In the age of the $3 gallon of gas, sharing your commute is becoming more and more enticing
|Susan Horst, community transportation program manager with the Whatcom Council of Governments, said interest in carpooling has remained flat from a community standpoint since she started her position in 1996. However, programs like Whatcom Smart Trips, a local program that promotes sustainable transportation, may help attract more followers. Program participants are eligible for cash rewards, including $250 monthly prize drawings and $1,000 quarterly prize drawings for choosing to commute in other ways besides single-car driving.|
Until about 11 months ago, Terry Sacks and Becky Fitzpatrick found their own ways to work.
For Sacks, 51, who lives in Maple Falls, and Fitzpatrick, 52, who lives between Maple Falls and Deming, the journey to Western Washington University worksites in Bellingham — where they are both employed — could be long and lonely.
This past January, Sacks contacted Carol Berry, sustainable transportation coordinator with the university, to inquire about finding a carpool partner to share her travels with.
“(Berry) said she would put an e-mail out to people to see if anybody was interested,” Sacks said. Fitzpatrick was, and the two have been riding together — usually three times per week — ever since.
“It started out to save gas,” Fitzpatrick said. Before the duo started carpooling, Fitzpatrick was commuting via the bus a couple times per week. In addition to financial savings, avoiding the bus shaved substantial time off her commute, she said.
“The other thing is that it is nice to have company on the road, especially now that it’s dark in the morning and dark at night. You’ve got company to keep you from getting sleepy,” Sacks said.
“And to keep you laughing,” added Fitzpatrick.
On this morning, a frosty, Halloween pre-dawn scene along the Mount Baker Highway, the two were dressed to the occasion as they talked inside Sacks’ green Toyota Echo — Sacks as a clown, and Fitzpatrick a gypsy. Both were at ease in each other’s company, very much carpoolers as much as comrades. Both agreed that this style of commuting is an arrangement that can work — as long as a person is willing to adapt.
“Not everybody is flexible,” Fitzpatrick said. “You really have to be flexible, but the return is great because we got a friendship out of it, and we saved gas and wear-and-tear on our vehicles. We even know each other’s husbands.”
“Becky has actually gone out of her way to fit into my schedule because my schedule is harder,” Sacks said. “If one of us needs the car, then they are the one that drives that day. There have been times that we were planning on Becky driving, but then I realized that I had a doctor’s appointment, so I drove instead.”
Carpooling may not be for everyone, but for those who participate, the rewards can come in many forms, ranging from the straightforward (gas savings, parking benefits) to the less obvious (new friendships).
‘It’s not hard’
For those who want to carpool in Whatcom County, there are two main ways to locate and connect with carpool partners, said Susan Horst, community transportation program manager with the Whatcom Council of Governments.
One way to connect — known as ridematching — is through RideshareOnline.com, a Web site run by King County Metro. The site used to cater primarily to commuters in the Seattle area until it expanded into a statewide service. In the past, Whatcom Transit Authority compiled its own database of riders, but the cost and energy required to maintain the site was extensive, Horst said.
The Web site computes a variety of factors to make a ride match, Horst said.
“The software looks at where you live, where you work, a reasonable distance around those points from which to draw matches,” she said. “It looks at the path that you are traveling and possible matches along that path, and also the hours that you need to be at work. And then it matches that information with other people in the database.”
The other option for ride matching jumps from the Web to the workplace.
“The major worksites have a person who is designated as the transportation coordinator for employees,” she said. “They can do a more personalized version of (what RideshareOnline.com can do).”
Put simply, transportation coordinators arrange matches for company employees.
“It’s hard to make it sound complicated,” Horst said.
Large companies in Whatcom County — meaning businesses with 100 or more full-time employees at a single worksite — must participate in a state program called Commute Trip Reduction (CTR). Businesses are required to participate if those employees begin their scheduled workday between 6 and 9 a.m., although most construction and seasonal agricultural workers are exempted.
The goals of the CTR law, legislation passed in 1991, are to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and gas consumption through employer-based programs that decrease the number of commute trips made by single-car drivers.
The Whatcom Council of Governments oversees the implementation of the state’s CTR program for Whatcom County and provides support to large local employers.
Employers are required to develop a commuter program designed to achieve reductions in vehicle trips and may offer benefits such as subsidies for transit fares, flexible work schedules, telework opportunities and more.
According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the CTR program removes more than 20,000 vehicles from state roadways every morning. Employees at CTR worksites drove alone to work only 65.7 percent of the time in 2005, compared with the statewide commuting drive-alone rate of 75.3 percent in 2004.
The absence of the 20,000 vehicles on the state’s roads each weekday morning in 2005 reduced gas consumption by about 5.8 million gallons, saving commuters about $13.7 million. It also reduced air pollutants by nearly 3,700 tons and the emissions of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases by nearly 74,200 tons.
More than 1,110 worksites and more than 560,000 commuters statewide participate in the CTR Program.
