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Commuters swap driving for van pool Annapolis-D.C. run popular, says agency that matches riders; 'You're being chauffeured'; Transit group bought enhanced software to meet higher demand


Nancy Wyatt used to spend hectic, workday mornings in the eastbound lanes of U.S. 50 in the gas-brake, watch-out-for-that-guy-trying-to-cut-in, gas-brake, maybe-the-other-lane-will-move-faster mode.

But since she joined a van pool six months ago, she spends that time relaxing while somebody else drives from Annapolis to Washington.

"You can sleep, you can read, you don't have to pay attention. You feel like you're being chauffeured," said Wyatt, who works in the legal department of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

She is among a growing number of local commuters the Annapolis Regional Transportation Metropolitan Association (ARTMA) has matched with a car pool or van pool through an expanded computer program.

"The need grew so greatly over the last couple of years that we felt we needed to look into a more encompassing software package," said Christine Walsh, executive director of ARTMA. "We now can make a much stronger impact."

With the new software, purchased with part of a $40,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Transportation and Anne Arundel County, ARTMA can match Anne Arundel commuters with ride-sharing programs throughout Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

The bigger database also enables ARTMA to match commuters within a company and track commuting patterns within the county, Walsh said.

The 14 other riders in the van with Roslyne Johnson have seen the road from Annapolis to Washington grow more snarled with traffic every year, mostly people driving to work by themselves. One recent morning, Wyatt could see only one person in nearly every car the van passed.

"If more people joined car pools or van pools, more people would be off the road. We wouldn't be sitting here" in a traffic jam, said Christine Tatum, another van rider, with more than a hint of scorn.

Some, like Wyatt, recently discovered van pools. Others have been using them for years.

Hedi Davis, who works at a downtown Washington law firm, has been a steadfast van-pool rider for 22 years. "You can't beat it -- reading and sleeping," she said.

Although only about 13 percent of Anne Arundel commuters use car pools and van pools, Walsh hopes those numbers will increase as commuters discover that ride-sharing programs may more flexible than they think.

The benefits are bountiful, say van-pool riders. They save money, endure fewer hassles and have a good excuse to leave the office on time.

Many said leaving at a scheduled time helps stave off the "five-minute fax or quick letter" that gets dumped on desks just before quitting time.

Zenji Nakasawa, a policy analyst and lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission, said the van pool helps him structure his workday so he can spend more time with his wife and child.

Other riders found van pooling a cheaper alternative to driving or public transportation. Susan Benesh started riding when the bus she took from Annapolis to Washington doubled its price to $6.70 a day, or nearly $150 a month.

The van-pool fee -- it varies from van to van -- averages about $100 a month. Riders generally share the cost of leasing the van, maintenance, gas and parking. But there is no wear and tear on their personal cars.

"I think a lot of people don't realize they could save a boatload of money van pooling," Tatum said.

Some of the riders said van pooling helps cut down on the loneliness and boredom of long commutes. Over the past five years they have held surprise birthday parties and baby showers on the van. But chatting is not a requirement for those who just want to get to work.

"You don't have to engage in anything. You can read a book, you can curl into a ball if you want," said Marthe Drake, another downtown law firm employee.

Informal rules make the ride go smoothly: no smoking, no heavy perfume and no intense discussions of religion, politics or sex.

Johnson, a customer service representative at the American Bankers Institute, has been the driver of the van for five years. In exchange for braving the traffic others hate, she keeps the van to drive on weekends and for her personal use.

"I like to drive. I'm just one of those weird people. Instead of stressing me out, it relaxes me. It gives me time to think I usually don't have," she said.

Walsh applauds drivers of van pools and hopes the new ARTMA software will help send more riders their way. She gives them credit for cleaner air, less congestion and improving the quality of life for all commuters.

"They're the real road warriors. They're the ones who live and die by this every day to get to work," she said.

Information: ARTMA, 269-RIDE.

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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