One of the greatest challenges of every transit agency is to reduce the reliance on the single-occupant-vehicle, especially during times of peak traffic congestion. Historically, buses and rail options have received the most focus and the largest budgets. HOV lanes, managed lanes and toll roads have recently gained in popularity, and have begun to see significant increases in attention and funding. The focus of this article is the relatively low-cost, historically underachieving, often misunderstood options of carpooling and vanpooling. With recent increases in public acceptance of these options — combined with improvements in Web-based, user-driven, instant-matching ride-matching software — carpooling and vanpooling promise to have a much larger impact on reducing traffic congestion in communities throughout the United States.
Ridesharing services such as carpool and vanpool matching have been part of The Rapid’s offerings since 1979. In 2000 The Rapid examined the value of providing a regionally-based vanpooling program that addressed the needs specific to West Michigan. The State of Michigan has a statewide contract with a vanpool provider, but at that time the state-sponsored program was not fulfilling local needs. At first it was difficult to get state approval to start The Rapid’s RapidVan program, but after demonstrating the specific requirements of West Michigan businesses at the time, the state was agreeable to a regional vanpool program in West Michigan.
As part of the planning and assessment activities, The Rapid began with researching vanpool programs around the country as well as seeking comprehensive input from local stakeholders and domain experts in law and fleet management. The Rapid received much input from area businesses, mostly from the Employers Advisory Council (EAC), an advisory group to The Rapid’s board that is made of area business leaders. The EAC meets quarterly and was invaluable in helping set up the RapidVan program as staff from The Rapid could ask executives their opinions on liability limits, responsibilities of employers in employee commutes, the inability of working overtime if in a vanpool, actual savings in not constructing new parking lots, benefits of environmental impacts and how supporting a program like this would affect their bottom line in a trusted, confidential and open environment. The Rapid also used contracts from other transit agencies as the base of their contracts, which simplified the process and kept the legal fees reasonable.
Unfortunately, when the RapidVan program was launched in early 2001 the economy in Michigan was no longer thriving and the businesses that had come to The Rapid requesting a vanpool program were no longer hiring employees; in fact many were in the midst of layoffs and no new benefit programs were being added. As a result, The Rapid operated the RapidVan program for about three years with just one van leased to an area nonprofit that was providing work trips to area residents. The consensus at The Rapid was that a portion of the RapidVan program could be used for community betterment trips, and with the status of the economy in Michigan, the program would still be helping the same people but from the perspective of a nonprofit agency rather than an employer.
As the economy continued to falter it become obvious that the contracts would need to be changed to work with the drivers and riders directly, instead of the employers. By altering the contracts to work directly with the drivers and riders, the program was much more flexible and it removed the threat of a liability claim with the employers. Employers were much more open to having employees use the RapidVan service if they did not have to be involved in the invoicing, bill collecting or managing any additional risk assessment.