James Davenport Transportion (Past, Present and Future)


What’s Next on the Horizon

Envision that, tomorrow, there is a vaccine for COVID-19. Now we can celebrate. Go to our local bar, forget the mask, forget the social distancing. We now have a cure. Likely scenario, right?

Not quite. There will be a long transition time. With the initial vaccine, we probably will not be sure it is 100% effective. There will be precautions that we must continue to take, even if we do have access to a vaccine. The masks and social distancing will be with us a long time. Sorry folks, but that is the reality.

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I do not want to be a total downer. As we know, congestion on our highways and byways has been more manageable over the past 5-6 months. Air quality has improved as more people are using telework and/or are spacing out their driving across the entire day, which is a transportation professional’s dream.

As companies are finally taking to telework, let us get back to the scenario that I first described. What will commuters do when the COVID-19 crisis becomes more manageable? If it becomes safe or feasible to go back to the office, will they go back to taking transit, resume their vanpool, continue flex-schedules again, etc.?

My guess is that zoom meetings and working virtually are with us to stay. Workers now have the flexibility to organize worktime at the office and worktime at home for hours that are convenient to them. Businesses have setup telework policies and purchased the essential equipment for the employees to telework, there is no reason to assume that they will totally drop telework with the go-ahead to return to the office. They will continue to practice telework, but for one to two days a week rather than four to five days a week.

So, what happens during the days they do go into the office. Unfortunately, they may forget their good shared-riding ways before COVID and drive in alone. My first reaction is “Tisk, tisk, tisk.”

How will this impact transit? Especially in the beginning, ridership may indeed lag. If that is the case, transit agencies may respond by incorporating more real-time but smaller vehicles into their transit service. You may have heard the word micro-transit.

What will the message be to encourage commuters to consider ridesharing once these strategies are deemed dependable and safe again? Well, in many instances, we may not be promoting the use of a vanpool for five days a week. We may be promoting vanpool usage to commuters for two to three days a week since the employee teleworks the other two days.

Of course, matching one rider with other riders who have the exact schedule will be even more of a challenge. Not only do we have to match riders from one location going into the office at certain times of the day, but also certain days of the week. We can assume folks would prefer to telework Mondays and Friday, but not everyone in the company, especially if the company has a relatively small number of employees, may have that option. That is probably the reality that is ahead of us as transportation professionals, we resume the mission to promote ride-sharing post COVID.

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Of course, I can only speculate. One thing I can say is that as needs in the transportation system change due to either COVID or advances in technology or both, decision makers must figure how to meet those needs. Even if the conditions constantly change, the goal does not. And that goal is to reduce congestion on our nation’s roads and at the same time make sure they are as safe as possible.


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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There is no Going Back to the “Old Normal”

There is no Going Back to the “Old Normal”

You may have heard or even said “we are living in some strange times.” Many of us are waiting for everything to go “back to normal”. I don’t believe there is a “going back to the way things were.” History has shown us that during major catastrophic events such as pandemics, wars, and economic challenges, life never returns to the way it was.  And one change I see is that telework will become more of a normal business operation.

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Before the Covid-19 Pandemic, we as Transportation Demand Management Outreach Coordinators were promoting ridesharing (Carpools, Vanpools, Buses, etc.) over driving to help reduce congestion on our clogged roads and highways. We had some successes as people realized they could save time and money.

Then Coronavirus hit and the message became quite different. With the safe distancing precautions in place, we were not promoting ridesharing anymore. In fact, since the stay at home orders went into effect, very few people were able to go to their office anyway. I can’t say first-hand since I am working remotely 5 days/week right now, but traffic volumes on many of the nation’s highways have dropped considerably. Goes to show you how effective telework can be in reducing traffic congestion.

But, even in the DC area where a good number of workers already worked remotely before Covid-19 (heavily influenced by the federal work force), many companies refused to allow telework for various reasons, including security. But companies, that were once resistant to telework,  were forced to put infrastructure in place to allow their employees to telework and eventually develop a company-based telework policy. Even businesses/entities you would not think would ever implement telework (such as K-12 schools, medical professionals, and security firms) now see telework as a viable option. I am not saying “no one will ever work in their office again.” But I predict, the number of workers who telework will be higher that pre-pandemic levels. Companies that were resistant before, have bought in. Now, the Genie is out of the bottle.

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We all know the benefits of telework such as continuation of operations and improvement of retention and recruitment. And it is hard to argue against those. However, my favorite argument for the future of telework is taken from a slide of a colleague’s presentation on telework which shows the improvement of Air Quality in Los Angeles. You know what they say, “A pictures Paints a Thousand Words.”

Of course, I can only speculate. If anyone has a crystal ball, let me know. I would like to see what the future holds for us. But until that happens, we will keep doing the best we can in the current situation. And if telework becomes more the normal than the exception in our upcoming future, I think that is a good thing.