Vanpooling: An Inspiring Commuter Story

Donna Krekel, Senior Research Administrator in the department of Otolaryngology, and Gary De Wet, Technical Support Specialist at the Office of WUSM Chief Information Officer, have been vanpooling to and from the WashU School of Medicine campus every day of the week for over 20 years. Their vanpool party, which has been running since 1999, counts an average of ten people. Together with Gary as the primary driver, they share their commute journey departing from Union, MO, about 47 miles and 55 minutes away from campus.

Donna and Gary’s commute is made possible by RideFinders’ vanpool program, which provides a vehicle, maintenance, insurance, and gas, for any group of five or more individuals who want to commute together. Available to all residents of the greater St. Louis area (9 counties across Illinois and Missouri), the goal of this program is to reduce emissions and enhance our regional air quality, while providing an affordable and convenient way for people to commute.

As a long-time vanpool rider, Donna says that there are countless reasons to vanpool, including the convenience of not having to maintain a car, not paying for fuel, as well as being able to use the hour-long commute there and back to take well deserved naps before or after a long workday.

Benefit #1: Save Money

Over their two decades of vanpooling, Donna and Gary have saved thousands of dollars, and this is actually the primary reason that motivated them to start vanpooling in the first place. “The cost of RideFinders is much better than paying for gas, paying for parking, and paying for the wear and tear on your vehicle”, says Donna.

Tina Johnessee, Ridefinders Vanpool Outreach Coordinator, is excited to share with us that the monthly Vanpool fares were just restructured and overall lowered, including a further reduced rate for a vanpool of 10 or more riders. The fare chart determines how much each rider has to pay monthly, based on mileage, commute frequency, and overall number of riders in the party. You have guessed it, the more riders in the party; the lower the fare will be for everyone!

And there is more. RideFinders waives the monthly fare for vanpool primary drivers in exchange for driving, fueling, and administering the vanpool. A great deal according to Gary who enjoys driving “while everyone else sleep like babies.” Drivers are also provided with a debit card they can use for gas when needed, so they don’t have to advance any of their own money.

In addition, “the Med School lets us park in their parking lot for free,” says Gary, a perk for people who vanpool, “so we don’t have to pay for that either.”

RideFinders’ Commute Calculator will give you a sense of how much money you can save by switching from driving alone to carpooling, but keep in mind that savings would be even greater if you were to join a vanpool!

Benefit #2: Increase Convenience and Flexibility

Included into the monthly fare are also vouchers for the Guaranteed Ride Home Program. Vanpool riders receive up to four $125 taxi rides per year in case of emergencies, or if they have to work late or leave earlier than the vanpool’s departure time that was agreed upon among riders. “It is really good to have the cab rides home in case something happens during work or to your family,” says Donna, “the cab rides will take you back to where you need to be,” whether it’s your home, your car, or elsewhere.

Other than those exceptional circumstances, however, riding a van to work instead of driving your own vehicle means that you get more hours of free time. In Gary’s words: “Your time, all of a sudden, is your own.”

“We used to have a couple of riders who would study,” adds Donna, referring to the activities that people would do on the van to and from work, “they were going to classes so they would read on the van while they’re on their way home.”

The pick-up and drop-off spots for the vanpools can also be flexible. While the general route for Donna and Gary’s team is from Union to the WUSM campus, passengers can also get dropped off other places along the way by coordinating individually with the primary driver. “We had somebody from the zoo once,” says Donna.“We used to swing through Forest Park and pick him up at a certain spot, then drop him off wherever he needed to be.”

The parking of the vehicle overnight is another flexible variable. While Gary and his team use one of the many commuter parking lots available in the region, participants are also allowed to drive the van all the way to their home for overnight parking, which is especially convenient for those who don’t own a vehicle.

Benefit #3: Make New Friends

In Donna and Gary’s case, seeing familiar faces week after week has allowed passengers to grow friendship with one another. “I knew her kids as babies, that’s just how it is,” says Gary, referring to Donna’s son, Jimmy. “You start to know people for a long time.”

Donna and Gary laughed remembering a time, early on in their vanpool journey, when the team came together to clean the van at Donna’s house. “Jimmy was a newborn when I first started riding the vanpool; we used to put change on the floor so he could ‘clean it up.’”

Having known each other for decades, Gary and Donna’s complicity and trust is palpable. They illustrate the human connections that can flourish from sharing something as mundane as a commute with people you would have never met otherwise.

Benefit #4: Stay Safe

The actual cleaning of the van, of course, does not fall onto the shoulders of a toddler. The vehicles are usually cleaned every six months through an electrostatic cleaner, though since the start of the pandemic, a clean commute commitment was adopted to double down on sanitation practices. Included in this commitment is a mask mandate enforced throughout all the vanpool parties, and an encouragement to lower the vehicle’s windows to increase ventilation. Each vehicle is also stocked with gloves, masks, and sanitizing wipes, ensuring that every surface that is touched can also be wiped down in between each shift and transportation of passengers.

“Regardless of the pandemic, people still have to get to work,” says Tina, who was among the first of the staff to start stocking the vans full of PPE even when there was a shortage in the beginning of the pandemic. “We are here for them. We just want to make sure that the safety of the riders stays at the utmost importance.”
Vanpool Outreach Coordinator, Tina, holding the electrostatic atomizer, visits Gary’s van for sanitation.

Benefit #5: Contribute to a Cleaner Planet

In November 2020, WashU was one of three recipients of RideFinders’ 2020 Regional Sustainability Award. Having added the most participants in the past 18 months into RideFinders’ carpool and vanpooling programs, WashU is celebrated for being a player in reducing single-occupancy vehicles on the road and improving air quality in the St. Louis region.

According to RideFinders, “vanpools remove nearly 800 vehicles and 60,000 driving miles from our region’s roadways daily – easing traffic congestion for everyone.” In addition, “by reducing the number of vehicles on the road, vanpooling helps eliminate over 2 million pounds of air pollution annually – allowing everyone to breathe easier”.

“Saving money is always on the forefront of most of our minds, but I have a new granddaughter,” says Tina before adding, “when I started working here, that was one thing that I wanted to do. I wanted to make sure that I do my part and make this world a better place for her to grow up.”

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