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From Muskegon to Grand Rapids, a merry band of travelers






All over West Michigan, carpoolers are sharing the ride to save cash, reduce their carbon footprint, and build camaraderie. Writer Marla Miller rides along with a vanpool from Muskegon to see what it's all about.
On a dark but mild November morning, six former strangers connected by the common goal of commuting arrive shortly before 7 a.m. in the park and ride lot near the Interstate 96 and 31 interchange.
 
The driver, Jeff Meyers of Norton Shores, shows up first to unlock and ready the gray minivan for the 30-mile trip to downtown Grand Rapids. The others arrive within a few minutes, taking a seat and settling in one of nine Rapid vans traveling the I-96 corridor from Muskegon to Grand Rapids.
 
Preparing to depart the Hile Road park-and-ride lot, Roberta King, of Muskegon, moves to the back seat to accommodate an extra rider and stays occupied with her phone. Fellow rider Latrice Huntington of Muskegon joins her, wearing headphones and relaxing with her eyes closed.
 
“I’ll try to behave,” says Rich Strach of North Muskegon, as he sits between the two.
 
King and Strach, the van’s longest riders, met through The Rapid’s West Michigan Rideshare commuter database nearly six years ago and rode together before transferring to a Rapid vanpool. This is their second van, and they have been known to put notes on cars in the park-and-ride lot and post signs in the van’s window if they need a rider.
 
They used to pass Meyers, who left a note on the van, driving alone on the highway. He works the farthest from downtown near Leonard and I-131 and usually takes the van to work after the others are dropped off.
 
Save green, be green
Whether to save money, minimize wear and tear on their vehicles, reduce their carbon footprint or simply ease the burden of daily driving, many West Michigan commuters share the ride with friends and family, coworkers, even strangers.

West Michigan Rideshare, administered by The Rapid, connects commuters in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, Muskegon and surrounding counties and helps them manage and track their commutes.

Vanpool routes are at capacity and have been running for a decade, but many people remain unaware of The Rapid’s regional transit services. The vanpools started as a way to help companies attract and retain new employees, says Michael Bulthuis, public outreach coordinator of community engagement.
 
Bulthuis helps coordinate vanpooling, car and bike pooling resources, and corporate carpool-matching services through West Michigan Rideshare at wmrideshare.org. One of the site’s main features is a link to a free carpool-matching database with 2,300 users, Bulthuis says.
 
People interested in sharing a ride create a user profile and enter general information about where they live and work, their work schedule and other preferences like gender and smoking. The information is kept confidential, but allows commuters to communicate via email.
 
“It’s like match.com for commuters,” he says. “They can set different preferences and the website will spit back matches.”
 
Users also have the option of selecting vanpool if space is available. Vanpooling works best for people who tend not to leave the office – it wouldn’t be conducive to outside sales, for example – or can walk to appointments and meetings at other locations.
 
The average cost per person is approximately $100-$200 per month, based on commuting patterns, mileage, and occupancy. Bulthuis helps fill open slots when necessary to keep it affordable for all the riders. The fee includes gas, maintenance, insurance, 24-hour emergency roadside services, carwashes and 150 free personal miles per month for drivers.
 
“They are in charge of getting the oil changed, getting the van washed,” Bulthuis says. “They take ownership of it.”
 
Merry band of commuters
Commuting as a group takes some flexibility and compromise, especially around departure time and driving habits.
 
“We have a really good group of people in the van,” King says. “We set some van rules, like we don’t listen to the radio. We leave when we say we’re leaving, unless someone has texted or let someone know they are running late. But we don’t leave anybody behind at the end of the day.”
 
The front passenger on this day, David Meacher, plays hockey with Strach and started riding four and a half years ago. He has switched vans a few times due to his work schedule.
 
“It’s definitely convenient,” Meacher says. “The cost savings is nice, and the benefit of not being another one of the cars on the road. It makes it easier getting in and out of Grand Rapids every day.” 

The other riders enjoy Meacher’s wife’s sweet treats, says Sarah Leybourne. She commuted alone for nine years before joining the van two years ago after a good friend, who is a relative of Meyers, introduced the two at a holiday party.
 
“I enjoy the camaraderie and sharing the ride with someone else,” she says. “It keeps me on schedule because my job is one where I could stay forever.”
 
They make out a schedule each week of who will drive and what days each person plans to ride, or if someone needs to take the van during the day for appointments or errands. They rotate drivers so the person who drives in the morning doesn’t drive home the same day.
 
“Everybody respects each other,” says Huntington. “Some days, you even sacrifice for each other.”
 
Huntington used to ride in another van with coworkers, then drove herself for a year before having an accident in the winter. She has been with this van for nearly four years.
 
“It’s an eclectic group of people, but we always have something in common – even the smallest thing,” she says. “Jeff has jokes. Dave brings sweets. And Rich, he’s a conservative businessman who brews beer. It’s intriguing and it works.”
 
Strach frequently stays at work late, so he usually rides the van two days a week. But he did the math and says it still pays off.
 
Vanpoolers save on much more than gas, King says. Tires and other maintenance can really add up, not to mention carbon emissions.
 
“There’s a certain amount of personal guilt I had from driving all that way,” King says. “There are five other cars that aren’t on the road.”
 
King has worked in Grand Rapids for 10 years, sharing the ride for nine of them. She keeps a bicycle at her office to get around downtown, but still drives on her own when necessary. She also arrives to work an hour early, when it is quiet and she can work without distractions.
 
“For me, it provides time to read and write and do other things rather than just commute,” she says. “It fits a lot of my personal values: community, economy, the environmental impact.”
 
Ride sharing made easy
West Michigan Rideshare also serves the business community by providing solutions to improve travel for their employees. For a nominal fee, employers can have limited access to the site to track how many employees are carpooling or send custom messages to employees in the database, Bulthuis says.
 
Large employers such as Spectrum, Amway, Dematic and Perrigo use the site to encourage green travel among employees. With 3,000 employees in the Allegan area, Perrigo promotes the Rideshare site in its internal communications and new employee orientation to encourage carpooling, says Sarah Herbst, social compliance manager. One challenge for Perrigo is it has several campuses and does not have transit for employees to get to different locations once at work, she says.
 
Some Rapid vanpools transport coworkers to the same place, like the one traveling from Holland to the Whirlpool plant in Benton Harbor. The Rapid introduced vanpooling in 2003 and currently has 32 vans running from Lansing, Big Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Holland to Grand Rapids, and one that goes to Holland.
 
“We want to give people options,” Bulthuis says. “The bus is not the end all, be all option for everyone, especially people leaving the GR metro area to work in other areas or coming into Grand Rapids.”
 
They've added 10 vans in the last year, indicating a steady demand for the vanpool, Bulthuis says. Most of the vans stay at capacity with 4 to 6 riders, but there is an occasional opening and a waiting list for new routes, he says.
 
“Thirty-two seems to be a comfortable number,” he says. “We don’t want vans just sitting. We like to keep that balance. All of my vanpoolers are very, very happy with the program. It saves them a ton of money.”
 
Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer who enjoys meeting cool people and telling their stories. Her interests include arts, entertainment, entrepreneurs, food and travel, innovating organizations and the inspiring work of nonprofits. An award-winning features writer and former newspaper reporter, she is not putting her master's degree to use, but finally feels happy. Check out her website: marlarmiller.com

Photography by Adam Bird
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