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Posted on Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuters using vanpool service to cut travel costs by thousands

By Ryan J. Stanton


Vanpoolers arrive at the Meijer store on Ann Arbor-Saline Road in Pittsfield Township on a recent afternoon.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Instead of putting 120 miles a day on her Ford Fiesta to get to and from her job in Detroit, Manchester resident Kathleen Hines prefers taking an alternate route.

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.


Kathleen Hines grabs her belongings after coming back from another day of work in Detroit.

Ryan J. Stanton |

"It's been very nice for a number of reasons," Hines said. "Of course, the cost is good and the commute isn't nearly as painful when you share the drive."

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 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."


The vans are provided by VPSI Inc., a Troy-based company that began in the mid-1970s.

Ryan J. Stanton |

When she started vanpooling, as a federal employee, Hines was able to receive a subsidy of up to $280 a month to help cover the costs, but that has since dropped down to $125 as of January. Other vanpoolers who work for federal agencies like the IRS or VA receive similar incentives.

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. 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

Related story: Southeast Michigan residents already making commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit possible

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.


Wolf's Bane

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 7:16 p.m.

This is one way to handle the commute and I salute the folks who have the foresight and guts to do so. However, I say let's ask the politicians to stop hijacking proposed high-speed rail and gives us what we need and want: high-speed rail service between Chicago and Detroit!

George Gaston

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 2:44 p.m.

Vanpooling does appear to be a much cheaper, more flexible, and convenient way of bringing commuters into Ann Arbor than the current proposal to relocate the present Amtrak station, a plan that involves having the City of Ann Arbor build, own, and operate a new train station in Fuller Park.

Christine Moellering

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 1:57 p.m.

When are we going to get a train to Detroit? There was an article about commuters who take the train from Detroit to Ann Arbor but I imagine the reverse would get a TON of people. Instead of driving they could all take the train into Detroit.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 7:49 p.m.

But there are buses and taxis waiting at the station to get these people to their destinations. The train thing will be a reality once people realize they can no longer keep paying these high gas prices.

Craig Lounsbury

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 2:28 p.m.

There is only one station in Detroit correct? Around Woodward and Grand? It seems to me the more connections people have to make (taxi /bus/multiple buses) the less likely they are to use the option.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 1:31 p.m.

Can you imagine! people joining together to collectively save money and oil. Why, this borders on Communism and is antithetical to what our Founding Fathers wanted! Don't these people know that it is their God given duty to use oil at the fastest rate possible?


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 2:47 p.m.

Clownfish - no, not bordering on communism at all. The exact opposite. People freely choosing to come together for mutual benefit. And the #1 & #2 reasons (in whichever order) people car pool are saving money and riding instead of driving most days. Reducing carbon footbrint (whatever that is) is a nice benefit but a distant 3rd or 4th in motivation.

Craig Lounsbury

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 1:12 p.m.

so if it costs an average of $145 a month for the seat and assorted federal employees (HUD, IRS, VA)get somewhere around $125 in "incentives" to ride together? That's a pretty nice perk. How about an incentive to live near your job? That idea would be a win/ win. Its more "carbon friendly" cuts the dependence on foreign oil and in the case of Detroit commuters would begin to build a base of tax paying employed Detroiters. Something the city desperately needs.

Peter Eckstein

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 1 p.m.

"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." The question to me is why the self-proclaimed "Smart Plan" seems to include bus service between AA and places like Chelsea and Manchester. The real need is for commuter service before and after work--and VPSI seems to have worked out a way to operate vans profitably without government subsidies. AATA is already using large amounts of taxpayer money for a massive PR campaign to convince us to raise our taxes for a county-wide, highly subsidized transportation system. Help commuters to contract with VPSI--fine. Create a website where commuters can get together with each other and/or companies that will provide vans or van service--fine. Low-cost efforts like that could easily be paid for out of AATA's huge existing revenue sources. But don't send empty buses all over the county and beyond just so we can have as big a transportation system as a large city like Portland, OR.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 12:59 p.m.

Vanpools are a great way to commute. No charge for the driver, departure times and drop-off points are flexible, there are no special costs for infrastructure, no scrambing for a seat, no waiting in the rain, administrative costs are near zero and the vanpool riders buy fuel at retail, paying gas and sales taxes to pay for our roads. Of course they're not a favorite of local transit authorities, for all the reasons above. Let's see how strong AATA's support turns out to be. Maybe a follow up article in six months, Ryan?


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 12:35 p.m.

Let's see a cost comparison between bus rapid transit, vanpools services and commutuer rail. Compared to commuter rail, the vanpools seem less costly, have flexible routes and multiple pick up and drop off points. Add in the free parking too. Unfortunately, the state's proposed increased vehicle registration fees (versus increased gas tax) will indiscriminately hit all car owners, including Ms. Hines. She has one of the highest MPG vehicles on the road, uses a vanpool service and will still pay the increased vehicle registration fee.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 12:04 p.m.

120 miles in a 20 mpg van, with gas at $3.89 per gallon would result in about $460 for gas alone over 20 days of the month. 6 riders @ $145 per month each brings in about $870.00. That leaves about $410 for maintenance, depreciation, licensing, etc. I can see how it is a benefit to the riders, especially considering the daily rush hour grind going to Detroit and back. Maybe the only downside would be if you got sick at work or needed to leave early unexpectedly, or if you really couldn't tolerate one of your fellow commuters.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 10:48 a.m.

I am hearing as could go as high as $6 a gallon by September.

Wolf's Bane

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 7:17 p.m.

I think it is amusing that folks are voting down your comment. I didn't realize the CEOs of the Oil and Gas companies were posting and voting on! You are absolutely right. $5 - 6.00 this summer fo sure.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 10:56 a.m.

I'm sure your confederates are high ranking officials of the Gas Police. Look anywhere in Europe, where the prices have been more than double ours for a very long time.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 10:38 a.m.

I believe car pooling is great especially with the long distance. However, if the government would work as hard to lower the gas price, which could be lowered considerably, as they do to give incentives out, it would be great. I know it is important to conserve when ever possible, and do so, but the price of gas is only feeding into the profits of the oil companies.


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 1:25 p.m.

specifically, what do you suggest the govt do to lower gas prices, and if your policies are enacted what change in price would you expect to see?

Jake C

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 12:15 p.m.

Carol: An important thing to remember is that no matter how low gas prices go, it will almost always be cheaper to use carpooling services like this instead of driving your own vehicle. Gas could be $0.99/gallon and this would still be cheaper. Also, oil companies could still make record profits off $0.99/gallon gas, it all depends on the economics besides drilling, pumping, refining, and shipping the oil & gas around the country & the world.

average joe

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 11:26 a.m.

jinx- Among other factors, the "speculative market" reacts to government policy so yes, the market is determined at least in part by "individual governments or people in them".


Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 10:54 a.m.

The price of gas is determined by speculative markets and peak oil production, not by individual governments or people in them. Help teach yourself the facts behind economics here: