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Wednesday, April 27, 2005 | This is part three in a three-part series on commuter traffic. Read part one and part two.

Employers’ increased attention to transportation, energy and environmental concerns combined with parking space pressures in San Diego’s high-cost real estate and construction markets is driving alternative transportation vendors to increase their investment here.

Once workers get past that inner voice telling them they absolutely must have their own car, they find the lifestyle of ridesharing to be a huge a relief, vendors and alternative commuters said.

“The people that do it – they’re almost religious,” said Casey Barnes, manager of Enterprise Rideshare in Southern California, one of two San Diego Association of Governments-approved vanpool vendors. SANDAG offers a $400-a-month subsidy to all vanpools leasing from Enterprise or its competitor, VPSI Inc.

Seattle-based Flexcar, which also has operations in Portland, Ore., Chicago, Washington, D.C, and Los Angeles, entered the San Diego market in September 2002 with just two cars. As the only car-sharing company in San Diego, Flexcar offers members access to a number of conveniently located vehicles for a simple monthly fee that covers gas, insurance and maintenance. The company expects to eventually increase its San Diego fleet of cars from the current 14 to the standard 80 to 85, according to general manager William del Valle.

With a $150,000 two-year grant from the San Diego Association of Governments, and a significant company investment, Flexcar’s fleet is concentrated in the urban-living haven of downtown and in Sorrento Valley, a burgeoning employment region with inadequate mass transit service. In addition to individual memberships, the majority of which are owned by people who are not San Diego natives, del Valle said more and more companies are exploring partnerships that bring Flexcar vehicles to their parking lots to supplement or replace company cars, and give employees who use alternative transportation a means to run lunch-hour errands. Flexcar already has deals with Qualcomm Inc. and several other companies.

“We have a dramatic impact on parking pressures,” del Valle said. “[Companies] want to attract more and more people, but they do not want to attract their cars.”

Del Valle said overcoming native resistance to giving up personal cars is a challenge, but one the company feels up to. He expects the high cost of downtown parking will drive more people to give up their wheels.

“There’s gobs of people here,” del Valle said. “We know that if we can make it work in Los Angeles and San Diego, we can make it work anywhere.”

In cooperation with SANDAG, Flexcar is offering a new pilot program called Compass Plus that combines car-sharing with mass transit. The idea is particularly focused on those who work in Sorrento Valley, but whose offices fall outside the shuttle system that takes Coaster riders to nearby employment centers. Through Compass Plus, which is already under way with several Sorrento Valley businesses, groups of Coaster passengers ride to work in one of several Flexcars parked in the station parking lot. The car sits in the company’s parking lot all day, where it can be used for work-related or personal errands, and the group drives back to the Coaster station together at the end of the day.

Vanpool vendors also report business is booming.

“We have seen a tremendous growth in San Diego County in the past couple of years,” said Deana De Silva, general manager of VPSI Inc.’s San Diego operation. De Silva said the company has doubled its fleet since 2003. The nationwide vanpool provider has had a local presence for nearly 10 years. De Silva attributes the growth to the federal government’s emphasis on alternative transportation and skyrocketing gas prices.

Enterprise Rideshare’s Casey Barnes said growth in the San Diego vanpool market is largely due to longer commute times for new residents of more affordable housing in Temecula, Chula Vista and now El Centro.

“San Diego 10 years ago was a fairly compact market where there wasn’t a lot of people who lived more than 20 miles from work,” Barnes said. The company operates 300 vanpools in San Diego County and has a small number of carpools. Barnes said some of the area vanpools drive as far as 50 miles to 275 miles roundtrip each day.

4 Wheels, 2 Wheels; workers avoid life-sucking power of traffic

Vanpoolers like Ruiz said they much prefer the low-cost vanpooling to commuting alone. “There really is no cost to any of us,” Duffy said.

Across town, Myles Pomeroy has been riding his bicycle to work for more than 20 years. He started bicycling in St. Louis and continued after a 1986 move to San Diego, where he works as a senior city planner. Pomeroy rides six miles from his Linda Vista home to his downtown office every day. He keeps a sport coat and suit at the office for important meetings but otherwise rolls work clothes in a gym bag that is tied to the back of his bike.

“The only time I don’t ride is when it rains,” said Pomeroy. “I like the exercise. I like doing something environmentally positive. I like not paying for parking downtown. I like not having to pay a lot for gas.” Pomeroy and his wife, who also bicycles to work, keep two cars that primarily sit in the garage except for nighttime errands and rainy work days.

“I feel like it gets me going,” said Pomeroy. “It’s like coffee is for some people.”

Perhaps the primary question that promoters of alternative transportation face is what happens in an emergency when a need for a personal car arises. Commuters want to know they’ll be able to get home or to their child’s school in a hurry.

SANDAG, as well as employers who subsidize transportation programs, offer a guaranteed ride home that gives commuters emergency access to Flexcar, a car rental or a taxi.

“We don’t get a lot of calls for emergencies,” said SAIC’s Debra Gutzmer. “I think people worry about it more than they ever need to use it. They just want to know it’s available.”

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a freelance writer in Chula Vista.

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