Michael Ennis, of the right-wing Washington Policy Center, has a post extolling the virtues of vanpooling.  Although there are plenty of distortions in the piece, I actually agree with one of its points, which is that vanpools are a cost-effective solution to moving people on work trips.

Aside from that, though, his argument seems to be the following:

  1. People driving by themselves is awesome, since people choose it over other options.
  2. Vanpools are a cheap way to move people to and from work.
  3. Therefore, other spending on transit is wasted.

More after the jump…

Ennis knows that driving is subsidized, so I’m not sure why he thinks that the choice to drive in this policy environment proves anything, even if one ignores externalities or that the entire point of rail advocates is that current transit options are inadequate.

More importantly, while vanpools are low-hanging fruit, they serve only a fraction of the market: trips to or from relatively non-dense places for jobs with rigid schedules.  For anything else, they’re not so great.

I’m not suggesting that we’ve necessarily reached the satruation point for vanpools, and I don’t have a problem with some more investment in this area.  And if Mr. Ennis and the WPC were interested in joining with us in working to increase funding for all transit modes, or create more HOV lanes to further improve the appeal of vanpools and transit, I think we could get some traction.

Of course, that won’t happen, because that would involve reducing incentives for single-occupancy driving, which Ennis thinks is awesome.  This article is all about reducing the amount people have to pay for their transit system, regardless of quality, not replacing the current transit system with a better one.


Not related to the main point, but I couldn’t let this pass:

Yet, despite decades of restrictive government land-use policies to increase density in urban centers, residents continue a steady movement into the suburbs.

I just have to point out that if I want to build a 12-story apartment building across the street from the Columbia City light rail station, that is illegal. If I own a piece of property along an arterial in Ballard, and would like to build an apartment building of any size with little or no dedicated parking, that is illegal as well.  He’s right that this is “restrictive government land-use policy”, but I’m not sure how he thinks this increases density.

26 Replies to “Vanpools are an Important Part of the System”

  1. What a ‘one-sided’ biased video that was. I can’t believe the Policy Ctr is so stupid as to advertise how shallow their arguements really are.
    Lacy to Bellevue everyday for how many years? Subsidized by who? Geeze, just move to Bellevue and save the time, money, and all the other collateral damage being done to society – convienently omitted from the transit ‘hit piece’.
    Actually, vanpools and carpools can make the case for themselves without being so dishonest about it. Sure, vanpools are better than SOV’s and I’m not opposed to public subsidies to promote that, within reason. Like limited duration, and limited distance traveled to help promote better urban design, GMA, and trip reduction. Lots of ways to get SOV’s converted to better forms of transit.
    Vanpools have a tremendous lane capacity. Those are the selling points. Not transit bashing, with not one fact to back it up.
    Shame on them, and Mr. Ennis again.

    1. Well lots of people commute from Thurston County to King County and vice versa. For most getting them into a vanpool can be seen as progress.

      While I do think the incentives should push people toward living near work that isn’t always practical with frequent job changes or two income households.

      Within reason transit should serve people where they are. Vanpools are a way to do that for origin/destination pairs that might not make sense for fixed route service.

      All that said there likely is enough demand to support direct peak hour express service from King County to the various state office clusters in Thurston County. Similarly there is likely enough demand to support peak hour express service from Thurston County to the major job centers in King County.

      1. What I was trying to say (not very well) was that car and van pools are much more efficient than SOV’s, so they should be encouraged. That said, I question if transit agencies should subsidize carpools for really long distances or for indefinate terms.
        I should have done some research on how much it’s costing transit to provide the cross county services, if any, before I popped off. Sorry, Chris and David. I may be a wash, then in that case who cares how long a duration or distance it is. Does anyone know the cost for the example used. Lacy to Bellevue for 15 years.

    2. Mike, I usually enjoy your point of view expressed in comments here, but this is a pretty emotional topic for me and I want to take you to task for:

      “Lacy to Bellevue everyday for how many years? Subsidized by who? Geeze, just move to Bellevue and save the time, money, and all the other collateral damage being done to society – convienently omitted from the transit ‘hit piece’.”

