Suburban residents slow to jump on vanpool bandwagon: Neither cost nor environmental advantages stir the masses; advocate says ’employers need to get smarter’

The federally funded Central Indiana Commuter Services has finally won over a dozen workers to share a van to and from work-somewhat of a feat in a region where a vanpool might as well be a bathing option for a conversion van.

Besides a vanpool program that runs between Cloverdale and Indianapolis, CICS recently signed on a handful of Fishers residents to share a seven-passenger van between the Hamilton County town and downtown Indianapolis.

Lately, CICS has been trying to establish a second Hamilton County vanpool in nearby Carmel.

Hamilton is the No. 1 county sending workers into Marion County-50,051 in 2004, according to the Indiana Business Research Center. Conversely, Hamilton County receives nearly 12,000 workers from Marion County.

So far, though, “we haven’t seen much interest in a vanpool from Carmel to downtown,” said Ruth Reiman, project manager for CICS.

The agency is also gauging whether there’s interest in vanpools that cross Hamilton County.

Long-suffering Reiman makes Job seem as impatient as a 2-year-old. Since CICS was formed in the fall of 2004, only 11 commuters have begun vanpooling. That compares with 565 carpoolers and 457 bus riders. Even the category of bikers/walkers has 126 participants, underscoring how foreign the vanpooling concept is in this region.

“It’s been a hard educational process,” said Reiman, who said it’s taken years even in so-called progressive cities to build support.

Not that CICS hasn’t tried. Besides billboards and radio spots, the service has sent its employees into the workplace to preach the word.

“A lot of people don’t know what a vanpool is-at all,” said Janet Belcher, as she staffed a CICS display in the cafeteria of St. Francis Hospital in Beech Grove. So far, 32 employees at this campus have signed up for commuting alternatives with CICS.

More so than carpooling, it can be harder to match vanpoolers willing to travel at a set schedule because there are more people in the equation. CICS provides seven-passenger to 12-passenger vans under a contract with Troy, Mich.-based VPSI Inc.

On average, a passenger can pay anywhere from $50 to $150 per month, depending on the number of passengers and their monthly mileage, Reiman said.

A driver who agrees to drive and maintain the van rides for free.

But fares can be offset by federal tax subsidies. One provision allows an employer who elects to subsidize a worker’s transit pass or vanpooling to provide up to $105 a month for each employee. Because a transportation subsidy is not counted as income for the employee, it is tax-free. The employer doesn’t pay FICA taxes on the benefit.

Another approach is deducting a vanpool fare from a worker’s pay as a pretax benefit so employer and employee pay less in payroll-related taxes.

Financial benefits don’t always woo riders, however. Participation in the Fishers vanpool is thin, Reiman acknowledges. She thinks Fishers workers might be of a different mix. Many are professionals who work long hours. Some are rigid about their preferences for traveling during non-peak hours to avoid notorious logjams on interstates 69 and 465. What some of these commuters would like is an express bus traveling between Hamilton County and Indianapolis that ran several times a day, she said.

IndyGo announced recently that it won a $3.6 million grant that would allow it provide up to three routes, perhaps by late this year. But, so far, neither the bus service nor local governments have been able to lasso enough local money to sustain service.

But to the west of Indianapolis, vanpooling has proven popular. There are enough participants that the route may move up from a seven-passenger to 12-passenger van this month.

Among riders is Bob Flood, a benefits consultant at Clarian Health Partners, who used to drive solo the 70 miles to Indianapolis from his home in Terre Haute.

“It eliminates about half of my drive, at least. … I was driving roughly 150 miles a day,” Flood said.

He leaves his car at a park-and-ride lot the Indiana Department of Transportation set up at its Cloverdale facility. INDOT has designated 10 additional field offices as park-and-ride lots, including Columbus, Greenfield and Plainfield.

About the only inconvenience for vanpooler Flood is that he sometimes gets home at 6:15 p.m., about 15 minutes later than when he drove entirely on his own. But the van has its perks.

“I didn’t have a good night’s sleep last night,” he said “I sat in the back of the van today and took a cat nap.”

To accommodate unexpected events such as family emergencies, the program provides up to five free rides home each year-deploying taxicabs and even the occasional limousine service.

The logistics of van- and carpooling continue to confound some.

“So you probably need to have pretty steady hours, huh?” an employee of St. Francis Hospital’s gift shop asked Belcher, explaining that her shifts vary during the month.

Belcher told her it is possible to find a match with other riders on variable shifts, using a database CICS uses to match riders. In some cases, a rider might be able to ride with a group at least part of the week.

If employees arrive at work less stressed out, all the better, especially for patients, said James Dix, St. Francis’ manager of organizational development and training.

Meanwhile, CICS officials have been trying to pitch van- and carpooling as a solution to those who reverse-commute: driving from homes in the city to jobs in the suburbs. A number of city workers head daily to Plainfield to work in distribution centers or to bedroom communities to work at satellite hospitals.

Some of those employers now send their own company vans to pick up workers at places where city bus service ends-an expensive prospect for employers.

Other businesses are adding expensive parking places that reduce available land to expand their businesses in the future.

“Can we afford to develop parking lots as opposed to [investing in] taxable businesses that drive the economy?” asked Michael Terry, IndyGo’s director of business development. “Employers need to get smarter about how they get their employees back and forth to work.”

Terry said he challenges employers: “Are you just hiring people who can drive?” and, thereby, limiting their own access to talented and reliable workers.

While CICS is focusing on the nine counties that make up the Indianapolis area, it estimates that people in 38 counties have work ties to the region.

The federal government funded the CICS program as a way to get more cars off the road and to reduce pollution. The city has exceeded federal levels for ozone pollution and periodically registers high levels of fine particulates, generated in part by motor vehicles.

CICS van from Cloverdale arrives at Wile Hall at Methodist Hospital, downtown.

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