There have been plenty of initiatives over the years to drive people away from single-occupancy vehicles in their work commutes. Georgia Commute Options has long promoted carpooling or biking. The state and local governments often promote their bussing services and, of course, there have been many attempts to make MARTA more appealing.
Inflation and the return to in-person work has opened the window for the state and private industry to join forces in promoting another commuting option: vanpooling.
“Vanpooling is one of the Metro’s best forms of transportation services that we
can offer,” ATL’s DIrector or Interoperability Services, Dionne Kirksey, told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. The ATL is the umbrella commuting organization that includes MARTA, other Metro Atlanta mass transit services, and the State Road and Tollway Authority. “It’s a great cost-savings benefit. It’s a stress-free ride and it’s an opportunity just to commute to and from work.”
Funding from ATL fosters a relationship with Commute With Enterprise, a public-private partnership with rental car company Enterprise. Commute With Enterprise links together commuters, places them in a vehicle with seven or more seat belts, and then maintains and pays for the vehicle’s gas.
The people in the vanpool participants just have to drive to the designated meeting spot and then they ride together. The group decides who drives.
Kirksey said that sometimes readymade groups show up at Commute With Enterprise, but they often have to group people. Commute With Enterprise also coordinates with and campaigns to employers to promote the service within their organizations.
Businesses promoting vanpooling within their bounds helps overcome a large obstacle: logistics. Carpooling and even mass transit often wither as options for commuters, because the start or endpoints don’t match up. Five carpoolers may work at five different places. A bus may not stop near a person’s job site.
By gathering employees together that live near each other and work at the same place, the employer can offer added benefits that cost the business very little.
Craig Moore is the Senior Director of HR Operations at Homechef and brought the vanpooling idea from his previous job in Southern California. Upon joining Homechef, the company decided to move across town from Lithonia to Lithia Springs. Moore told Homechef brass that vanpooling had helped employee retention in expensive SoCal, so they adopted it.
“We were able to retain close to 40% of our workforce that we probably would have lost if we did not have this program in place,” Moore said, noting that Homechef otherwise would have been in the expensive bussing business themselves. Currently, Homechef employees that live 10 or more miles from headquarters and they soon may expand it to those living closer, to up their vanpool number above the current 12.
The Homechef program in Atlanta was so successful that Moore talked the company into expanding into a familiar place - their San Bernandino, CA campus.
With vehicle-maintenance handled, the logistics in place, and only one person driving instead of several, mental health also improves. A vanpool also creates a sense of community with fellow daily riders.
Vanpooling was berthed out of the energy crisis of the 1970s when larger companies wanted their white collar employees to both save money and have more reliable trips than mass transit could provide. Bigger corporations actually operated their own vanpools, but then decided to outsource the service.
ATL, which has partnered with Commute With Enterprise on this program since 2009, also makes vanpooling more attractive, because it provides each group with a Peach Pass to use the Express Lanes cost-free. Both organizations describe this as a “turnkey solution.”
With many pandemic restrictions eased and anxiety about COVID-19 having heavily decreased, there has been a 39% increase in the number of vanpools in Metro Atlanta and a 45% increase in the number of riders. Metro Atlanta currently has 150 vanpools.
Vanpooling may remain a niche commuting option for a while, as people still seek the autonomy of driving themselves. With flex-working changing the rhythm of rush hours, arrival and departure times for work are all over the place. The traditional “whistle-blow” to end work isn’t as apparent. Some people work hybrid schedules and don’t even come in on certain days.
Homechef has employees pay up to $85 per month to subsidize some vanpool expenses and to make sure they stay committed to the caravan. Having people flake out defeats the purpose, especially if that person is set to drive. But the price tag could also make some employees shy away from vanpooling, since they would still have to keep their own vehicles.
Still, Kirksey maintains that the benefits far outweigh the obstacles. “The biggest thing is
reducing the stress. Because we want people to arrive at work relaxed and ready to forge ahead for the day.”
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.
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