James Davenport Transportion (Past, Present and Future)


Past, Present and Future of Vanpools

Most likely, commuters are not thinking about starting vanpools these days.  Given the social distancing requirements and the precautions that need to be followed, it is more of a challenge to start and/or maintain a vanpool during the COVID-19 Pandemic. But as businesses are beginning to open and may attempt to bring back their employees to pre-COVID occupancy  for the beginning of next year, it may be something to think about as highway congestion becomes an issue again. Vanpools are still an effective option to address that issue.

First, what is a vanpool? It is a group of individuals, usually seven to fifteen, who have joined to ride to and from work in the same vehicle. Normally it is a non-profit entity in which some members volunteer 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 shares both the commuting expenses and the convenience of riding to work together. 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.

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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. In this instance, large companies put together company vanpools to provide transportation for 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.

Today, these shuttles are not considered vanpools. But I will not get into those technicalities at this point. It is safe to say that these shuttles played a big role in the establishment of the vanpools as a viable and economic commuter option that we see today.

Through research, I found that 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; therefore, 3M purchased more vans after only three months.

Before COVID-19, successful vanpool programs were running throughout the country. For instance, King County Metro’s program has nearly 1500 vans running in the city of Seattle, WA 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 had grown since then.   So far in 2018, there are more than 1600 vans with over 10,000 commuters participating in the program.

Closer to home, Woodbridge, VA had 404 vanpools in operation in 2016. According to Vanpool Alliance, which oversees the operations of vanpools in northern Virginia, the number of vanpools had increased to 590 vanpools over the years and was still growing.

Again, that is before COVID-19. Many of those vanpools are not operating currently and their future is uncertain. And it is hard to say how vanpooling will be affected as commuters start going back to the office and social distancing requirements are eased. I can only say that as congestion on our nation’s highways become a challenge to commuters, it will be important for commuters to again consider vanpooling as a viable commuter option.

In addition, do not forget to consider the financial incentives to help stave off costs of starting and maintaining a vanpool. These incentives may still be available as 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. It never hurts to check through the commuter assistance programs within your local/state government or regional entity. Also, speak with your employer to see what still may be available to you.

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Did you Hear the News?

Shout it from the Roof Top. Tell all your friends. Spread the news….Have I used enough clichés? The new Commuter Connections’ 2019 State of the Commute Survey Report, that was released last month, revealed some important findings.

The report found that “Drive-alone commuting continues to decrease, while alternative modes of transportation, including transit and telework, are on the rise among commuters in the D.C. region.” Before we get too excited, it also mentions that driving alone still continues to be the primary mode in the region. But the percentage of Single Occupied Vehicles (SOV) has dropped from 71 percent in 2004 to 58 percent in 2019.

Over the same period, transit use increased from 17 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2019. The major portion of the new percentage increase was Metrorail. The remainder was Commuter Rail at just over 1.5% and bus at just under 6%. Not surprisingly, telework almost tripled over the period and other modes such as carpooling, vanpooling and Bike/Pedestrian remained the same.

But this isn’t the only good news I recently heard. Yes, there is more news about commuter options.

First of all, I know what you’ll say next in response to this development. You will shrug and say, “of course SOV usage is declining in the NOVA region. There are so many more commuting options available in metropolitan areas such as the DC region. But in suburban or more rural areas, the only option that is available to commuters is the SOV. People in rural areas don’t have access to anything like Metrorail or a robust bus service.”

Well, you would be wrong melon head. Sorry, I slipped into my Johnny Carson persona for a moment. Am I dating myself? I recently read an article that was more encouraging to me, in some ways, than the Commuter Connections draft report. A new vanpool program is being introduced in the Lynchburg area in Central Virginia. The program is set to launch sometime next year with the goal of providing an alternative transit method for employees who live 20 or more miles from their job.

What got this going? Well, in September, the Central Virginia Planning District Commission (CVPDC) received a $72,000 mobility grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) for a vanpool program for employees in the region who live farther than 20 miles from their work. DRPT provided 80% of the grant while CVPDC provides the other 20% — $18,000 over the next two years. The commission represents the city of Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell, VA. The grant helps to pay for fees associated with rental of the vans rather than the actual purchase.

From this article, it is clear that community and business leaders saw vanpools as a valuable commuter option for a region like Central Virginia because it can reduce employee costs while cutting down on congestion. They are especially helpful to a workforce that may have limited public transit options and to a region that has a number of companies that use shift work in its operation. In essence, decision makers determined that vanpools provide access to employment in the absence of other viable options, other than driving alone.

I commend the Central Virginia region for moving forward in this initiative. It goes to show that alternative commuting options aren’t unique to just urban areas. With a little innovative thinking and a little bit of funding, you can go a long way in addressing a transportation need in your community. You can rest assured that transportation challenges will continue to be an issue for decision makers and planners in both rural and urban areas, especially as populations get older and driving alone simply is not an option anymore.


Written by nspiregreen on December 12.

Did you hear the news?




Could a Van Pool Work For You?

Written by nspiregreen on . Posted in BlogSustainabilityTranspo

Find out a little history and how successful some vanpool programs have been throughout the years.