Traveling Companions

Howard County car-pool commuters share more than a van to D.C. They traffic in camaraderie.

August 04, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The two-toned green van pulls into the circle at the Broken Land Park & Ride lot in Columbia and its riders get out of their vehicles, almost by rote. It is 6:40 a.m., a Wednesday, and even though these Washington-bound commuters know the drill, they don't behave like most bus riders and train travelers grimly making their silent way to work.

For one thing, these people talk.

They even talk to each other.

On any given day of the work week lately, Mickie Levine and Yesica Chavez-Jurey might be chatting about Levine's side job as a Realtor and her efforts to sell Chavez-Jurey's house.

Marlene Zendell might be offering advice about restaurants in Washington, Sujata Rana might be talking about the bassinet a few of the van riders have shared, or Sandy Craig, who has ridden this van from Howard County to downtown D.C. for 16 years, longer than any other rider on board this morning, might be discussing alternative routes with the driver, Micki Cunningham.

What these commuters have that many bus riders and train travelers don't is a relationship.

And as gas prices climb and Americans talk more about carpooling than in recent years, these ride-sharers have found that what started out as a way to save money and ease the aggravations of commuting has had an unexpected benefit.

"We all take an interest in each other's lives," said Cunningham, a judicial assistant who has been on the van for eight years. "We share in each other's joys, and we offer support and advice through difficult times. We sometimes talk about things during the commute that we wouldn't tell our families. For some, the van could be a substitute for the psychiatrist's couch!"

Riders on the van have come and gone over the years, and the vehicle, a Dodge Ram, has been updated. But a few of the core riders have stayed. They've shared life experiences - pregnancies, births, the death of elderly parents, marriages, divorces, even job changes - and through it all, they've kept their esprit du corps, even though it wasn't what drew them to the van pool in the first place.

Cunningham says van-poolers pay $135 a month. The cost would be lower if the van, which can seat 15 people, didn't have eight empty seats, but it's less than what people who drive themselves or take the bus pay.

By riding the van, carpoolers avoid paying for D.C. parking garages, which are expensive; they avoid hiking to the MARC train stations at Odenton or Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where fares add up.

The van pool works this way: Commuter Solutions of Howard County matched the riders to the route and then helped them find a van. The riders pool their monthly fee, fill the tank with gas, and what's left goes to the owner, who leases them the van. The owner is responsible for maintenance and upkeep.

The van pool has been running this route for at least 18 years.

Levine, who works at a Washington law firm, will mark one year as a rider next month. She says it's faster and more reliable than buses, and she likes being able to sit in her warm, dry car waiting for the van - instead of having to stand at a bus stop.

On this morning, Levine has staked out a favorite seat in the back, where she has covered her shoulders with a light blanket. Some days, she spreads out and naps.

The way the van pool operates, it's almost a shuttle service. Riders meet in the parking lot, the van leaves promptly at 6:45 a.m., the stops are arranged along a route. Who gets dropped off first - and how the van gets there, where it veers off Interstate 95 to dodge the Capital Beltway - is, like the choice of radio station, left up to the driver.

It is along the way, back and forth and back and forth, that riders get to know each other.

"The van is nice because if you want to talk, there's usually someone to talk to but if you want to nap, or whatever, you don't have to talk," said Chavez-Jurey, who often opts to chat.

Like her fellow riders, Chavez-Jurey enjoys the mix of ages, backgrounds and experiences for the variety of advice and insight it provides.

One day she might ask Craig, whose sons are older, for her thoughts on child-rearing. Craig joined the van pool after she returned to her job at the World Bank after the birth of her son. Now he's 15 and driving her to the Park & Ride lot.

"We're different religions and different ethnicities, and that's nice, too," Cunningham said.

When Rana was selling homemade shawls, Chavez-Jurey took some to her workplace and sold several. When Rana needed a bassinet, she borrowed one from Chavez-Jurey.

When Craig needed a babysitter for her son when he was younger, she found one on the van, the daughter of a fellow rider.

Cunningham's favorite anecdote about the van pool comes from a rider who has since stopped commuting with them. The man joked that they would end up in the same nursing home with their chairs aligned in the same pattern as the seats they occupy in the van. He speculated they would ride into the sunset jostling in unison to imaginary bumps.

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