Developing a Carpooling and Vanpooling Option

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.

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.

Another very important aspect of insurance coverage is the background checks of drivers. Background checks must be completed on each driver of a vanpool and include a criminal and driving background check, a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) health exam, and drug and alcohol screen. All of The Rapid’s testing is done at a USDOT standard or higher and, to maintain continuity, The Rapid does not make exceptions or let anyone drive that does not meet or exceed the requirement for the RapidVan program. The program is designed with very few strict rules and policies, but each rule is enforced. The Rapid recently moved from a paper-based system of tracking to a Web-based vanpool module within GreenRide, which allows the vanpool department to digitally share information with human resources regarding the status of background checks.

Monitoring the Program
To protect the financial interests of The Rapid, many administrative guards were implemented to help eliminate potential misuse of the program. The first area of concern was fuel. The Rapid contracted with a local vendor, Fuel Management Systems/Pacific Pride, that has a system in place that protected both The Rapid and the RapidVan driver(s) with a two-card system; one card being assigned to the driver(s) with a confidential security code and one card assigned to the vehicle. Fuel can only be purchased with both cards present and the mileage must be entered at each purchase which is then reviewed for accuracy and reasonableness by The Rapid every two weeks. Michigan transit agencies do not pay tax on fuel which helps control costs. Fuel is included in the cost of all RapidVans.

Car washes are another area of possible abuse in the program. To manage this service The Rapid works with a local carwash vendor, Southland Autowash that barcodes each vehicle, so only program vehicles that have a bar code may receive car washes. Car washes are limited to two choices, outside only or interior vacuum, if needed. The Rapid can approve other services over the phone, if necessary e.g. carpet or seat shampooing.

Looking to the Future
The RapidVan program continues to adapt and grow with the changing needs of the participants and community. The program currently has about 100 participants and the attrition rate is about 3 percent. Most of the feedback is very positive and most participants are very pleased with the program. Participants will even check availability of alternative vanpools if they are planning job or shift changes, so as to not leave the program.

From an operations perspective, the program is run with limited staff-time, as most of the RapidVan program is oversight of vendors and sales and coordination of new vans. The reduced staff time for this program is possible due to the use of contract vendors for vanpool registration and management, fleet management, fuel, carwashes, etc. The Rapid does rely on internal staff from the finance, procurement, marketing and maintenance department staff to support the program. Program registration, driver and passenger management, fleet records and invoicing records are streamlined through GreenRide Vanpool. Rapid staff does meet with individuals and groups who are in the information gathering stage about the program to review the program, answer questions and receive notarized signatures for permission to complete background checks.

The Rapid completed much research in the setup and design of the RapidVan program and received great advice, ideas and resources from other transit agencies, but vanpool programs need to be designed to fit the specific local needs of each area to be successful. The Rapid continues to tweak the program to best serve its participants. One of the best compliments the RapidVan program received was from a participant that, because of a reoccurring medical condition, would have lost his job due to an inability to drive his 60-mile one-way commute for six months. He said the RapidVan program saved his life and his ability to work. Vanpooling as a form of public transportation continues to help people stay employed and commute to and from their jobs with ease with an efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective program.

"Going Online with Carpool and Vanpooling"
The Rapid’s marketing approach of alternative commute options focuses on business leadership in West Michigan. This top down approach to ridesharing alternatives begins with a custom zip code map that is created by using the employee’s home zip codes, which are color coded by density on a GIS map. This visual exercise really helps business leaders see the commuting patterns of their employees and helps substantiate the need to invest in an online carpooling/vanpooling system.

The Rapid’s outreach process includes mailings to area businesses two to four times per year, radio advertising, the use of the State of Michigan ITS highway signs, and attendance and membership on many area boards and committees. The elevated community presence of The Rapid assists in being invited to present at area employers as in many cases the relationship is already established. In some cases, employers have granted access to The Rapid’s staff to come and present to all of their employees, at all meetings, during all shifts and at all facilities.

In 2005 The Rapid decided to look for ways to increase participation in the ridesharing program because the use of the existing program’s system was stagnating.

Increased Ease with Web-Based Solution
After soliciting feedback from large regional employers and members of the public it was clear that a flexible, easy-to-use and rapidly accessible Web-based system would likely increase participation in the rideshare program, be simpler to operate and provide opportunities for fine-tuning in the long-term. The Rapid’s analysis also indicated large employers within the West Michigan area wanted more ownership in a rideshare program, including the ability to access a private Web site that allows their employees to match exclusively within their organization. This is especially true for large medical institutions that require more flexible scheduling for work commute trips due to the varying schedules.

As a result of reviewing the capabilities of various commercially available rideshare software available, the Rapid identified Ecology and Environment Inc.’s GreenRide as meeting the requirements most closely. Consequently, The Rapid purchased the Web and map-based ride-matching and management system and, in just over a month, GreenRide was adapted to meet The Rapid’s specifications, imported the legacy database and launched to offer ride-matching services to the public.

The system was customized to support businesses in helping their employees find more economical and environmentally friendly ways to get to work. The Rapid accomplished this by operating separate portals for large employers so their employees have the option of identifying fellow employees as ridesharing matches. Employees tend to be more comfortable carpooling with fellow employees for many reasons, including an increased sense of security and the ability to strengthen the camaraderie among employees. These portals also take on the “look” and “feel” of the company’s own design elements, further encouraging the employees to seek carpooling matches. “GreenRide is automating ridesharing alternatives for employees of Spectrum Health making it quick and easy for employees to identify options and ride with each other,” states Roger Grow, director, Facilities Support Services, Spectrum Health.

The employer portal model allows the employer or business to customize its sites and reimburse the transit authority annually for a portion of its hosting expenses, so in theory The Rapid’s program will be self-sustaining. There are more than 25,000 employees in Western Michigan that have access to private business portals.

The online system automatically tracks gains and losses in the system, marketing efforts and results, Web hits and helps screen applicants to achieve the best quality database and highest number of matches. Quarterly optimization meetings continually fine-tune operational aspects aiding in efficient operations.

The vanpool program was outgrowing its existing management system and required a more streamlined, less labor-intensive process to manage fleets and passengers. There was also the need to increase service levels to commuters enabling them to instantly identify both carpool and vanpool matches, provide access to forms online and generate automated invoices. A customer-focused improvement is offering primarily minivans in the RapidVan vanpooling program. Drivers are much more comfortable driving a minivan than a larger van and it is easier to find groups of four to six persons, as opposed to larger groups with similar commuting patterns.

Improved Performance
One of the RapidVans is traveling about 60 miles each way from Lansing to Grand Rapids, Mich., and its passengers include two employees of a local law school, a federal employee and a purchasing manager that are employed by three different companies within about three miles of each other. The federal employee in this vanpool can take advantage of a program that allows him to be reimbursed $100 per month toward his commuting expenses, which makes his vanpool fare very reasonable.

“The RapidVan program is working great for us; it is easy to use, saves wear and tear on our personal vehicles and provides for lively political debates with my fellow vanpoolers,” says Mark Fedorowicz, RapidVan participant.

Migrating to an online Web-based system with an intuitive interface has resulted in dramatic performance improvements within the area. Within just over a year, carpooling registration has increased tenfold. In addition, as a result of switching to a Web-based dynamic vanpool matching and management system, The Rapid managed to expand its services for commuters and triple its vanpool fleet while reducing its administration time by half.

Mary Ann Ferris-Young is business transportation service coordinator with The Rapid. Tony Gale is a principal consultant with Ecology and Environment Inc.