Horst said the Whatcom Council of Governments assists local companies to comply with CTR requirements in a variety of ways. For example, the council can provide a company’s transportation coordinator with a large map plotted with anonymous listings of employee’s home addresses, which are then used to connect carpool partners.
To encourage the practice, employers can offer incentives to those who carpool as well, Horst said. This may include providing a good parking spot to participants, monetary benefits, and prize drawings.
For example, WWU employees who carpool are rewarded with better parking and reduced parking rates, while employees at Bellingham Cold Storage can earn prizes as part of carpooling contests.
“I think you need two key ingredients for a successful carpool program,” said Karen Hollingsworth, education and training coordinator with Bellingham Cold Storage. Her company has been running a carpool program since 1999. “One, it has to be fun. And two, you need the total support of the management team to make it work.”
Creating a workplace culture that encourages carpooling and other forms of sustainable transportation (commuting in ways other than single-car driving) is important, Hollingsworth said. Part of this culture at BCS includes an award that incorporates the company acronym — BCS — into a sustainable transportation-award moniker.
“Everybody wants to be the ‘BCS, ER’ of the month, or the quarter” she said. ‘BCS, ER’ stands for ‘Be Commute Smart, Environmentally Responsible.’ The company also circulates a monthly newsletter that encourages and highlights the sustainable transportation program, and employees can indicate if they walk, bike, bus, carpool or work a compressed schedule on their time cards, information the company tracks.
Recently, BCS, which has about 125 employees, awarded eight, $25 Hardware Sales gift certificates to sustainable commute contest winners. Monthly and quarterly award winners can earn gift certificates as well as cash bonuses, she said.
Employers can also be flexible with scheduling, Horst said.
“Little adjustments that might have to be made are okay. If Sally can ride with Joe, and Sally can get to work 15 minutes later because of Joe’s schedule, then allow that to happen because it’s important for the company,” she said. Employers with bigger companies may have an easier time implementing a carpool culture, she said.
“For a smaller company, you can easily promote walking, cycling and riding the bus, but it may be difficult to find carpool matches within your own company,” Horst said. “There is less probability that you will find schedules and home locations that will match.”
Aside from employer-based incentives, Whatcom Smart Trips, a local program that partners local government, public agencies, employers, and schools to promote sustainable transportation, offers incentives at the community level to carpoolers. The local government entities include Whatcom Transit Authority, Whatcom Council of Governments, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County.
Carpoolers — as well as walkers, bikers and bus riders — are eligible for cash rewards, including $250 monthly prize drawings and $1,000 quarterly prize drawings for choosing to commute in other ways besides single-car driving. Smart Trip participants can also earn discounts with local merchants and emergency rides home.
The incentives are available to anyone making a trip, whether for work or not. Smart Trip participants are required to fill out a “Trip Diary” online, which records trips.
Creating goodwill in communities
“The most regular carpooling happens on the way to work,” Horst said. “If you and your neighbor both work at the same place and you’ve worked there for 20 years — you get it figured out and you just do it.”
According to CTR statistics for 2005 — statistics that include only information from the larger companies — carpooling is the second-most popular form of work commuting in Whatcom County, far behind first-place single-car driving.
Some situations make it easier to carpool than others, she said.
“If you are going with another couple to a Seahawks game, they are going to carpool because it wouldn’t make sense for both couples to drive separately,” she said. “There is a certain feeling about that that is fun and acceptable and not beyond boundaries. But some people might say, ‘Well, asking my neighbor if he’s going where I think he’s going, and could I ride with him occasionally.’ That starts to be a little bit outside of the comfort zone.”
Horst, who has a master’s degree in environmental education, has worked with the council of governments since 1996. During her tenure, she said interest in carpooling, from a community standpoint, has been flat — “unless there is a spike in gas prices. Then people are motivated.”
“The exception is at worksites that promote it,” she said. “If you have something going on at your worksite to help you find a carpool, to give you incentives if you do it, to give you a special parking spot, then carpooling goes up.”
Employers can reap several benefits of encouraging carpooling, she said, such as easing parking lot congestion and reducing employee absentee rates and tardiness.
“If you and I carpool to work, and you’re typically a person who has trouble getting up and getting out the door on time, but you know that I’m going to be coming by and sitting in your driveway and waiting until you get out the door to get in the car,” she said, “there is a little extra pressure on you to get to work on time.”
In communities where traffic volume is an issue, a good carpool program can help to ease congestion and create goodwill and positive relations between residents and business, she said.
In the end, creating a carpool culture is up to the individual.
“It’s not hard to get people to make little changes,” she said. “Maybe not to work. Not everybody can change the way that they get to work. But they can change the way that they get to their son’s baseball practice, or they can change the way they get to the pharmacy.”
Fitzpatrick and Sacks will soon be forced to make changes of their own: Fitzpatrick said she was moving to Oregon within the next couple of weeks.
“So not only do I not have someone to carpool with, but I’ve lost my one friend that I’ve made here. So I’m bummed,” Sacks said. “Actually, I told Becky, ‘I cheated on you today. I called Carol Berry and asked her if there was anybody else (to carpool with).’”