      Statements like “why-don’t-they-just-move-to-be-near-their-job, I-know what’s-good-for-you” represents a point of view sometimes stated in comments here and elsewhere gets my hackles up. How could you possibly know what factors in my life go into my lifestyle choices? Or those of several thousand other Puget Sound area commuters?

      I am Burien/Lacey commuter stuck (from time to time) on a vanpool. I f@%ken’ hate it! It hardly suffices as transit and only works when my schedule is constant, which rarely occurs. Without a choice I frequently end up driving alone.

      As I have stated many times here in the past, I would that Thurston County had not opted out of the RTA long ago, as Thurston would now be in Sound Transit, and I might have the Sounder taking me to within a bike ride of my office, offering enough schedule flexibility for me to ride frequently. But they did (opt out) and I don’t (have a commuting choice). While my work’s in Olympia, my wife’s work (the reason we move to Seattle in the first place) is in Seattle. And we moved to Seattle to live in Seattle, not Olympia.

      Those points made, the WPC piece is a joke. People drive because they DON’T have a choice, much as I don’t and have to settle for the scraps of vanpooling my life allows, lest my lifestyle choice be judged as causing “societal collateral damage.”

      1. Yes there are extraordinary circumstances that mean a person can’t always live where they work (I commuted from Bellevue to Ft. Lewis, so I feel your pain), those are exceptions. The system should accommodate for such a lifestyle, but not focus much on it, and certainly not go out of it’s way to support it.

        I believe that is all Mike was trying to say.

      2. Thanks, Anc. And I appreciate how Mike responded as he did, above (Thanks Mike). Commuting like this is an enormous drain on my life and calls for dramatic sacrifice. But it’s a fairly unique job for an employer that has surprisingly difficult policies on telecommuting, so this is my lot.

  2. Here, this is a little more accurate:

    Yet, despite because of decades of restrictive government land-use policies to increase spread density in outside of urban centers, residents continue a steady movement into the suburbs.

  3. I’m curious, does the vanpool program pay for itself? Seems like since the roads are paid for separately and the savings to participants come mainly from splitting costs.

    I’m also going to sign up for

    1. I belong to a vanpool and the driver training always emphasized that the rates set matched the cost to the county so that the program broke even.

      I couldn’t quite find that exactly but did find these facts online:

      2009 VanPool program
      Passenger boardings 2,770,711 est.
      Vehicle miles 10,793,380
      Vanpool vans in service 1,031
      Direct operating cost
      Per van mile $0.44
      Per passenger trip $1.78

      Overall I love the program, its like running your own private bus line and as long as you keep your van membership up also very efficient energy-wise.


      1. I’d love to see the vanpool program promoted more heavily. Not at the expense of other transit services, but I don’t think the full potential of vanpools to reduce VMT or get SOVs off the road has really been exploited.

        One thing that might help a lot of people is to find a way to solve the need for vanpool riders to have a more or less fixed schedule.

    1. Restricted building area plus severe density restrictions equals sky-high housing prices, not density.

      1. As you point out in the post developers inside the GMA are prevented from building as dense as they might if left to their own devices.

        I think the region needs to be more like Vancouver and permit very high density construction around rail stations and other major transit nodes. Of course the problem is that with rare exceptions like Roosevelt the only voices you hear from most neighborhoods are those who want to keep zoning the same as it currently is or in some cases even reduce it.

    2. No, he’s not. If he were, he wouldn’t mention anything about “urban centers.”

  4. He’s also wrong about people flocking from the city to the suburbs. The opposite has been true for the last couple years.

  5. Martin you give them way to much credit. Vanpools are part of the solution but vanpools are only a good solution given *very* specific conditions. The the most important thing you didn’t mention is that vanpool trips are only good solutions what most people would consider very long trips. I would guess that a majority of vanpool users would be commuting for at least an hour anyways. These are trips that really can’t be served effectively with transit, and thus isn’t a replacement for transit at all.

    1. I think vanpools are good for things other than long trips. For example I signed up for a rideshareonline.com account and put in a few trips like Eastlake to Microsoft and CD to SLU and it actually found potential vanpools to join! The issue here is relatively short distances that are not served directly by fixed transit routes, so I think people are more likely to drive alone because of the extreme time penalty of transit.

