By Michael Ennis
Vanpooling is a little known public transit option that turns out to be the most efficient, flexible and effective in reducing traffic congestion.
How much do you pay to commute to work? If you drive, as most of us do, then it is probably close to the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) average of .16 cents per mile. If you ride public transit, then you probably pay less.
An average commute from Tacoma to Seattle would cost a driver about $2,688 per year. The same trip on a bus would cost about $1,440 per year. Taking the Sounder Commuter Rail would cost almost $2,000 per year.
Most commuters prefer their car and accept the higher cost of driving because of the freedom of mobility, speed and flexibility it affords. This freedom possesses both tangible and intangible benefits which are a greater value than the monetary savings of taking public transit. Indeed, more than 90 percent of people in the region choose to drive a car, despite the eighth worse traffic congestion in the country.
For some people, public transit works best in the dense urban areas of downtown Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue, where the share of daily commuters using public transit is highest.
Research shows that the biggest influence on ridership is density. Transit ridership is less than 1 percent of all commuters in areas with less than 10,000 people per square mile. Transit ridership rises to 3 percent with densities between 10,000 and 25,000 people per square mile; and 8 percent when the density is above 25,000 people per square mile.
While transit use in the Puget Sound region is slightly higher than the national average, the density of Seattle is only about 7,000 people per square mile and Bellevue is about 3,200 people per square mile.
This concept becomes clear with the region’s plan for light rail, connecting the less dense suburbs of Federal Way, Tukwila, Lynnwood and across the I-90 bridge to Bellevue. Despite spending more than thirty years and $40 billion, officials estimate it would serve only about 2.4 percent of all trips in the region.
Light rail proponents say shifting 2.4 percent of people off the roadway by 2030 is a good start. But Sound Transit reports that two-thirds of these riders are coming from buses and are already being served by existing public transportation. This means light rail will actually only shift less than one percent of drivers from the roads.
All this means the region’s traffic congestion will continue to grow. It is estimated that the Puget Sound area will see the same congestion as present day Los Angeles within 20 years.
One transit option however costs less, provides flexibility, convenience and mobility and reduces the number of cars on the road. It is vanpooling.
There are six vanpool programs around the Puget Sound with about 1,700 vans on the road every day. King County’s program alone carries more people than Sound Transit’s entire Sounder Commuter Rail and for about 1/7th the cost.
In 2003, the Washington State Department of Transportation conducted a study on vanpool use and found a significant undeveloped market in the Puget Sound region. The study showed greater awareness by the public could result in a 600 percent increase in vanpool use.
For a fraction of the cost, vanpools have the potential to carry about 20 percent more trips than Sound Transit’s $22.8 billion light rail expansion.
Unlike light rail however, where two-thirds of riders are drawn from existing buses, the growth in vanpools would come almost exclusively from motorists. If the WSDOT analysis is correct, vanpools could shift about 72,000 single occupant vehicles from the roadway every day.
Vanpools also require significantly less capital and operating costs than fixed route buses and rail programs and vanpool passengers cover most of these expenses.
To run a vanpool program, users pay about 70 percent of the cost, while taxpayers cover the remaining 30 percent. Rail and bus programs collect only about 20 percent from users and 80 percent from public taxes.
High farebox recovery ratios might lead someone to believe that riding in a vanpool would cost a lot.
Remember the daily commute between Tacoma and Seattle?
A passenger in an average vanpool would only pay about $1,044 per year. That is 28 percent cheaper than taking a bus, 48 percent cheaper than using the Sounder Commuter Rail, and 61 percent cheaper than driving.
Michael Ennis is transportation director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Seattle and Olympia. For more information contact WPC at 206-937-9691 or washingtonpolicy.org.