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Vanpools and Carpools can Complement Transit

Baruch Feigenbaum
September 25, 2012, 4:39pm

Transportation officials often overlook one of the easiest ways to decrease congestion—encourage carpooling. According to 2011 data from the U.S. Census, fewer than 5.0% of commuters choose any of the typical alternatives to single-person commuting. About 5.0% choose transit; 2.8% decide to walk; and less than 0.6% actually bike. But almost 10% of commuters choose carpooling despite the reality that carpooling receives little marketing and virtually no funding from any level of government. While single occupant driving continues to dominant as the choice of 76.4% of the population, carpooling comes in second at 9.7%. 

Carpooling or Ridesharing is very cost-effective. San Francisco provides a typical account. While the region spends $8.34 per each transit rider, it spends only $0.63 for each person in a carpool or vanpool. While Oregon spent almost a $1 billion on a new light-rail line and many millions on bicycling and pedestrian facilities, it spent only $23 million for ridesharing on the new Columbia River Crossing. Yet while the crossing will draw 13,175 carpoolers it will only draw 6,425 on bus and rail combined, 700 bicyclists, and 80 pedestrians. That equates to almost $140,000 for each daily transit user, bicyclist and walker. And removing cost-effective buses would make this per user subsidy even higher. Buses and carpools will carry the vast majority of commuters in this corridor in the managed lanes despite receiving 8 times fewer subsidies than rail or bicycling. 

Many transportation types believe the U.S. has missed an opportunity to promote carpooling. Cindy Burbank of Parsons Brinckerhoff studies carpooling; she presented the Transit Cooperative Research Program’s Synthesis 98 Ridesharing as a Complement to Transit at the recent American Metropolitan Planning Association (AMPO) conference. The report details how transit agencies could work together instead of competing with each other by using ridesharing to cost-effectively compliment their services. At present time there are very few of these type partnerships. 

The report available here details how metro areas can develop such programs. The four methods include Solving the “Last Mile”, “Maximizing Agency Revenue”, Creating Capacity through Slugging and Leading through Legislation. I have mixed feelings on some of the findings. While I agree that carpooling is underutilized, I do not think it should be used as a cash cow to support other transit modes. 

Pace, the suburban bus operator in the Chicago Metro area provides a good example of Covering the “Last Mile.” Pace parks its vans at the work ends of the train trip (near job centers) so commuters can complete their journey to their jobs. The flat rate of $58 per month provides a cost-effective quality transit trip. Drivers ride for free and back-up drivers receive a $10 discount. Customers also receive services such as the guaranteed ride home. 

I am less enthralled about how some metro areas Maximize Revenue from vanpool or carpool service. Transit service should be as self-supporting as possible. Maximizing revenue implies the agency is making money from vanpooling and using it to subsidize rail transit. Transferring money from a successful program to a money losing program is a curious strategy. However, programs such as The Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority (DART) Vanpool serve a growing market by providing quality transit service in areas where full transit service is not realistic. Still the agency should consider directly charging customers instead of relying on federal funding. 

In Casual Carpooling passengers park at a park and ride station, or commute via local bus to the park and ride station. Drivers pick up these passengers who share a ride to their destination. This allows the vehicle to use the managed lanes that offer a substantial travel time-savings. The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, located in Northern Virginia encourages residents to use this service.

Finally, I am less than thrilled that the state of Washington provides substantial  Funding Support for Transit. While using gas tax funds or general revenue funds for transit can be problematic, I am pleased that Washington State is supporting relatively low cost carpooling and vanpooling compared to high-cost commuter rail transit. Washington State should work towards providing a Vanpool service that is completely self-supportive without government subsidies.  

Exactly why does ridesharing work and why are partnerships between ridesharing and transit a good idea? The top two reasons why ridesharing and transit work well together are the abilities to bridge service gaps and address market demand. Many suburban areas are not dense enough for regular transit service. Carpool/vanpool matching, marketing to appropriate businesses and providing a guaranteed ride home are the top three components of both transit and ridesharing programs. Of metro areas with ridesharing and transit service, fewer than half of the transit agencies in those metro areas market ridesharing. Yet Vanpool programs are a key component of transit service in most of these markets. And transit agencies should consider how they budget their money. While ridesharing is very popular many transit agencies spend less than one percent of their operating funds on ridesharing. 

Simply developing a program is not enough. Strong interagency coordination significantly improves ridesharing programs. Much better results are achieved when regional planning associations and transit agencies work together. While almost half of customers surveyed are interested in dynamic ridesharing that uses technology such as cell phone apps, there are no current programs. While Washington DOT and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in three San Francisco Bay counties have pilot programs, data is not yet available. 

As technology progresses there will be a greater reliance on electronic technology for ridesharing. Cell phone apps and computer matching will significantly reduce the government costs. Allowing competition such as jitneys would help further. Unfortunately, some transit companies want to engage in monopolistic practices that protect themselves at the expense of providing quality transit service. Current federal rules support these practices. Changing those rules will only increase the quality and quantity of transit service.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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