In late 2005 the growth of the vanpool program was still stagnating, so The Rapid revisited the design and pricing of the program that at the time was priced to recoup 100 percent of capital and operating costs. Although the pricing and terms were acceptable to non-profit agencies using the program at this time and The RapidVan program had grown to four vehicles, it was still overpriced for choice commuters, as there was not sufficient savings in joining a vanpool for the loss of personal freedom when compared to driving alone. The RapidVan had to be “cheap and easy.” The program was repriced recouping 100 percent of operational costs and using Congestion and Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) money for capital purchases. The other major change was rewriting the contracts to work directly with the drivers and riders and not the employers and making RapidVan program more visible through the Internet. This was the magic combination and the RapidVan program grew from three vans to 20 vans in less than a year.
Three of the four nonprofit vans have stayed in the RapidVan program. The rest of the vans are traditional vanpool vans with 80 percent or more of the mileage being used for commuting and at least 50 percent of the capacity of the seven-person vehicle less the driver being occupied by RapidVan participants. Twelve of the vans are used by Big Three automotive employees who have been relocated to different plants, two are driven by employees of an insurance program whose office was relocated, one van is driven by a local court administrative staff, and one is used by four persons commuting into the downtown Grand Rapids’ area who are employed by three different organizations and one vehicle is a spare.
CMAQ funding is used for the carpooling and vanpooling programs. Each RapidVan added to the program reduces traffic by at least three to five cars and carpools reduce traffic by at least one to three cars, both of which are positive applications of funding designed to reduce emissions. Most RapidVans are driven for commutes that are at least 50 miles each way. Carpools travel an average of 12 miles each way in West Michigan.
Managing the Vehicles
When designing the vanpool program The Rapid knew that it had to be very easy to use, manage and cost-effective for it to thrive and not negatively impact the current operations. In designing the program, costs for contracted management were built in to provide fuel, fleet maintenance, insurance, car washes, etc. Because the vehicles are being driven by non-employees and are not available to be examined everyday, it was very important for The Rapid to verify that resources were being used responsibly, so the program was built with many reporting and user safety-guards.
The first decision The Rapid made was to use minivans exclusively. Minivans are easier to drive, more appealing to passengers and more fuel efficient. The Rapid also can access the State of Michigan MI-DEAL procurement program for van procurement, which provides state contract pricing, ease of availability and a standardized options package that works well for the program.
Fleet management is provided by a national fleet provider, LeasePlan with relationships with many national car maintenance outlets, so finding a convenient vendor at a convenient time is simple. To use the program, each vehicle has a fleet maintenance card with a maintenance list for service every 5,000 miles that the drivers are responsible for having completed. To obtain service, the driver(s) show the maintenance card to the pre-approved vendor with services required for their mileage, the services are then approved, completed and billed directly to The Rapid. Drivers also have the ability to purchase up to $50 of incidentals if needed, e.g. windshield wipers, solvent, etc. The cards do not allow the purchase of personal items, e.g. snacks, soda, magazines, etc. Many RapidVans are driven by groups living in rural areas who do not have access to national-type retailers, so The Rapid added local dealer(s) to its list of vendors to make it easier to use the program. The Rapid receives reports and invoices for the services/products purchased which are then reviewed. Reporting for each vehicle is also available online through the fleet provider.
Insurance coverage was a close second in the decision process in operating a regional vanpooling program. Insurance premiums are a substantial operational cost for a vanpool program, along with helping support and regulate safety, maintenance and operational parameters. If a vanpool program cannot be insured adequately to the requirement of the agency, drivers, passengers and employers, it will never reach its potential. The RapidVan program contracted with two insurance companies in the past six years. The current provider, Lancer Insurance, specializes in vanpool insurance and understands the low risk parameters and is more cost-effective than the previous provider that did not specialize in vanpool insurance.