October 23, 2007
  

Can Better Carpooling Help Fix Our Traffic Mess?

Matt Rosenberg

A recent proposal under Washington State DOT's Trip Reduction Performance Program would utilize a "Flexible Carpooling" strategy in a pilot project for Sea-Tac Airport employees, removing 100 commuter round trips per work day.

Trip Convergence Ltd. is seeking a WSDOT grant of $86,000 over two years to help launch a five-year "proof of concept" test of its user-friendly form of carpooling - described in this YouTube video. (Full disclosure: Cascadia Center is one of several regional entities serving in an advisory capacity to Trip Convergence Ltd. with respect to the above-referenced pilot project).

According to Trip Convergence's grant application to WSDOT, members would drive to a Park and Ride location near Interstate 5 and State Route 18 in Federal Way, where they meet up with other commuters - each person choosing whether to drive or to be a passenger. When a car has one or more additional passengers, the driver then departs for the airport, letting the passenger(s) out at a designated drop off point. In the evening, the process is simply reversed. The application notes:

Participation will be tracked through the use of infrared and radio frequency ID technology, and based on the record of each trip, ride credits will be transferred between riders and drivers. The ride credit received by the driver will entitle the driver to take a ride at a later date.

The system does a good job of addressing the inconvenience that often accompanies carpooling. Rather than wait for a specific group of people, each member rides with the first available vehicle thereby increasing flexibility of when to come into and leave from work. Commuters that often need a car during the day can choose to be drivers, and locating a couple of Flexcars at the airport would also help alleviate the fear of being caught somewhere without a car.

But will it really pencil out, especially with a government grant involved, and compared to more popular forms of alternative commuting, such as bus transit? Let's try to drill down a bit. When a "trip reduction" is tallied, the car is sitting idle not for one day, but for each work day of the calendar year - about 250 days - because the driver is using an alternative form of travel, flexible carpooling in this case. Thus an "annual trip reduced" is really about 250 annual round trips that one car foregoes, or the equivalent spread among several cars.

So, 100 annual round trips reduced - the aim of the Trip Convergence Ltd. pilot project - is really about 25,000 daily round trips, total, reduced per year. At a stated trip reduction cost to WSDOT of $43,000 per year in the project's first two years, the operating subsidy would total a modest $1.72 per daily trip reduced. Factoring in 15 vacation days per year for the owner of each vehicle, 100 annual round trips reduced would total 23,500 daily round trips reduced, and the subsidy would rise to $1.82.

That compares favorably to King County Metro bus service, which as this Metro fact sheet reports, requires $3.64 in operating costs per boarding while simultaneously yielding only 84 cents in operations revenue, for an average operating subsidy of $2.80 per boarding, or $5.60 per daily round trip.

A large part of the difference is likely explained by the unionized salary and benefits costs of operating large public bus fleets and, as off-peak load factors run low, uneconomic fuel costs as well.

One implication is that smaller, more nimble and flexible approaches to group commuting could attract greater market share, especially if regional tolling and transportation-specific carbon taxes, or mileage or cordon fees, are instituted within high-density metropolitan regions. Already, due simply to existing road congestion, we see companies such as Microsoft instituting their own privately-funded regional bus service for employees, which is both salubrious for taxpayers, and in the company's enlightened self-interested, due to its employee retention concerns.

Another implication is that Metro may need to look more closely at serving fewer routes better and faster to improve operating margins. Metro's planned bus rapid transit "rapid ride" corridor routes may provide a useful template for broader stratagic shifts in the system.

More on Vehicle Trip Reduction: "Slow But Steady Telework Revolution Eyed."

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