When prices at the gas pump are on the rise, more Washington area commuters turn to the region's Commuter Connections program in search of information about joining carpools or vanpools or finding other ways to save money on their monthly commuting costs.
In 2011, Commuter Connections received 20% more applications from commuters interested in carpooling or vanpooling than it did in 2010. In 2011, the average price of a gallon of gas in metropolitan Washington was 27% higher than it was in the previous year.
So far in 2012, rideshare applications in January and February were up 10% compared to the same time last year. Gas prices in January, meanwhile, were 11% higher than they were in January 2011.
Because spending on transportation is the second largest monthly expense for an average household behind housing, economizing on commuting costs can result in significant monthly savings for individuals and families. And because changes in travel behavior are often much easier to make in the short run than changes in housing arrangements, finding cheaper alternatives to driving alone can mean immediate savings.
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), in 2011, the average cost of owning and operating a personal vehicle was 58.5 cents per mile. Of that, 17.7 cents is spent on fuel and maintenance expenses, while the other 40.8 cents is spent on ownership costs -- insurance, licensing, registration, taxes, depreciation, and finance charges.
For a commuter with a one-way commute of 20 miles, fuel and maintenance costs alone add up to nearly $150 a month. By joining a carpool with just one other person, an individual could reduce those commuting costs by half. And being part of a three-person carpool would cut monthly spending on commuting by two-thirds.
Those with longer commutes and those who frequently must waste time and gas sitting in traffic -- like on I-395 northbound, where in 2011 travel speeds averaged just five miles per hour during the morning commute -- stand to save significantly more, especially if they can start avoiding congestion by using high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.
And individuals who are able to give up a vehicle altogether as a result of finding alternatives to driving alone to work could save an additional $500 a month or more, according to AAA.
Since 1974, the Commuter Connections program has been helping Washington area commuters find better ways to get to work. What began as a program to help commuters find potential carpool partners in their area today helps people organize or join vanpools, provides information about transit options and tips on commuting by bicycle or on foot, and works with employers to set up telework and other commute benefit programs for their employees.
Commuter Connections also offers the Guaranteed Ride Home (GRH) Program, which provides free taxi rides home up to four times a year for commuters who rideshare or take transit and need to get home in the middle of the day due to unexpected emergencies like personal illness or a sick child. The program can also be used for unexpected overtime when an employee is required to stay late at work.
And Commuter Connections benefits more than just those individual commuters who take advantage of its free services.
In 2011, the cumulative effects of Commuter Connections helping more people share the ride to work, take transit, or bicycle, walk, or telework, reduced the number of vehicles on Washington area roadways each day by 126,000. That amounted to a daily reduction in driving of 2.4 million miles, significant reductions in emissions of harmful, smog-forming pollutants, and less congestion on the region's roadways.
In uncertain economic times, and when gas prices are prone to steep rises with little notice, the immediate savings offered by carpooling, vanpooling, and other commute alternatives can make a big difference in household budgets. And when more people choose modes other than driving alone to work, the entire region enjoys reduced congestion and improved air quality.