By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service
LANSING – With more than 335 state-sponsored vanpools and escalating gas prices, the state Transportation Department (MDOT) predicts that van commuting will gain popularity.
VPSI Inc. in Troy has had a contract with MDOT since 1981 to coordinate commuter vans in a program intended to help the environment, reduce wear and tear on vehicles and save commuters money.
VPSI runs more than 6,000 vans nationwide. According to VPSI, one 15-passenger van eliminates 136 tons of carbon dioxide emissions daily.
Michelle Romano Rockwood, MichiVan division manager, said to qualify for a van, at least five people must pool to a common area.
The group then sets a meeting point, such as a supermarket parking lot, loads up in the morning and drives to work, she said.
Romano Rockwell said the newest MichiVan routes are between Washington Township and Flint, between Clarkston and Detroit, between Clinton Township and Detroit and between Grand Rapids and Battle Creek.
She said some of the first routes linked Ann Arbor with Detroit, Southfield with Lansing, Chesterfield Township and Flint with Warren, Jackson with Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids with Lansing.
Most vanpools are set up by individuals, but the company also offers lease agreements, she said. For example, there are 80 vans in the University of Michigan vanpool.
Alice Cheesman, admissions coordinator of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan, promotes vanpools to employees.
She is the primary driver for five fellow employees commuting between Tecumseh and Ann Arbor.
“My responsibilities include vacuuming the van, making sure tires are at the right level, taking it in for oil change and documenting information for MichiVan and U of M.”
MichiVan wants to track how many riders are using its vans. The university reports fuel cost, how many days each rider commuted per month and how many drove their own car.
Because of gas price increases, MichiVan riders have multiplied.
MDOT Director Kirk Steudle said getting the first 100 vanpools took a long time, getting the next 100 was a lot quicker and the last 100 even faster.
Doug Carmichael, an analyst from the Department of Community Health, said, “I started my own pool in November 2008 because there were none in existence that met my 10-hour, four-day schedule at the time. Even in my 36-mpg car, I was still using four gallons of gas each day driving myself.”
“We park the van in Novi and leave at 5:50 a.m. to arrive in Lansing, dropping everyone off by 7. Our riders come from Livonia, Sterling Heights, Novi, Bloomfield Hills, Farmington Hills, Brighton and Highland.
“We stop in Brighton to pick up additional riders. We leave Lansing at 5:30, and generally get back around 6:30 p.m.,” he said.
Their pool uses about eight gallons of gas per day, but Carmichael said with gas costing $3.33, would cost $13 a day to drive to work alone, even in his economical car.
He said he likes the experience the vanpool provides for new friendships and expanding networks among participants.
Cheesman said gas used to cost $10 a day for her group’s commutes. Now the cost is more like $11 a day for their route.
Cheesman said U of M supplements a large amount of the cost, making it less expensive for the poolers.
In vanpools generally, one primary driver takes the vehicle home each day and up to five alternative drivers cover in case of sickness or vacation.
The primary driver rides free but is responsible for maintaining the vehicle.
VPSI’s Romano Rockwood said, “All maintenance, washes, oil changes and filing MDOT required reports is billed to MichiVan. Poolers hand car companies a coupon for maintenance so no passengers or drivers pay out-of-pocket.”
The other passengers pay an annual rate for the service. The monthly cost includes maintenance and insurance, but riders pay for fuel, sales tax and necessary parking, she said.
The commutes range from one to 90 miles, Romano Rockwood said.
Cheesman said a main reason U of M helps its poolers is to save parking spaces on campus. MichiVans park free and leave free as many as 480 parking spots if all commuters pool daily.
“More and more vans should be made available because of the big savings. It saves the environment — we’re not using as much fuel — saving gas and lowering personal auto insurance, and we’re leaving one less footprint on the environment,” she said.
“Every rider I know would say it’s great. I’m just sorry I didn’t do this a long time ago. I wish I would have started 30 years ago instead of three.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.