Microsoft Vanpool.  This one is Enterprise-branded but soone that will be replaced with Microsoft branding. This morning I started something new.  Microsoft has started a vanpool to help employees in the Santa Cruz area get to work.  This is pretty low-tech but also pretty darn cool.

Today I jumped on the bus so to speak.  With gas at $4 it certainly makes sense financially to do it.  I will be trying to ride in most days.  Of course, I travel quite a bit so those days when I’m in Seattle I won’t be driving in. :)

Microsoft could not have made this any easier.  Kudos to the Microsoft Silicon Valley leadership team and Facilities for making this happen.  They were looking to “enhance the Microsoft employee experience” and they certainly did that.  Microsoft established a relationship with Enterprise Rent-A-Car that did much of the work to get this started.  Microsoft also funded all sorts of things to get us on the road including important geeky stuff like a WiFi hookup in the van.  Wait… What?  That’s right, WiFi in the van!

The absolute best part about a vanpool is that you can do other stuff (like get an early start on work) while someone else does the driving.  Today, I flipped open my laptop and took notes while we were on the road:

7:38 - Left home

7:46 - Arrived at the pickup place

7:50 – Hey, the van’s already here.  Kent, who is one of the alternate drivers, was in Surf City Coffee getting some java jo for the road.  Note to self: I need to get myself set up as an alternate also just in case and to give the other drivers a chance to take a break.  They may even want to continue taking vacations and stuff like that. :)

8:00 - We are supposed to be leaving about now but we’re waiting for one additional person who has emailed over the weekend saying he’d be here.  There are three of us ready to go: Kent, Blair and myself.  There are actually a few more in the vanpool but not everyone rides everyday.

8:05 – That last person hasn’t made it.  The pickup spot was changed a couple of days back so maybe he never got that memo.  Oops. :( Anyway there’s a 5 min grace/wait period then the van takes off whether you’re there or not.  Hmm… Missing the bus in the morning is not as a big a deal, as you’re in your car and you can just drive yourself in although it’ll take you a lot longer to get there.  Missing your ride in the afternoon will kind of suck.  Again Microsoft has made this easier by providing alternate ways to get home if you get caught having to work late or for whatever reason.

8:15 – Traffic on highway 17 seems a little light today.  We’re moving quickly.

8:30 – We arrive at highway 85 and go to the front of the metering line.  That is sweeeet!  We probably save 10 minutes right there.

8:35 – We’re zooming along in the diamond lane. There’s an accident on 85 apparently.  I say apparently because I completely missed it.  I had my head down in my laptop working.  Nice!

8:40 - Zip Zip Zip. We’re passing you.  Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah  Ok… so maybe that was mean :)  It sure feels good to be moving, knowing that if I was driving I would have been in that traffic at a complete standstill.

8:43 - We’re almost there as we take the off-ramp to get off 85.

8:47 - We arrive at Microsoft Silicon Valley (MSV)Blair and Kent by our vanpool having arrived at Microsoft Silicon Valley Campus (SVC).  Microsoft has even provided a dedicated parking spot in the parking lot so that we have a regular meeting place.

That was completely painless and I would even say enjoyable.  I don’t think I’ve ever said that about driving in in the morning. 

Kent mentioned he thought that today’s ride was just short of optimal which for him is about 35-40 minutes door—to-door with no traffic.  I think you need to factor in a lot more.  It actually took me a little longer compared to driving myself in.  Time is definitely not the whole story.  Admittedly, since this was my first day, I did leave my house about 10 minutes earlier than I had to in order to make sure I was parked and ready to go.  So let’s say for the sake of argument it took about an hour to get in.  That’s about what it takes me to drive in anyway so that part's a wash.  What was really interesting was all the other benefits.  Here’s the ones that came to me in no particular order:

  • Save Money: Microsoft has helped fund this to get the vanpool started.  Even once the initial phase is done and that transitions out, sharing the ride in with a few others will still save me some bucks.  That is especially true with gas at $4.00+.  Saving some dough is the most obvious reason for joining a vanpool.
  • Less Wear and Tear: My car is getting old so putting less mileage on it is a good thing.  This should help reduce some maintenance.
  • Reduce Stress: I’m usually pretty relaxed when driving as I’ve subscribed to load of podcasts on my Zune and listen to all sorts of stuff while driving.  The problem is that there are a lot of drivers out there that are not nearly so relaxed.  The grind from the stand-still traffic common in Silicon Valley gets to many and crazy drivers are all over.  In a vanpool, most of the time someone else is worrying about that.
  • Make Friends:  I hadn't thought of this one until this morning.  There are numerous product groups doing all sorts of different things on the Microsoft Silicon Valley campus and we do a lousy job of mixing things up and getting folks from different groups to mingle.  This morning I met Kent (working on Mediaroom) and Blair (working in our Mac Business Unit).  Nice!  I’m looking forward to getting insight to what some of the other groups on campus are doing.
  • Make Conversation:  Related to the point above, it’s certainly nice having a few people around to chat with while riding in.  I’m sure there will be times when I’ll want to focus on something (or maybe just want to zone-out) and so will put in my headphones and do that.  The point is that the choice is mine to make.
  • It’s the law:  If you have a tendency to get speeding or other types of tickets (not that I know anyone like that :)) a vanpool makes that much less likely.  Bonus!

On the downside:

  • Schedule: This is the most obvious one.  Getting the vanpool started was a difficult task of getting 7-8 people to commit to coming in to the office at the same time.  This is not an easy one to solve.  People have obligations that make that difficult.  For others their schedule is just a habit that they need to break. 
  • Flexibility: This is sort of related to the previous point.  When you’re part of the collective you can't just come and go when you please.  You’re on a schedule and you don’t have your own car to do whatever you want.  This is small price to pay, I think.  On the other hand, I think I’ll probably drive myself in some days just so I can sneak out to IN-N-OUT burger for lunch.
  • Time: I mentioned this above so listing it here as a minor point.  When I factor in my time to drive to the pickup point and waiting time, time is just not something that’s a benefit for me.  This may change but for now it’s about the same at best. 

Judging from the first day’s experience this is going to make my life easier so I’m looking forward to that.  Let me know of your experiences with vanpools in the comments section below.