It sounds like the start of a joke: “An engineer, a nurse’s aide, and an IT guy enter a minivan …” In fact, it’s a partial passenger list for the U-M’s “Detroit One” vanpool. The white, three-row Chrysler left a park-and-ride lot near I-96 in Redford Twp. around 7:10 this morning. When I join them as they approach Ann Arbor, the riders are discussing what’s for dinner, giving each other advice, telling childhood stories about making mud pies, and making jokes about their email addresses.
Deer cross the road on North Campus near Elvira Rivera’s stop–she’s a grad program coordinator at the engineering school. As we approach the medical campus, Khia Moseley, a patient care assistant at Mott Children’s Hospital, notices a car in the distance. “Look, they’re having trouble parking,” she says.
This sparks a conversation about why these strangers joined forces for their workday commute.
Parking on campus is “terrible,” says Kierstin Fiscus, an administrative assistant at the med school. “And gas! If I were in my own car it would be $70 a week for gas at least!”
Vanpoolers pay a monthly fee of $25 and share gas costs–together, it totals about $65. That saves riders like Fiscus more than $3,000 a year on gas alone. The van itself is subsidized by parking permit sales. With more than 100 vanpools–a record number–the U-M is spared having to park 500-600 cars, enough to fill a large structure.
Vanpoolers don’t just save money–they also avoid the campus parking insanity by dropping riders off at their workplaces. “Even with the cheap parking which is only $7 a month you still have to park in Timbuktu and take a bus,” says Fiscus. The van itself has a guaranteed parking spot on South Campus: driver Alan Hunt, a mechanical engineer, works at the architecture, engineering, and construction office on Hoover. (The IT guy, Kinnothan Nelson, isn’t riding today.)
The shared rides are especially popular for employees with long commutes–other vans come from Toledo, Flint, and Shelby Township. The medical campus is by far the most popular destination: the bulletin board outside the main hospital cafeteria is papered with flyers seeking riders to and from Fenton, Dundee, Milan, Monroe, Farmington Hills, Novi, and more. The earliest vans leave at 5 a.m. to get to work at 5:45.
The vans transform a lonely commute into a more social one. “My favorite things about the vanpool are equally important,” says Fiscus. “They are number one and number one: the amount of money it saves and the camaraderie it gives.”
“Riders become closer,” Hunt agrees. “Most of us who join don’t know anyone on the vanpool” at first. Now, he even knows Moseley’s mother–who calls him Melvin Jackson because, she told him, he just looks like his name should be Melvin Jackson.
The jokes start as soon as I board the van. “I’m Kierstin, K-I-E-R-S-T-I-N,” Fiscus says when she introduces herself. “And, that’s Al.” Then, with a smirk, she adds “A-L.” Laughter erupts from the other seats.
They act like friends on a road trip. It’s like a flashback to the old days on the school bus with new friends all over again. Riders in other vans have even found new crushes.
“We’ve had a couple of marriages and now babies, which I think is pretty cool,” says Lindsey Lossing, the U-M’s former alternative transportation coordinator.
A lot of the bonding in Detroit One is over TV shows, even when the riders aren’t in the van. A group text message, intended to coordinate schedules, is used for much more. “Pretty much no topic is off limits,” says Fiscus. “We have favorite shows that we all watch and text back and forth at night.”
“It may be the Friday after watching Scandal. Everyone’s talking about Scandal,” laughs Hunt–even if they don’t watch the show themselves.
Once the text tones come rolling in, “I’m like ‘Oh, Scandal,‘” says Moseley.
Sometimes, Detroit One rides quietly. “In the wintertime it’s dark when you leave and dark when you come back, so you get into sleepy mode when you get in that nice warm van,” says Hunt. “You can snuggle up and enjoy the ride.” Other times, riders may work, read the paper, or play games on their smartphones.
Things get lively again on special occasions. On Hunt’s birthday a while back, the other riders got him “vanpool cookies.”
Not all vanpoolers get along so well. Like members of a real family on a road trip, riders may need to avoid conversations about politics, or disagree about shared trunk space or the thermostat. Another potential source of disagreement is headed off in advance: “One of the rules of the vanpools is the driver has control of the radio,” Hunt says.
As for backseat driving, there’s “not too much unless it’s wintertime, because some people may drive a little fast,” says Hunt. “You can see people tensing up like ‘ooh’ if you come too close to the back of a car, but for the most part people aren’t too vocal.”
Though two others also take turns behind the wheel, Hunt is Detroit One’s primary driver. Drivers “just volunteer,” says Lossing. After the former primary driver left, “it just moved on to me,” Hunt says. “I used to just fill in once a month.”
While Detroit One’s riders love their van, they wish there were more flexibility in the vanpool service. The university will pay for six emergency cab rides a year to, for example, a doctor’s office or a child’s school, but “those can go quickly,” Moseley says. And vanpoolers can’t get campus parking permits, which makes it hard to drive separately.
Downsides like this mean that ridership is dynamic. “Whenever gas prices go up, interest in the vanpool program goes up,” says Lossing. “When they go down, interest goes down.”
Life and work changes also affect ridership. Patrice Brown reluctantly left Detroit One recently when she took a job in the city, and Rivera will soon leave because her daughter will start kindergarten.
At the end of the day, Detroit One repeats its morning route in reverse. Because it’s Friday, the van will pick up Rivera, the first off in the morning and last on in the evening, around 5 p.m., about fifteen minutes earlier than the other days of the week. Then it’s back to the park-and-ride lot in Redford, and onward to the weekend.