Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuters using vanpool service to cut travel costs by thousands
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
She's a vanpooler.
Hines, who works at the HUD Detroit Field Office, and a handful of other area commuters meet up at 6:30 a.m. each day at the Meijer store parking lot off Ann Arbor-Saline Road.
From there, they hop into a seven-passenger Dodge Grand Caravan and make their daily commute together from Ann Arbor to Detroit.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Once they arrive in the Motor City, some are dropped off at the McNamara Building on Michigan Avenue, one person gets out at the Comerica Building on Woodward, and finally the last stop is the Compuware building where the van is parked — just in time for another day of work.
At 4 p.m., they do just the opposite, hopping in the same van and arriving back in Ann Arbor usually by 5 p.m.
Hines has been using the vanpool for more than two years now and is the primary driver, but each of the passengers shares driving responsibilities and splits the gas costs. They say that runs anywhere from $40 to $60 a month per passenger, but decreases with each rider.
According to new data from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, regional commuters can save $3,000 a year just by sharing a ride to work.
SEMCOG is actively promoting its MiRideshare program, a free and easy online matching service for commuters working in Southeast Michigan to find carpool, vanpool and bike partners quickly and securely. MiRideshare's software matches users based on shared commuting routes, schedules and preferences.
In February 2012, MiRideshare saved more than 1 million miles of travel, resulting in fuel savings and reduced congestion, and saved more than 1 million pounds of carbon dioxide with fewer vehicles on the road, according to data provided by SEMCOG.
For just one month, that's equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions from more than 90 vehicles or from 1,084 barrels of oil consumed.
Tecumseh resident Erin Lopez is one of the passengers who regularly rides along with Hines in the vanpool. She works at the VA in Detroit.
"I've been riding since January of this year," she said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. It saves so much money, not only with the gas in my car but maintenance, and it's nice to be able to ride in with other people. You create a bond with everybody that rides in."
With fuel prices on the rise, SEMCOG officials are hoping more people take advantage of the MiRideshare program to help ease the pain at the pump.
The MiRideshare program has seen a 30 percent increase in users from January to February of this year, according to SEMCOG.
During the month of March, when commuters register for MiRideshare at www.semcog.org their name will go into a drawing for a $100 Amazon gift card.
SEMCOG officials say it usually takes record gas prices to get commuters to make a change in their driving habits, but there are more advantages than just the obvious ones. For instance, many auto insurance companies offer discounts for lower mileage usage.
Hines said she moved out to Manchester about nine months before she took her job in downtown Detroit a few years ago. She immediately started looking for ways to carpool, stumbled upon SEMCOG's website and then joined a vanpool in August 2009.
She's glad to have behind her the daily stresses of driving 120 miles a day, worrying about parking, and constantly filling up her car with gas.
"One nice part is probably at least three days a week, I come in without having to drive, and I'm certainly more relaxed," she said. "So there's a financial and emotional benefit. I think that has some residual effect on my moods or just my well-being."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
When she's the driver, Hines said her seat in the van is free. But otherwise the per-seat cost to take advantage of the vanpool is about $145 per month.
The vans are provided by VPSI Inc., a Troy-based company that began in the mid-1970s when two enterprising employees in Chrysler's Office of Public Responsibility launched the Chrysler Employee Vanpool Program as a way to conserve fuel. The program was a success, so Chrysler organized a subsidiary company.
Hines said she and her fellow vanpoolers are currently splitting the cost of gas six ways. This past month, she said, that worked out to a mere $42 per person.
With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, Hines just as easily could be paying more than $60 a week for gas to drive her fuel-efficient Ford Fiesta to work alone, and that's not counting maintenance costs and the extra price of parking. At least one of the vanpool riders usually has an employer-provided pass to park the van in downtown Detroit.
The way Hines sees it, she's saving hundreds of dollars every month, and someone else with a less-efficient vehicle (her Fiesta gets 38 mpg) would save even more.
AnnArbor.com observed a number of other vanpools coming back from the Detroit area and arriving at the Meijer store parking lot after work hours on a recent afternoon.
"There's an enormous number of vanpools out there," Hines said. "People are always looking for riders and I would encourage anybody to take advantage of it."
Hines said the riders prefer using the Meijer parking lot instead of nearby park-and-ride lots because it is better lighted, better maintained and just feels safer.
The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is currently in the process of working out a contract with VPSI to launch a local vanpool program this spring.
AATA spokeswoman Mary Stasiak said the new local vanpool service will serve commuters into and within Washtenaw County. She said there are closer to 100 vanpools already commuting to Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County on a regular basis.
"Once the vans we’ve ordered are delivered and we’ve worked out all the details with our contractor, we will be ready to serve interested employees," Stasiak said, adding anyone interested in forming a vanpool can email Justin Fenwick at jfenwick@TheRide.org.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.