When Ben Hilton, a deepwater geologist for BP, sold one of his family’s cars due to extenuating circumstances, he never expected to find a better way to commute to work in The Energy Corridor.
Houston, after all, is a place where people embrace single-occupancy vehicles, and slogging through traffic jams is almost a rite of passage – albeit a slow one that repeats daily as if it played a starring role in the film Groundhog Day.
But when Hilton – tired of inconveniencing his wife with dropping him off and picking him up at work – hitched a ride on a METRO Star Van, the commuting clouds parted, so to speak. Hilton has become a ridesharing believer.
“I wouldn’t trade vanpooling for anything,” says Hilton. “It’s clearly the best way to get to work.”
And that revelation came as a surprise for a man who clearly likes to be in control and who relishes precision as a geologist tasked with integrating complex 3D data to develop maps, while predicting stratigraphic and structural uncertainty between deepwater wells.
Like most commuters, Hilton hadn’t given vanpooling a second thought.
“I had no clue about the METRO STAR Vanpool program a year ago,” Hilton explains. “It was then, due to extenuating circumstances, we sold our Honda Civic under the premise we could get another car two months down the road. We figured I could carpool with friends or ride my bike to work for several months.”
The first week without his car, Hilton found the commute difficult.
“Nothing seemed to be working and the extra burden was on my wife and kids to drop me off and pick me up,” he says. “I saw a METRO Star van driving out of our company parking lot and, interested, I talked to the driver who told me about the program. I was able to join a vanpool the next day.”
That meeting with the vanpool driver proved fortuitous for Hilton.
“I discovered the benefits of vanpooling are very significant,” Hilton says.
Those benefits include a fixed schedule and the ability to bypass traffic by traveling in HOV lanes, all at a cost Hilton calls “cheap.” But there was another surprising benefit that Hilton now embraces: vanpooling has improved his fitness.
“Riding my bike a mile or so to our local vanpool pickup is so easy; I may be one of the few who goes to work in athletic attire,” he says. “But the morning bike ride and morning workout in our company’s athletic facility is the healthiest routine I’ve had in my career.
“I’ve since joined another vanpool and enjoy a completely free commute every day,” he says.
And if Hilton and other vanpoolers happen to need a car while at work, they can grab a shared vehicle from The Energy Corridor District CarShare program, which has an installation at BP’s Westlake campus and three other office complex locations in The Energy Corridor. At $9 an hour – fuel, physical damage/liability protection, vehicle maintenance and 24/7 roadside and member assistance included – CarShare rentals are an inexpensive alternative to owning a vehicle for people using vanpools, carpools, METRO buses, bikes or walking.
“Besides the fact that METRO Star generously offers three, free annual taxi services to vanpool riders, I also benefit from being an assistant driver, giving me the flexibility of using the van on a limited personal use basis if circumstances arise,” Hilton explains.
For the rest of us contemplating purchasing a helicopter while stuck in traffic, ride sharing has the potential to save significant tax dollars. Studies have shown that a small increase in the number of commuters forsaking single-occupancy vehicles would reduce the need for the federal government, states and counties to build expensive highway infrastructure.
Companies’ bottom lines also benefit by promoting ridesharing. Under the Transportation Equity Act and IRS code 132(f), employers are allowed to offer payroll tax savings for transportation assistance. Employers also have the option of subsidizing part of their employees’ commuting costs and allowing employees to pay for the remainder with pre-tax dollars – providing alternative commuters noteworthy savings.
Vanpooling is one of several commuting options Energy Corridor employees and companies can explore on The District’s Commute Solutions webpage.
“Are we still planning on purchasing a new car?” asks Hilton. “Nope. Our plan is to get me a better bike.”