      In other words, because they don’t have a fixed route vanpools provide flexibility. Assuming vanpool users provide a decent sample size, in an ideal situation maybe a transit system could periodically track vanpool routes via GPS and deploy fixed-route buses along top scoring corridors.

      Of course, it’s also possible to game the system. I live 3.1 mi from UW campus so I’m technically eligible for a vanpool! If I could get 5 nearby friends to sign up with me we’d get a van for as low as $10/mo

  6. If you live in Enumclaw and work in Seattle – as Ennis does – Vanpools are about the ONLY version of transit which will ever pencil out for such a long-distance commute.

    However, Vanpools are NOT mass transit, and most people don’t live near cow pastures. And a vehicle with ONE departure time each way seals the deal that Vanpools can’t even come close to being considered transit.

    As a former vanpool commuter, I can tell you another weakness would be specific to many Vanpools, especially Ennis’: being stuck in a small space with a highly opinionated, mostly clueless Reaganite for several hours each day is NOT my idea of a pleasant way to start and end my day. At least when you’re jammed in an elevator with annoying people, the ride won’t take more than a minute or two…

  7. I wonder how many vanpool routes are less than 20 miles long? And he says that the vanpools have more passengers per day than Sounder, but note that while there are 1700 vanpool roundtrips per day, there are only about a dozen Sounder roundtrips.

  8. Typical anti transit smear. If a transit project is successful, that means we should cut funding to everything else.

  9. Having done the long distance vanpool thing for several years i will say that it makes the commute much more tolerable, especally when your employer pays for the vanpool and gives you a few dollars extra to drive it. Of course, now i have to SOV to work, however my commute is much much shorter so its a win really. Unfourtunatly my current employer is not really easily accessed by transit….

  10. Vanpools become a neccessary transit alternative in low density areas, as there is not enough demand along any particular route for a fixed-route service. They appear, if the numbers quoted above are correct, to be cost-effective since the transit agency has no labor costs per van. But they are a very low quality service in terms of flexibility, and therefore should be converted to fixed-route service as soon as the demand justifies. If our region had greater density throughout the UGA, then everyone could access fixed-route buses or trains, and vanpools wouldn’t be so neccessary.

  11. Thanks for taking him on, Martin! I agree with your assessment of Michael’s post (and, if one doesn’t agree with you, read many of the other posts of Michael’s at http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/). Vanpools do have much higher cost recovery than either buses or light rail, but it’s not 100%, and participating in one is not “nirvana” as Michael implies. There are inevitably conflicts within the vanpool participants, from people not being ready to not paying to lack of communication to music preferences to changes in schedules. If the van doesn’t maintain a paying roster of 5, it folds. Someone has to keep the vanpool together and handle the billing. Unlike a bus, one can’t “catch the next one” if you miss the vanpool. Vanpools are attractive for those with very set schedules and a set commute and offer a more comfortable riding experience than buses and trains in some regards, but in closer quarters. Buses/trains sometimes have more privacy, they stop – sometimes a lot – but one generally has many choices and transfers. For those who don’t own a car – about 7% of our population – and those who only own 1 car, and the other person uses it – a bus is a lifeline. While some routes are riden by, shall we say, different people, many are not, and one sometimes gets a seat with nobody next to them, or the person next to them may be asleep or otherwise occupied…certainly more comfortable than an airline’s seat! My theories as to why people drive cars alone, in no particular order: (1) they haven’t figured out how to ride a bus and don’t want to take the time, and the transit agencies don’t help people transition too effectively; (2) the status of driving to work vs. taking a bus; (3) they consider the cost of driving solely the cost of filling their tank (transit ridership zooms up when the cost of gas does); (4) the comforts of their familiar surroundings, being in their own space, alone, with whatever music or sound they choose/not; (5) they don’t have to walk to a bus stop and wait in the cold, nor do they have to figure out a bus schedule; (6) it’s faster, from a little to a lot; (7) for some, it truly is flexibility, e.g. sales representatives and others who need a car during the day and lack a company vehicle or a Zip car.

Comments are closed.