By Jamila Owens, Vanpool Council Communications Workgroup
If asked under cover of darkness and with a promise of anonymity, most vanpool program managers will admit that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” has never been truer than when applied to vanpool. People load the van, get low gas mileage, and schlep themselves and their belongings far across town in the name of reducing congestion and improving air quality. The van sits, gathering dust while they work. Then at the end of the day, they do it again…this time in reverse, day in, day out, with very little change since the 1970’s when the whole concept got started, that is, until now. The industry recently welcomed its newest participant, California start-up Green Commuter. Their program model is causing fascinating (and sleek) disruptions in the vanpool industry.
ACT’s Vanpool Council recently connected with Green Commuter’s Director of Grants and Partnerships Leslie Graham to learn more.
ACT: For all of those who don’t know, what is Green Commuter?
Leslie: Green Commuter is a minority-woman-owned small business and benefit corporation. It has developed an innovative mobility system that uses a fleet of 100% zero-emission vehicles to provide a combined service of vanpool, car sharing, and fleet replacement. As a tech-savvy mobility service provider, our goal at Green Commuter is to help alleviate traffic, mitigate air pollution, and reduce the cost of commuting for everyday people.
To support adoption of electric vehicles in general and to prepare for deployment of our zero-emission vehicle services, our company also provides turnkey solutions to workplaces, multi-family buildings, and municipalities to install electric vehicles charging stations at their sites.
ACT: Would you explain a little bit about how your vanpool service works and what kind of vehicles you offer?
Leslie: In some ways, our vanpool service operates much as traditional vanpool always has in that we lease the vehicles to a driver or a group on a monthly basis for their commuting needs. We approve at least one driver and deliver the vehicle to their pickup site. All insurance, maintenance, electricity, and customer service is included in this competitive rate.
Our service differs in that the vehicle is also used as a car share vehicle when the vanpoolers don’t need it, like on nights and weekends – this brings down rates for everyone!
Also, we use a very non-traditional vehicle. Our vanpool vehicle is the all-electric, seven-passenger Tesla Model X. This vehicle was chosen because it offers the battery capacity required for the long-range driving needed to vanpool and car share on a daily basis, and with 7 seats, we are able to meet requirements for a federal subsidy that makes vanpooling cost less for the riders. Lastly, we are excited about this vehicle for some fun reasons too – our mobile app lets people start their own vanpool group, enter an open one, easily report the vehicle’s condition, and even open the car without a key. It also has fun stuff like wi-fi capability, navigation, adjustable seats, and we love the fact that we can bring a premium electric vehicle to those who might not be able to buy one for themselves.
ACT: Would you explain a little bit more about the car-sharing part of this vanpool model?
Leslie: Sure. Current vanpool commuter systems, while important in terms of reducing SOVs from the road, are still inefficient and leave room for economic and environmental improvement. The vans are only utilized for a total of 10-15 hours each week, which is only 6-9% of the time available in a week.
To maximize efficiency and offer all of our services at phenomenal rates, we have developed a model that utilizes the vehicle during a substantial portion of the remaining 91-94% of the time as a public car share vehicle or to replace an employer’s fleet vehicle. This multi-modal model utilizes all-electric, seven-passenger vehicles that have the battery capacity required for the long range driving needed to vanpool and car share on a daily basis. It is this efficiency of the combined systems that dramatically decreases the costs for users and increases the benefits, including traffic reduction, user experience and improved air quality.
ACT: OK. So specifically, how does this work?
Leslie: Car share members, including vanpool participants, apply for membership and are pre-approved to drive. Users can reserve the car online through a web-based or mobile application and pick up the car from the publicly accessible workplace or origin parking spot where the vanpoolers left it. The reservation system will block the hours the vehicle is used to take vanpool participants to and from work, including a buffer period before their scheduled departure to avoid an overlap of users and allow for battery re-charging – that part is key to protect our vanpoolers. An alert system messages the car share user and Green Commuter’s headquarters whenever, based on real-time traffic, the software detects the car share user possibly encroaching on the buffer period pre-programmed for vanpool participants.
