Driving solo to work continues to define L.A.'s entrenched car culture. But commuters across the county are increasingly turning to alternatives such as the van pool, a venerable ride-sharing option that can reduce air pollution, travel times and transportation costs.
At Metro, which administers the largest public van pool operation in North America, participation has more than doubled in the last six years, with a total of 1,375 van groups operating today. Officials expect that figure to grow by at least 8% in 2015.
Van pool members, who ride together in groups of five to 15, can save hundreds of dollars a month in commuting costs. And because driving duties are shared, they avoid the stress of getting behind the wheel every day during rush hours.
"No way would I go back to driving alone to work," said Tawnya Betancourt of Long Beach, a financial analyst, who organized a five-person van pool with Metro's help. It runs between Long Beach and Santa Monica — a 30-mile trip one-way.
Metro, which began its program in 2007, offers eligible van pools a monthly subsidy of up to $400 to help cover the cost of vehicle leases or other expenses. Participants must travel at least 15 miles one way, have a minimum of five people and agree that the van pool will commute to workplaces in Los Angeles County.
Private companies, public institutions and local governments also can provide financial incentives to assist their employees and other commuters interested in Metro's program.
Officials say van pooling is an example of "shared mobility," an emerging transportation strategy to provide the public with alternatives to driving alone.
"It involves a multi-part relationship with the commuter at its hub," said Jami Carringon, Metro's program manager. "The shared mobility concept is the wave of the future. We are only going to grow it more."
Similar programs have been set up by the San Diego Assn. of Governments, the Orange County Transportation Authority and the Victor Valley Transit Authority in San Bernardino County. In addition, private companies and public institutions have helped organize and fund their own van pools.
Betancourt's van pool began in April 2011 and is typical of the operations Metro supports, as well as the benefits that can accrue to participants.
Her group meets about 6 a.m. on weekdays, in the pre-dawn darkness at Wardlow Park in Long Beach. They board a seven-passenger Dodge Caravan and head north in the carpool lane of the 405 Freeway, one of the busiest highways in the nation.
Some people sleep. One rider usually consults mobile traffic apps to monitor congestion and scope out alternate routes. The morning commute normally takes 45 minutes to an hour, about 30 minutes less than it would fighting traffic for a solo driver.
The trip home in the evening can take up to an hour and 20 minutes due to congestion on the southbound 405 and the need to use surface streets to get around freeway bottlenecks.
The $400 a month Metro provides helps offset the $870 monthly lease for the vehicle, which is rented from vRide, one of several car rental agencies that specialize in van pools. The lease includes insurance and maintenance.
Each member contributes $175 to $200 a month for gas and car washes — expenses that are defrayed by tax breaks and small subsidies from employers.
Betancourt says she has reduced her travel costs about $300 a month and can park the van for free at the Water Garden office complex where she works. Another rider, Denise Kinsella, an associate dean of international studies at Santa Monica College, estimated she saves at least $100 a month.
"I went from driving 60 miles a day to just seven miles," she said. "I don't understand why more people aren't doing this."
Metro officials say van poolers using their program save an average of $152 a month in travel costs. Because 90% of participants used to drive alone to work, an estimated 7,000 cars a day have been removed from the region's highways. That translates into a reduction in carbon emissions of 4,000 metric tons a month, according to the agency.
"Van pooling is a great way to reduce trips and therefore cut congestion and air pollution," said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "It's like a car pool on steroids. Some vans carry up to 12 people."
Van pools are encouraged by district rules that require employers with more than 250 workers to develop emission reduction strategies to meet air quality goals for their work sites.
Of course, van pools are not for everyone, and Metro officials acknowledge that recruiting new riders can be difficult. Members must have similar work schedules and both live and work in the same general areas. The program also may not meet the needs of people who must use their cars for work assignments or to run errands during the day.
Nevertheless, Metro's van pool program has continued to expand, attracting commuters from Kern, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. The annual budget to pay for subsidies and administration has grown steadily to about $7.5 million.
"People have just wanted to get out of the slow lane and find a better way," Carrington said. "Van pooling is one solution."
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