By Dave DeWitte
When it comes to their daily commute, Corridor residents are loners.
In surveys of more than 1,000 Corridor commuters who drive on Interstate 380, some 89 percent drive alone, according to the Iowa Commuter Transportation Study released by the Iowa Department of Transportation in December. That’s in spite of the fact that 82 percent of commuters work a standard 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday job.
The study was commissioned by the Iowa General Assembly to consider ways to deal with the growing I-380 traffic congestion between Coralville and Cedar Rapids, and the inevitable headaches that will come with rebuilding the busy I-380/I-80 interchange beginning in 2018.
A statewide online ride-matching service, to be available later this year through the DOT, could help by accelerating the use of carpooling and vanpooling.
The DOT issued a request for proposals for private companies to provide the system on June 1 and expects to announce the provider of the service by July 10. The final service could be launched in the Corridor as early as October, according to Brent Paulsen, research and technology manager for the DOT’s Office of Public Transit.
The service will enable commuters and others with local transportation needs to go online and enter information about when and where they need to travel, then match it with other Iowans who have compatible travel needs, Mr. Paulsen said. It will consolidate data from the few existing ride-matching services in the state, such as the University of Iowa rideshare program, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority’s RideShare and the Omaha-Council Bluffs’ regional MetrO! Rideshare, into one system.
Ease of use was high on the list of requirements in the request for proposals, which says “finding potential carpool and vanpool matches should be the easiest step in forming carpools and vanpools.”
The experience of the University of Iowa, which has the area’s largest vanpooling and carpooling program, provides some insights into why some use car or vanpools and others do not.
Many of the carpool and vanpool users have commutes of 20 or more miles, said Michelle Ribble, commuter programs manager with the UI. Individuals with longer commutes are less likely to make stops and sidetrips, such as buying groceries or stopping at the gym, she said, and are therefore not as concerned that carpooling or vanpooling will interfere with their schedules.
The UI has addressed the concern that carpoolers and vanpoolers will need to return home at short notice by providing a “free ride home” program for them that allows them to grab a taxi.
“I think there’s just this fear that if I’m going to rideshare, what will I do when something happens to my child and I need to go home suddenly?” she said.
Ms. Ribble is excited about the prospect of a state-sponsored ride matching service.
“If you use a bigger net, the more people you can get on your database to search, the better the chance that the people will get a match,” she said.
Many in the Corridor are beginning to question the one person/one vehicle paradigm that has dominated commutes in the region.
“Cars are such a ridiculous form of transportation when you consider the amount of resources that go into each person having their own vehicle to go up and down the freeway,” said Brian Loring, executive director for the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. Using a vehicle that costs $30,000 and weighs over 3,000 pounds just to move one person down the interstate is “a tragic waste of resources,” he said.
Mr. Loring found himself driving congested streets and highways a lot when he formerly lived in Las Vegas, and it made him yearn for years when he hardly ever ran into traffic congestion as a Corridor resident.
By the time Mr. Loring moved back to the Corridor, that had begun to change. Driving on I-380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids at peak commuter times, he’s amazed not only by the traffic density, but the number of vehicles he sees with just one occupant. And for every driver on I-380, he said that’s one more driver who can cause an accident through fatigue, intoxication, distraction and other human foibles.
The ride matching service does raise a few questions for Mr. Loring: Will it catch on? Will it help residents in North Liberty with few public transit options? And will drivers be able to exploit the system by asking passengers to pay unjustified amounts to help with gas or repairs?
But overall, he said, “I’m intrigued by it.”
Other transit options
The rollout of a statewide ridesharing service is just one of the recommendations of the Iowa Commuter Transportation Study. Further recommendations include creation of express bus service between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, vanpool programs, and subscription bus services to transport individuals who live in locations that would make them unlikely to use express bus services or find ride matches.
A 15-member Corridor steering committee was created to work on the recommendations of the Iowa Commuter Transportation Study. It has one subcommittee each working on express bus service, subscription bus service and carpools/vanpools.
Carpooling and vanpooling are likely to be the first of the study recommendations to be implemented, said Mary Rump, transportation and regional development director for the East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG), but another recommendation is likely to have a greater impact.
Express bus service is seen by the steering committee as having the greatest potential for reducing congestion during the detour periods caused by the reconstruction of the I-380/I-80 interchange, according to Ms. Rump.
“We’re taking a step back and saying, ‘It would be ideal if we could get that in place one year prior to construction,’” she added.
There is a lot of work to be done by the express bus committee before seeking grants to buy buses and pay for initial operating costs. It is looking at potential route configurations, stop locations, transfer points, ride times and other issues.
Establishing the service in 2017, “gives you a year to get people comfortable about using an express service prior to meeting the traffic congestion that will occur when construction begins,” Ms. Rump explained.
Subscription bus service is prioritized behind the other recommendations because the adoption of the other strategies will help determine the extent to which the service will be needed, Ms. Rump said.
The creation of vanpools could fall somewhere between the ride-matching service and the transit bus service in timetable, added Ms. Rump. Most existing van services in the Corridor are in operation to serve specific populations with particular needs, such as senior citizens who no longer drive.