Car share members can then make a reservation, for instance to go to dinner in the evenings, or even to travel up the coast on holidays and weekends. Car share users are required to return the vehicle with adequate charge in preparation for the vanpool group’s next day trip. Charging is easy with all of the free Tesla Super chargers in California.
ACT: Fascinating, so where are you offering this service currently?
Leslie: Green Commuter is currently in Southern California. We plan to continue expanding throughout Southern California including the inland empire, Orange County, Los Angeles County… and eventually to the whole country!
ACT: Why Southern California? What makes this location a good fit for your service?
Leslie: Currently, there are more than 3,000 organized vanpools in the Southern California area consisting mainly of low- and mid-income workers living in disadvantaged communities who commute on average 94 miles roundtrip. Furthermore, Los Angeles was just deemed the world’s most congested city by INRIX’s latest study. We are looking to convert single occupancy drivers to form new vanpools to reduce traffic and save users time and money.
ACT: In the markets you are in, do you manage the vanpool program “from soup to nuts” or do you only provide a portion of the service, like the vehicle, maintenance, and driver approvals?
Leslie: Soup to nuts! Green Commuter provides training, administrative assistance such as subsidy documentation and reporting, customer service, training, monitoring, emergency support and more.
ACT: How is insurance provided for the vanpool groups that use Green Commuter?
Leslie: We maintain coverage on behalf of our drivers. Our limits are $1M for auto liability with drivers liability at $15k per person, $30k per accident, and $5k for property damage. We have uninsured motorist coverage at $15k per person, $30k per accident, and $5k for property damage.
ACT: What has been most challenging about getting this service off the ground and running?
Leslie: Every company trying to disrupt a market and start something new encounters barriers. We experience both real and perceived barriers. For instance, current vanpool users may assume that our service is more expensive than competitors due to the premium vehicle used; however, we are often less expensive due to the EV’s lack of gasoline and moving parts that need regular maintenance. We have also structured a model with multiple revenue streams so we can pass savings on to the customers.
Additionally, we as a society are still in the early phases of EV market penetration. There’s a lot of education required to make sure members of the public know what an EV is, understand how to use it, overcome fears such as range anxiety, and the like. We have been successful in providing that potential user education and outreach, but it is a process that we tackle one group of people at a time.
Lastly, we are often seen as a technology company. We developed a proprietary app to handle the model and on demand needs of our consumer base. That includes a range of challenges that we consistently overcome that other providers don’t deal with. However, we know the convenience and functionality of this part of our business is a big value-add that customers appreciate, so it’s been worth it for sure.
ACT: Are there any typical concerns about electric vanpool service that you would like to dispel or address?
Leslie: The vehicles are often more competitively priced than other providers. Also, the vehicles get a great range on a full charge, and we always make sure there’s a charger to power up the vehicle at either the destination or the origin point. We also have software systems in place and strict monitoring to make sure car share users are not able to rent the vehicle close to the time when vanpoolers need it, to ensure they have a charged vehicle ready to use. Once our customers try a test drive, their fears melt away and they get it – it’s affordable, quiet, clean, and easy.
ACT: What kind of feedback have you received from vanpoolers about the service and your vehicles?
Leslie: Our vanpoolers love their new service and their new ride. What’s not to love? It’s more affordable, it’s a nicer vehicle, it’s greener, it’s quieter, and it’s fun! Our customers are also our biggest advocates.
ACT: If a transit agency, community organization or employer is interested in bringing Green Commuter’s vanpool service to their location, what should they do?
Leslie: They should contact me firstname.lastname@example.org or our Operations Manager and Vehicle Acquisitions Associate is Kelly Muchnick email@example.com. They can also learn more at www.greencommuter.org.