Protect the Earth: Join a Car- or Vanpool with Help from 511 Rideshare

"How do you commute to protect our Earth?" This was a recent web Question of the Week posted by 511 Rideshare, the regional agency devoted to supporting carpools and vanpools, key components of green commuting.

The most popular mode of transportation selected was "bike," the answer of 42 percent of respondents. Carpooling came in second, at 33 percent. Walking scored 17 percent, and bus/rail, eight percent. No one checked vanpool.

Nevertheless, the vanpool is alive and well in our nine-county region (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, or Sonoma counties), and 511 Rideshare is working hard encouraging new ones to form.

Promotional campaigns like the Rideshare Rewards program have borne fruit. Generally, the organization would see the formation of three to five new vanpools per month, relates Kit Powis, Communications Manager at the Oakland-based 511 Rideshare. In the months since the spike in gas prices, the frequency "has doubled and has stayed very high, with seven to 12 new vanpools formed per month," he reports.

Another important number is the percentage of people who stay in the program once it has started, and here again both vanpooling and carpooling get good marks, with retention rates often exceeding 50 percent. "It's very rewarding for us to know that people try these options and like them. They see time and money savings, and often the new commute becomes a special part of someone's day," Powis observes. In fact, in another Question of the Week poll, 24 percent of respondents said it was their carpool partners that kept them in the program.

511 Rideshare offers a host of services and incentives for commuters who are ready to leave their cars at home, even for just one day a week. As its name implies, the RideMatch Service helps individuals join or start a carpool or vanpool. A new, updated system just launched at the web site, offering "faster carpool/vanpool matching, a personal RideMatch page, improved graphics, and options to track your green commute."

A newly formed vanpool is eligible for up to $900 in gas cards, among other benefits. The agency's vanpool consultants help guide applicants through the entire process, from feasibility advice and assistance with van leasing to recruiting back-up drivers and passengers and medical exam reimbursements.

Outreach to employers is another important aspect of 511 Rideshare's mission. Offered at no cost, the services can include density mapping, to show where employee groups come from and identify transit options. Powis is also promoting awareness of the $230 per month transportation set-aside instituted as part of the federal stimulus package. Similar to a health savings account, this measure allows employees to reserve pretax income to pay for certain transit options. The arrangement also reduces FICA taxes for employers, making it "a win on both sides," Powis says.

However, concern about finances is not the principal reason commuters chose to join a car- or vanpool. Answers to another weekly poll asking users about their RideMatch motivation revealed that 38 percent wanted to save money while 63 percent said it was good for the environment.

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