastructures and sewer systems? Are we really placing public and environmental health, safety, and the quality of life for all as a top priority? Climate change has brought an increase of rain intensity and frequency. Rainfall intensity is the measure of the amount of rain that falls during a period of time while rainfall frequency is the amount of times it rains during a specified period of years. An increase in air and water temperature brings an increase of precipitation.  But we cannot isolate climate change, we must also pay close attention to the factors that it engages with. I can certainly name a few: presence of impervious surfaces, lack of greenspaces, outdated infrastructures and sewer systems. All of these factors exacerbate flooding and can be detrimental to our water systems.

Impervious Surfaces…

The large surface area of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs, that have replaced our natural landscape, do not allow water to infiltrate into the ground and speeds up the process of rainwater runoff entering the drainage systems. The runoff and the pollutants collected from impervious surfaces are either turning into floods or entering our water systems at a faster rate than it can be managed.

Lack of Greenspaces…

This kind of ties in with impervious surfaces. I think it’s safe to say that the more impervious surfaces we create, the less access to greenspace we have. Greenspace is extremely crucial. It provides benefits such as reducing and filtering polluted stormwater runoff, reducing soil erosion, and improving air quality. When we lack greenspace, we have to deal with a lot of preventable challenges. With a lack of soil and vegetation to absorb and filter the rainfall, we experience flooding and overloaded sewers. With a lack of vegetation, we experience an increase in air temperature (Note what I stated earlier about the effects of an increase in air temperature).

Outdated Infrastructures and Sewer Systems…

The outdated infrastructures and the combined sewer systems were built only to hold a certain capacity of rainfall. In addition, transit systems and roadways aren’t effectively updated or repaired. Poor management leads our infrastructures to dilapidate and become swamps. In the recent floods, water leaked through the concrete vaulted ceilings of the WMATA Capitol South metro station. In a few of New York’s subway stations, water entered through the ceiling and stairways flooding the stations. Combined sewer systems are typically found in older cities. When the capacity of the system is surpassed, the untreated wastewater and stormwater runoff flows into our waterways or can back up into buildings through the pipes or overflow from the storm drains onto the streets.

 

GW Parkway

Flooding on the George Washington Memorial Parkway

GW Parkway at DCA

Flooding on the George Washington Memorial Parkway

Martha Custis Drive in Parkfairfax

Flooded street on Martha Custis Drive in Parkfairfax, Virginia

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Water leaking through concrete vaulted ceiling in Capitol South Metro Station, WMATA

Capitol South Metro

Flooding conditions in Capitol South Metro Station, WMATA

Flooded NYC Subway Station_03

Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

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Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

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Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

Now What…

With climate change there will be an increase of storm intensity and frequency, but how do we plan and design for worsening conditions? As the climate changes we must adapt our habits, the way we design, and our management of infrastructure. Stormwater management practices are used to reduce stormwater runoff, control flooding, reduce erosion, and improve water quality. These practices include green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), flood control reservoirs, and tunnels (SMART Tunnel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the Deep Tunnel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin addresses flash flooding and stores millions of gallons of overflow and sewage). Green infrastructure can be used to not only address our stormwater issues but to beautify our communities by creating healthy environments. Just imagine walking, driving, or riding your bike down a green street filled with a canopy of trees, native vegetation, GSI interventions, enhanced sidewalks, public art, and other street design features. A green street utilizes green infrastructure, improves public health and safety, and can even yield economic benefits.

We also have to contemplate all of the paved vacant lots or unused parking lots. For an example, malls all over the United States have an immense amount of parking.  What can we do with these spaces? These are opportunities to implement green infrastructure and green spaces for public spaces that can incorporate activities, pop-up spaces, farmers markets, etc.

In addition to the stormwater management practices, the timely repair and maintenance of infrastructure needs to be a requirement or else it will not function properly. Also, funding should be appropriately allocated to ensure that the proper solutions are identified and instated.

The strategies will not be the same in every location because the approach should be acclimated to the specific needs of that region based on in-depth analysis, research, and community engagement. However, with careful and purposeful consideration and action we can move in the right direction. I leave you with this: How can you be a part of the movement to create safe, equitable, and sustainable infrastructures and communities?

 

Jazmin Kimble is a Geo-Designer, Urban Designer, and Architectural Designer from Long Island, NY. She has a passion for empowering and planning adequate, equitable communities through the lens of Geodesign, Urban Design, Community Development, Sustainability, Environmental Solutions, and Community Engagement. Jazmin believes the culture and the history of a community is what makes it unique. This approach allows her to design with communities from a holistic viewpoint.





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