Want a Transportation System That Works? Vanpools.

Crosscut published this op-ed on April 20, 2010.

Across the Puget Sound region, traffic congestion is predicted to double, reaching the levels of present day Los Angeles by 2030. Yet, so-called regional transportation solutions will do very little to help and will actually make traffic worse. A more cost-effective solution is staring us right in the face: vanpools.

Vanpools are cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient than any other intercity transit mode. King County's public vanpool program alone carries more riders than Sound Transit's entire Sounder Commuter Rail, and for $1 billion less.

When accounting for ridership and distance traveled, vanpools cost between three and five times less to operate than light rail, buses or commuter rail. In the seven years between 2000 and 2007, the six vanpool agencies in the Puget Sound area spent $50 million on capital infrastructure. This is 18 times less than the same six bus agencies, 12 times less than Sound Transit’s Express bus system and 20 times less than the Sounder Commuter Rail.

It costs about 20 cents per passenger mile to build and operate the vanpool program in the Puget Sound region. Compare this to other intercity transit modes like express buses or rail. Sound Transit Express buses cost about $1.70 per passenger mile and Sounder Commuter Rail costs a whopping $5.39 per passenger mile.

And vanpool users pay for most of their own service. In 2007, King County Metro had the highest farebox recovery rate in the region, collecting 83 percent of operating expenses from vanpool passengers.

This is in stark contrast to what users pay to ride buses, commuter rail, and light rail. Farebox recovery rates for these transit modes are about 20 percent of operating costs, while taxpayers pay the remaining 80 percent.

Between 2002 and 2007, the public paid about $1.26 for every vanpool trip made in the Puget Sound region. In comparison, the public paid $5.13 in operating costs for every passenger trip on Sound Transit buses and $10.66 in operating costs for every passenger trip made on the Sounder Commuter Rail.

As the suburbanization of communities in the Puget Sound region developed over the last three decades, many transit agencies recognized the importance of connecting these outlying areas to employment centers with intercity transit systems. In the 1990s, this regional approach gave rise to Sound Transit and its line of express buses, commuter rail, and light rail to connect users in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties. This growth pattern also contributed to new funding policies like King County’s 40/40/20 rule, which distributes 40 percent of any new transit service to the Eastside, 40 percent to South King County and only 20 percent to Seattle, to reach the suburbs.

Today, regional planners and some policymakers believe the best approach is to force people to live and work in compact, urban developments that will supposedly lead to more transit use and fewer, shorter auto trips.

Yet, despite decades of restrictive government land-use policies to increase density in urban centers, residents continue a steady movement into the suburbs. Driven by a variety of social and economic factors, these growth patterns have made travel between home and work longer and more congested as average trip length and travel time continue to rise.

So planners and policymakers responded with more fixed-route rail and buses to tie these outlying areas to employment centers.

As intercity transit, however, these fixed-route systems are very linear, expensive and do not attract enough riders to justify the costs. For example, Sound Transit estimates that its entire system will carry about 358,000 trips per day by 2030. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) estimates that motorists and transit users will make about 15 million total trips per day in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties by 2030. This means Sound Transit is spending more than 30 years and nearly $40 billion to build a system that will only carry about 2.4 percent of all daily trips.

Worse yet, in its long-range planning update, Transportation 2040, the PSRC assumes about $60 billion for more than 160 miles of light rail criss-crossing the Puget Sound region, while only increasing the share of people using transit from 3 percent to 5 percent.

Most commuters prefer their car and accept the higher cost of driving to gain the freedom of mobility, speed, and flexibility it affords. This freedom possesses both tangible and intangible benefits, which are a greater value than the monetary savings of taking public transit.

More than 96 percent of people in the region choose to drive a car, despite the ninth-worst traffic congestion in the country. So in 2008, state policymakers offered a demand-side approach in a renewed effort to engineer people out of their cars.

The legislature passed House Bill 2815, which among other provisions, implemented a new state policy to reduce Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT). The new law says the government will reduce VMT by 18 percent by 2020, 30 percent by 2035 and 50 percent by 2050, with the hope of ultimately reducing statewide greenhouse-gas emissions.

A significant component to achieving Washington’s VMT reduction goals is land use and regulating more compact development within large urban areas. Again, this type of strategy forces higher-density development with the idea that more people will use transit and make fewer and shorter single-occupant vehicle trips.

The Washington Policy Center has largely been critical of policies to reduce how much people drive because of their unknown financial costs, their negative impact on mobility, and their potential to artificially manipulate land use and travel behaviors. Simply having such a law on the books could also limit the ability to bond against revenue streams that are funded by drivers. Investors would surely balk at purchasing debt backed by gas taxes or tolls when state law mandates a reduction in how much motorists drive.

Demand-side policies that reduce how much people drive or force people to live and work in certain areas have negative consequences, are costly and will not have the desired effect of shifting people to public transit.

There is a better way.

Instead of building expensive, fixed-route intercity transit systems that relatively few people use; instead of reducing personal mobility by limiting how much people drive; and instead of artificially forcing people to live and work in dense urban centers, vanpools offer a more cost-effective choice to connect the suburbs with transit, preserve people's freedom of mobility and help the environment by reducing the number of cars on the road.