June 19, 2011
Easy riders: Vanpooling can save time, money and the planet
Cindra Wright never expected to like vanpooling.
Accustomed to the solitude of her morning drive, she couldn’t imagine making casual conversation with others so early in the day. In fact, the AT&T network operations manager agreed to join a co-worker’s commuter vanpool only because she’d just returned from a trip to New Zealand and was jet-lagged.
“Adjusting back to the time zone was so bad that the idea of someone else driving me to work sounded fantastic,” says Wright. She has been commuting by vanpool from West Seattle to Bothell for five years now.
As Wright soon would discover, sharing the drive — and napping en route as needed — isn’t the only perk of vanpooling. As many ridesharing die-hards will attest, the cross-section of life experiences and job titles in the van can make for some lively conversations — about work, family, health, you name it.
How vanpooling works
- Each vanpool consists of five to 15 commuters. Government rideshare agencies provide the vans, gas cards, insurance and maintenance.
- Drivers ride free. Other riders pay a monthly fee based on their commute mileage, the van size and the number of people in the van.
- Each vanpool establishes its own commute times and meeting spots. Commuters can opt out on days they don’t want to ride.
To learn more or find a vanpool in Washington state, visit rideshareonline.com.
“It’s like having a support group,” Wright says.
Then there are the financial incentives.
“It has been a gas- and mileage-saver on the car,” says Wright, whose monthly vanpool dues are fully subsidized by her employer. “Filling up every two to three weeks versus every five days is an excellent benefit.”
King County Metro — which has the largest public commuter van program in the country — has 988 public vanpools in operation, according to Syd Pawlowski, supervisor of rideshare operations. Approximately 2,500 vanpools operate in Washington state.
For King County vanpoolers, “The average cost for about 50 to 60 miles round trip is $100 a month per person,” says Pawlowski. In addition, he says, public vanpools are exempt from tolls, including the upcoming 520 bridge toll.
Helping the planet
In 2010, King County’s vanpool program had a large environmental impact:
- Reduction in vehicle miles traveled - 46,056,054
- Gallons of gas saved - 2,769,785
- Metric tons of greenhouse gas reduced - 494,484
- Metric tons of carbon dioxide reduced -483,111
Source: King County Department of Transportation
To further sweeten the deal, many of the 450-plus King County employers that participate in the state’s Commute Trip Reduction program to reduce rush-hour congestion offer their workers partially or wholly subsidized vanpool programs. Many throw in reserved parking spots at the front of the office lot, too.
There are, of course, downsides to commuting by group.
“Not having a car to just go if you’ve had enough for the day took a few months for me to get over,” says Travis Duke, an AT&T project manager who slowly made the transition to vanpooling in 2008.
And because it’s bad form to keep your fellow vanpoolers waiting, those who have trouble getting out the door — both in the morning and at the end of the day — need to change their ways.
“You have to adjust,” says Wright, who works a 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. shift. “You can’t take hour-and-a-half lunches. Sometimes at work you get a good head of steam and realize you have to run to the van. You’ve got to watch your time.”
Still, avid vanpoolers say the gains (carpool lane, anyone?) more than make up for the lack of autonomy and rigid schedule.
For Duke, who lives in south Everett and works in Redmond, reducing his one-way commute to 30 minutes was incentive enough.
“An hour one way was a good day,” Duke says of his former solo commute. “It was one of those things where you say, ‘Either we’ve got to move closer or I’ve got to find another job.’ ”
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