Even With Soft Music, It's Tough to Sell Car Pools in Orange County

Times Staff Writer

Every weekday morning Merrill Wilcox, a design supervisor at Fluor Corp. headquarters in Irvine, drives a van full of snoozing co-workers to work.

In return Wilcox gets to use the van after work while his six passengers divide the cost of gas.

The giant engineering and construction firm owns and maintains the van. For its investment, the company gets seven workers every morning who aren't stressed out from what can sometimes be a harrowing commute.

"I play nice, soft music, and most of them catch an extra 40 winks," Wilcox said. "It really reduces the stress of getting to work."

As commute traffic bogs down to a crawl with increasing frequency on the county's freeways, a lot more companies are feeling pressure to act. More of them are adopting car pools and van pools as a low-cost solution.

Among them are developers in the South Coast Plaza area of Costa Mesa, who announced last week a traffic management program for the neighborhood, a rapidly urbanizing area of high-rise offices and heavy traffic.

For a long time, only a handful of Orange County companies had transportation pool programs; usually those few had specific reasons: Fluor began its van program 12 years ago when the company moved its headquarters from Los Angeles County and needed a convenient way to move employees to Irvine.

Tiny Flojet Corp., also in Irvine, had simply run out of room for employees to park when it started two van pools more than a year ago.

"We just grew very fast, and we maxed out in this facility," said Keith Coissairt, manufacturing manager at the company, which employs 120 people in making pumps.

But up until now, getting people into van pools or car pools in the county hasn't been easy, despite such incentives as subsidies for van pools and free parking spaces close to the office or factory.

In fact, after 15 years of pooling in the county, the average number of riders per car during commute hours hasn't budged. In 1973, during the energy crisis, it was 1.2 riders per car, according to a county report. It is the same today.

At last count, only about 17% of the county's workers used car or van pools.

That may change now that every business of 100 or more employees in Southern California has to come up with an incentive plan by 1990 to get employees to share rides.

The object is to reduce air pollution from cars in the nation's smoggiest urban area. The South Coast Air Quality Management District said it will fine companies that don't adopt incentives $1,000 a day.

But there are still some questions about how effective incentives can be and how many county drivers can be lured out of their cars.

Roger Teal, an associate professor of civil engineering at UC Irvine, bets that few drivers will change. Using census figures, Teal recently found that car poolers aren't motivated so much by congested traffic as by economic necessity and distance from work. At the bottom of the pile of reasons to car-pool on this scale are concerns about the environment and air pollution.

Most Within 25 Miles

In other words, if you own a car and you have less than a 25-mile drive to work, you probably won't car-pool. Unfortunately, Teal said, that description fits most employees in the county.

"Car pooling is a worthwhile thing to be promoting, but it's unlikely to have a major impact," Teal said.

Still, employers seem increasingly willing to encourage pooling because it's a worsening problem just to get blue-collar workers to the factory. Those workers are moving eastward to Riverside and San Bernardino counties as they are squeezed out of Orange County's housing market.

"The vans do seem to be continually creeping east," said Craig Rogers, ride-sharing coordinator for Hughes Aircraft Co. in Fullerton. Two of Hughes' 38 vans come from Victorville each day, a 140-mile round trip.

"For some of these people to get to work on time, it's 'Boots and Saddles' long before the sun is up," Rogers said, referring to the old cavalry regimen.

The growing frustration of commuters frozen in traffic on the county's freeways also poses a threat to Orange County's developers, who have recently taken a leading role in selling ride sharing, flex time and other types of traffic management to their tenants.

In a recent survey of 2,600 employees in the South Coast Plaza area of Costa Mesa, more than a quarter said the ride to work was the most stressful part of their day.

Impetus for Slow Growth

That kind of discontent keeps a fire lit under the campaign for a slow-growth initiative that would curtail the county's tidal wave of construction.

The initiative is widely expected to be passed by frustrated commuters if backers obtain enough signatures to get it on the ballot this year.

The developers in the South Coast Plaza area, part of the South Coast Metro Alliance, said last week that they would begin using a computer to match workers in their buildings who want to car-pool. They will also try to persuade tenants to adopt variable work schedules for employees.

The developers have an advantage over individual companies: They can organize entire offices and industrial parks for ride-sharing and traffic-management programs, and that's where the focus for ride-sharing programs has now shifted.

As the county has grown increasingly urbanized, there are now at least 10 areas with enough workers packed into a small enough space to start big programs, said Gary W. Edson, manager of the Orange County Transit District's Commuter Network, which hands out federal grants for ride-sharing programs.

'Where the Action Is'

"Those places are where the action is now," Edson said, "and those are the places we're focusing on."

The Irvine Co., the county's largest private landholder, already has ride-sharing programs for Newport Center and the Irvine Spectrum.

Spectrumotion tries to get employers in the Spectrum to offer incentives to employees who car-pool, van-pool, bicycle, walk or take the bus to work: Showers for bikers, for instance, or parking spaces close to the office for van pools.

Irvine's city government demanded a management program in return for letting the Irvine Co. develop the huge office and industrial park. About 4,000 workers out of 13,000 are in a computer database for ride sharing.

Car pooling tends to be informal, so it is hard to measure its extent, said Charity Gavaza, president of the Transportation Management Assn., but only about 500 people are estimated to car-pool at Spectrum.

For van pools, which are easier to count, the highest number at the Spectrum has been just 13.

At Newport Center, few of the complex's 12,000 employees have so far shown an interest in alternative transportation, since most of them come from nearby and "feel there's no congestion problem around the center," said Brad Williams, manager of transportation planning for the Irvine Co.

"We are finding there isn't a lot of demand," he said.

Both programs are about 2 years old.

At Hughes Aircraft, with 14,000 employees, fewer than 4% of employees use van pools.

A new group called Business Caucus for Traffic Solutions--which is supported by local trade associations, including developers--will meet next week with some of the county's top executives to push car pooling and other traffic programs.

But for now the van and car pools seem likely to remain small, if dedicated.

"I wouldn't do it any other way," said Louella Rodts, an administrative clerk who has been van pooling the 34 miles from Whittier to Fluor Corp. for more than eight years.

The van, she said, "is where I do my homework and get ready for work."

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