Bernadette Yanda doesn’t like to drive. Wendy Stokesbary wanted to save 75 percent on her commuting costs. Dave Myers wanted to eliminate them all together.
So today all three are among the 870-plus commuters participating in The University of Iowa’s Employee Van Pool Program as it celebrates its 30th year.
The program, run by the University’s parking and transportation department, provides University-owned vans to groups of employees who live in the same community and work similar hours. With the exception of a few years in the early 2000s, the vanpool has grown steadily since it debuted in 1978 with four 12-passenger vans serving four nearby communities. Today, a fleet of 43 maxivans and 42 minivans serve 877 commuters in 34 communities.
Volunteer drivers assume responsibility for keeping the van fueled and serviced, logging mileage and ridership, and storing the van at their homes each evening. In exchange, they commute for free. The rest of the group pays a monthly fee to cover fuel, operating expenses, and parking costs. Current fees range from $40 for a spot in a 15-passenger maxivan from West Branch to $186 to ride in a 7-passenger minivan from Davenport. Payments are made via payroll deduction, and up to $115 of the cost can be deducted pretax.
Stokesbary, of Cedar Rapids, figures she saves $180 each month by using the vanpool rather than driving solo to her job with R.E.A.C.H. in the College of Education.
“It was a no-brainer,” she says. “Gas really is expensive. Money was my main motivation to look into it, but I also favor being green. It’s just a wiser thing to do all the way around.”
The cost of commuting was also a factor for Yanda, of Marion, when she joined the vanpool a few weeks after starting her job as a patient account representative at University Hospitals and Clinics. But it wasn’t the only one.
“If someone else offers to drive, that is just fine with me,” she says. “I would much rather be the passenger, even in my own car. I did not want to be out there driving every day, and I like the idea that I’m not out there on the road by myself. I-380 is just unbelievable. It is just so busy, and I would not want to be driving that every day.”
So she’s happy, she says, to leave the driving to those, like Myers, who enjoy it. Myers, a secretary with the Division of Sponsored Programs, has been driving a van from Wilton to Iowa City since 2000, and like all drivers in the vanpool program, he holds a Class D chauffeur’s license and is insured through workman’s compensation when driving for the University.
“Since my (personal) vehicle sits in my garage a fair part of the week, I’ve been able to lower my insurance rate,” Myers says. “I also save gas and reduce wear and tear on my vehicle.” Plus, he’s able to park the van right outside his office.
There are benefits from the University perspective, too. Vanpooling leads to a reduced need for parking spaces and less congestion. It’s also been linked to lower rates of employee tardiness and absenteeism, as well as lower turnover rates.
“It’s a way to recruit people to come to the University,” says Michelle Ribble, manager of commuter programs. “Somebody will say ‘I couldn’t afford to work at the University unless I had this way to get here. It allows the University to expand its recruitment base.”
Minivans are becoming increasingly popular, Ribble says, because more people are willing to drive the smaller vehicles, and there are fewer riders to coordinate. Switching to minivans is just one way the UI has tried to remove potential obstacles to successful vanpools.
In 2004, commuter programs added an Emergency Ride Home Program. Under this program, University employees who participate in a ridesharing program—like vanpooling—can be reimbursed for the cost of a taxi ride home in the event of an emergency.
“I know a lot of people may hesitate to do the vanpool—‘What if my kid gets sick?’ It’s a big leap to leave that car at home because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ribble says. “This may take away some of that fear.”
The office can also offer mediation services when problems arise on vans—ongoing disagreements about radio stations, for example, or how to address a vanpooler who constantly arrives late.
“Generally once people are in the program, they don’t leave unless they have to because they’ve changed jobs or started a new work shift,” Ribble says.
That can mean that those who want to join a vanpool may have to put their name on a wait list until a van becomes available. Demand for the program has been steady over the last couple of years, thanks to high gas prices, and Ribble anticipates adding several more vans to the program by the end of the fiscal year.
“I would recommend the vanpool,” says rider Yanda. “We all need to be doing what we can to clear up some of the traffic on the interstate and save some fuel. If the University’s willing to help with that, we should take advantage of it.”
by Anne Kapler