Bob Pishue, of the Washington Policy Center, has a recent piece highlighting the growth and improved economics of Metro’s vanpool program. He notes that Metro’s vanpool program is now running a farebox recovery rate of 107%. Other programs in the region are also doing well. Pierce Transit’s vanpool program is at 73% and Community Transit is at 70%. All of these numbers have been trending up.
Ridership is up too, outpacing other transit modes. In the ten years to 2013, Metro’s vanpool ridership grew 96%, and the program is now the largest in the nation. All other Metro modes grew 25% in aggregate. Operating costs per rider have fallen from $3.10 in 1996 to $3.02 in 2013, a 34% decrease in real terms. Pishue credits reduced operating costs to increased ridership. While scale efficiencies may play a part by spreading the burden of administrative overhead, shorter average trip lengths (down from 27 miles to 21 miles) have also reduced mileage-related costs.
These are great numbers, although Pishue goes too far in arguing they make the case for reducing investments in bus and light rail. Martin expanded on that point in response to a previous Washington Policy Center advocacy piece in 2010. It’s interesting, however, to look at why vanpools are successful and to understand their limitations.
Vanpools provide small-scale commuter ridership in scenarios where operator costs would otherwise be prohibitively high. Operating costs are very low (because the passengers drive themselves). Ridership per platform hour is healthy (the vanpool doesn’t run at all without a minimum of five regular riders). They are very demand-responsive (once ridership falls below a threshold, the service goes away, and new routes can be added with a minimum of overhead). They can access office parking areas and other locations where scheduled Metro service can’t reach, making for more convenient passenger drop-offs.
But the capital costs per passenger are fairly high. Vans are cheaper than larger vehicles, but they make precisely one round-trip per day. Metro’s capital expenditures per vanpool rider are twice that for bus riders, offsetting some of the operating savings. Some of the higher capital costs may just reflect fleet expansion, however. The van pool fleet is relatively young because of the expanded ridership.
Vanpools are still a niche product. While Metro vanpool ridership has grown four times faster than bus ridership in the last ten years, it still accounts for less than 3% of Metro’s ridership.
Vanpools fail at short distance trips, where the time cost of getting to the vanpool is too large. The model does not extend to any sort of spontaneous trip, so they also fail at non-commuter service generally. Ridership is overwhelmingly made up of people who make the same, fairly long, journey each day at predictable times. That’s because the coordination costs of vanpool service are too high for any other sort of journey. One hint that coordination costs are high: average ridership per trip is 5.2, just above the minimum membership for a vanpool. Evidently, it’s too much effort to find extra riders. (For some years around 2005, average ridership was below 5. Not every vanpool member rides every day, so ridership can be less than the membership limit).
The model does not scale well to higher ridership environments. Although vanpool capacity comfortably outruns single occupancy vehicles, they are limited in urban areas where yet higher capacity is needed. Even in the suburbs, some of the cost efficiencies are not scalable. For instance, many vanpools have pickup points at shopping malls. A grocery store is unlikely to object to five cars parked in their lot on a weekday, but they will surely object at fifty and insist the transit agency build its own lot.
Simple projection of current trends suggest that the vanpool share of transit trips will continue to grow. Regional development patterns will support growth too. As the region densifies unevenly, vanpools will be an increasingly effective means to serve commuter trips from low-density places to high-density centers. The bus and rail network will focus more on connecting dense places to each other. Bus and rail services will do so through frequent all-day service and core commuter services, and will pull back from low-volume coverage service.