VIA Metropolitan Transit operates 91 bus routes. But even with this number of routes covering the San Antonio area, there are still some locations that are unreachable by traditional bus service. To help accommodate people who live and work in these areas and who want an option to driving alone in their private automobiles, VIA has offered vanpool services since 2006. Now, as of May 2011, VIA has over 100 active vanpools operating in the service area.
These vanpools operate with an average of seven riders for each van. Vanpool riders take advantage of the shared-ride system to split the cost of commuting in areas where traditional bus service is restricted or unavailable. Interest in vanpooling tends to increase as fuel prices rise.
"Vanpools have proven to be a very important and fast-growing part of VIA's services," said Blake Berlin, VIA's vanpool marketing representative. "In fact, for some sectors of our economy vanpooling has become a key factor in helping workers make their daily commute."
In VIA's vanpool program, at least five people share the ride to work while splitting the cost of the van rental and the fuel. Vanpools can be formed and go anywhere as long as the trips begin or end in VIA's service area. Members of a vanpool will typically select a driver from among their group and then pick a convenient pick-up point — a VIA park and ride, a grocery store parking lot, a church parking lot, or a similar location — to begin the trip. After the workday, the van delivers the riders back to the pick-up point, and the designated driver takes the van home or leaves it at the meeting location.
Vans are available in models that can accommodate five to 15 passengers, and they are rented on a monthly basis. The cost of the vanpool service can range from about $65 to $160 per person per month, and included in the cost are such expenses as roadside assistance and maintenance. The total expense depends on the size of the van, the number of riders, the commute distance, and whether or not an employer helps subsidize the cost. VIA helps defray the cost for the riders through rider subsidies and they payment of all insurance.
Members of the military, Department of Defense workers, and other federal employees qualify for a transit voucher with a value of up to $230, which allows them to participate in the vanpool program at essentially no cost to them. This federal subsidy has resulted in a large number of vanpools being used to transport people to local military-related employers. The top three employers taking advantage of the VIA vanpool program are the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, and the Veterans Administration.
"For the military, more than anything else, the face of VIA is vanpool," said Berlin. "Bus routes are severely restricted on our local bases, so vanpools have become the only truly viable option for many of our service members who wish to use public transportation."