Every day, swaths of people commute into Tysons. Some take Metro and a handful bicycle, but the majority drive solo in an automobile. However, there’s another more eco-friendly mode that’s gaining traction: vanpooling.
Tysons is aiming to increase the number of residents to 100,000 and the number of employees to 200,000 by 2050. It also wants to reduce the number of cars on the road and to make the area more friendly to people walking and bicycling. In order to accomplish both of these goals, Tysons has to help people get to work without driving themselves alone.
These goals are laid out in Tysons’ comprehensive plan, and much of this transportation information is in its Transportation Demand Management (TDM) guidelines, which are “strategies aimed at reducing the demand on the transportation system, particularly to reducing single-occupant vehicles during peak periods, and expanding the choices available to residents, employees, shoppers and visitors.” Fairfax County also has its own TDM guidelines, which aim to reduce car trips among other things.
Many of Tysons’ workers are coming in from surrounding areas, and may not have a good bus connection or access to Metro (especially while the Silver Line is still under construction). That’s why Tysons’ TDM recommendations include subsidies for vanpool, pre-tax deduction for vanpool fares, and carpool and vanpool matching services. Vanpooling is an important way to reduce car trips here, along with other things like shuttle service from Metro, transit subsidies, and telework programs.
How can Tysons grow AND get cars off the road?
Dayna Paszkiet, a Commuting Consultant with Enterprise car rental, helps put together vanpooling programs for big companies in the area like Capital One and Freddie Mac. Enterprise has been working in the Washington region for the past nine years, and in Tysons for at least five years, Paszkiet says.
The service is reaching more people each year, but some are still loathe to give up their personal cars. “A lot of this is just getting employees to change their behavior and mindset,” Paskiet said. “‘It’s ‘what happens if I have an emergency?’”
Paskiet found that getting support from employers goes a long way, and that support can come in a variety of ways. Some employers subsidize vanpooling programs for their workers, while others charge a fee for parking and then use those funds to pay for various transit options.
Vanpooling with Enterprise is simple. Individuals or companies can book vanpool services, and the number of people needed to start can be as little as four or as high as 15, Paszkiet said. Once they join, commuters get access to a new vehicle, which will usually be housed at a park-and-ride facility at night and on weekends. Expenses are included, from gas, to EZ Passes, to insurance.
“We’re able to come in and fill a need,” Paskiet said. “Metro only goes out so far. Buses are only few and far between, and on certain schedules. And while they have gotten better, there’s no buses that comes up here from Richmond.”
Richmond does, however, have its own vanpooling services. RideFinders’ vanpooling services helps move more commuters in fewer vehicles throughout Central Virginia.
Paszkiet points out that many commuters don’t consider the full cost of driving alone. “A lot of people don’t realize the costs that you don’t see everyday,” Paszkiet said. “The wear and tear on your vehicle. The toll costs.”
Vanpooling has been around since the 70s
A 2015, a US Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed about 76% of people who commute still drive in cars alone. Worse, about 58.5% of driving households have two or more vehicles, according to data from the Transport Politic.
Vanpooling grew popular in the 1970s as gas prices rose and people tried to conserve. In 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared an oil embargo, sparking massive gas shortages througout the US and in other targeted countries. That same year the 3M Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota started the first company-sponsored vanpool, an Environmental Protection Agency report shows.
In the following decades, the popularity of such programs has ebbed and flowed.
Vanpooling and its effect on commuter stress, published in the Dutch science journal Elsevier, showed a 61% uptick in vanpool rides from 2006 to 2016. It also revealed that people who participated in vanpools had lower levels of stress than those who drove alone. However, data on vanpool can be complicated because some sets lump carpools and vanpools together.
Is vanpooling right for you?
Justin Schor, a partner at transportation consulting firm Wells + Associates, helps tenants and property owners in Tysons figure out the best transportation choices for them. Residents and employees fill out a survey to help the firm assess their transportation options. Vanpooling is a good one in certain circumstances, but it’s not ideal for everyone.
“It’s a hybrid between a transit system and a carpool,” Shor says. “You get a high number of passengers that you would get from a shuttle system without the cost.”
One of the pros of vanpooling is that one of the clients in the van is also the driver. (Paying the driver is a major cost for shuttle services.) With vanpooling, costs are shared by everyone. A van can usually seat between seven and 15 people, Schor said.
The costs of vanpooling can add up quickly though, from van leasing, to insurance, to gas. For it to make economic sense, a vanpool would most likely have to be traveling at least 20 miles each way. For the Tysons area, that would include places points west like Loudoun and points south like Springfield, as well as Fredericksburg and DC.
About five years ago, the temporary Loudoun Express bus service, which transported people to Tysons among other destinations in the region, stopped running when the Metro station opened. Vanpools picked up after that, Schor said.
According to the Tysons Partnership, vanpools can run between $180 and $350 a month per person. Some of these costs can be offset by employers, since vanpooling is considered a pre-tax commuter benefit.
What companies and users of the service have to say about vanpooling
Freddie Mac, a Fortune 500 company based in Tysons, has employees that come from all over the area to get to work. The company partnered with “Commute with Enterprise” for vanpooling in 2015.
“Given the traffic volume in the DC Metro area, it’s not surprising that the daily commute is a frequent topic of conversation in Freddie Mac’s halls,” said David Phillips, Corporate Security Director at Freddie Mac, by email. David’s also the vanpool program manager. “As such, we decided to introduce the program to help employees save time and money on their daily commute, as well as reduce parking and traffic congestion on Freddie Mac’s campus.”
The vanpool service at Freddie Mac is comprised of 30 vans with over 180 employees commuting to and from work each day, Phillips said. This large number of vanpooling has a direct impact within the company and out on the road.
“Freddie Mac now has 150 fewer cars on campus each day, helping us advance our goal to reduce congestion,” Phillips said. “Additionally, it’s helping employees save an estimated $2 million+ on commuting costs and is making Freddie Mac greener by reducing carbon emissions by more than 2.5 million pounds annually.”
So what do riders think? Robyn Johnson, Business Management Director at Freddie Mac, takes a vanpool to work. A co-worker who lived in the same county asked her if she would be interested in joining a new vanpool group, and she’s been hooked ever since. She says the service is saving her time and bringing her peace of mind.
“I joined to cut down on my commute time from Manassas,” Johnson said via email. “For almost 30 years, I worked earlier hours, 7:30 am to 4 pm, in order to beat traffic.
“In the few years prior to joining the vanpool, those hours no longer guaranteed an easier drive. It could take me anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to commute to and from the office. Now, although I drive 30 minutes to meet my vanpool, my commute is consistently an hour. We immediately jump on the HOT lanes and it’s pretty much guaranteed that we’ll be at the Freddie Mac campus in 30 minutes.”
Johnson says she pays less on transportation costs, and gets more hours of her day back.
“It has had a positive impact on both my commute and life because I am saving time and money,” Johnson said. “Before using the vanpool, I used to fill up my car twice a week, now I only need gas once a week. It has also allowed me to spend more time doing what I enjoy. I am a morning person – I wake up with lots of energy, so I drive the van every morning. That guarantees that I won’t have to drive in the evening when I am lower on energy, and I often take a power nap on the way home.”
Vanpooling may not be an ideal solution for everyone, nor is it as accessible to the public or as eco-friendly as bicycling or transit. However, it is a carbon-reducing, gas-saving, cost-lowering option for some in Tysons, and that’s a great start.