S2E02: Vanpools

Mar 10, 2022

Andy Keeton

VP Global Strategy

Between the Lines S2E02: Vanpools

with Dezra Nauls


Why will Vanpools help save the planet?

Welcome back to a new season of Between the Lines!

On this week's episode of Between the Lines, we chat with Dezra Nauls. Dezra is the Commuter Service Program Manager at the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Houston METRO). An experienced Transportation Demand Management (TDM) leader, Dezra has worked across multiple marketing disciplines in large and small transportation programs as well as public and private entities as a consultant. He was also the Chair of the Vanpool Council at ACT from 2019-2020.

And check out our exclusive commuter playlists on Spotify!


Episode Transcript


Commutifi presents Between the Lines with Andy Keeton. Each week we explore the challenging issues transportation demand management professionals face on their journey to transition commuters from driving alone to more sustainable, shared, and active commuting habits. Be sure to subscribe to hear next week's episode and check out our exclusive commuter playlists on Spotify. This is Between the Lines with Andy Keeton.

- (Andy Keeton) Hi, everyone and welcome aboard to this week's episode of Between the Lines. Today I'm joined by Dezra Nauls. Dezra is the commuter service program manager at the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, also known as Houston metro. He's an experienced transportation demand management or TDM leader. And he's worked across multiple marketing disciplines in large and small transportation programs as well as public and private entities as a consultant and he was the chair of the Vanpool Council at the Association for Commuter Transportation or act from 2019 to 2020. And if you haven't gotten from that little piece there that means today we're going to be talking about vanpools and how vanpools are going to help save the planet but thanks for being on today, Dezra.

- (Dezra Nauls) Thanks for having me, man. I really appreciate this opportunity.

- (Andy Keeton) And I think… This is going to be a really good conversation because I think people know what vanpools are. Some people might not be quite as familiar but you know particularly coming out of the pandemic. As more people go into the office, I think this is a really good solution to help. Really get a lot of people in particularly in places maybe that aren't served as well by traditional public transit routes, things like that so… But let's kind of start off high level. For those people who don't know what a Vanpool is, can you tell us what is a Vanpool?

- (Dezra Nauls) I like to explain the Vanpool as… I like to explain it as a glorified carpool, really! I like to explain to people that you know, how I immediately make the connection with people as I say, you know what a carpool is, right? Like, yeah! You know, I meet with my friend and we ride to work together. I said, exactly! I said think of Vanpool as the same thing. However, I tell them that we provide you the van, we provide you the vehicle. You guys meet at a central location and you travel to and from work with people you generally live near or you work close, in close proximity to each other. And so usually when I explain it that way, they get it. They're like, oh! okay… Yeah, I could see myself doing that.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, now that's good. I like the idea of… We provide you vans. Like… oh! Wait. okay. That's good. That's even better than driving my own car.

- (Dezra Nauls) Well, that's you know… that's kind of the first segue into… because immediately after you start talking to people about a concept or something you know they… it's human for us to immediately start thinking about objections. Why I can't do it, you know. And so I throw that out there initially first so that takes away that objection. Like… oh, I don't want to. I don't want to use my car to do it. Okay! Well, I'm going to give you a van and so they're like, Oh, okay! Well, that takes that one away. So then we usually have several other hurdles to get over objections, to get over before we can get someone actually in a band. But that takes away that immediate one.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, I like that. Leading off, that's a good idea. So can you tell me a little bit more about what you all do at Houston metro to support Vanpool? What you're doing on a daily basis?

- (Dezra Nauls) Well, it's been really interesting. During the pandemic, we started out pre-pandemic. We had about 550 plus vans and that equals to about probably about 5600 commuters on a daily basis. And as you can imagine during the pandemic with everybody working from home, our numbers have dropped significantly. As you know most programs across the country have experienced. So how our agency you know promotes it? We're a little setup. A little bit different than probably most Vanpool programs. Metro is bound by like most traditional transit agencies, bound by a service area. So they're only allowed to operate within a certain area. However, we receive funding as a regional Vanpool provider. So although our bus operation is only in a specific service area, we are the Vanpool provider for eight counties that surround us. So if you know anything about Texas and if you know anything about this region, that's a lot of space. So we have Harris County, Montgomery County, Fort Benn County. Those are some of the largest counties that are around us and so that accounts for quite a few people that we're responsible for. So we receive the funding and then we operate the regional Vanpool program on behalf of all of those different transit agencies that are mixed in that bunch that I mentioned. So our agency, we provide all of the employees that are responsible for this program. We have a brilliant team of people who are doing this on a daily basis. We have some of the largest employers in the world that are based here in Houston. We're known as the energy capital. So we have a lot, quite as you can imagine energy companies that are here. A lot of oil and gas but here recently that we've seen an uptick in technology and you know innovation companies that are coming on board so will soon be known as the innovation hub. I'm sure but so when we have people who are working on a daily basis to solve the issues of commuting, you know traffic. You can imagine traffic is a bad here. Even during the pandemic traffic was still bad and so it's you know… we kind of have an ongoing mission of solving issues, solving problems, introducing people to the concept which is not all we mean. It's not always easy because you know here in Texas, we're car centric. So you know everyone has a car. It's everyone's life goal to get a car. And so usually from the onset people are that's what they do. I like to tell people, I grew up and I couldn't wait to turn 16 so I could get my license and so I could get a car. Didn't even no consideration given to commuting bus, you know. We just we don't think about that and so you kind of have to retool people to think about the effects that everyone having a car. The fix that that's having on the environment and sitting in traffic and valuing time and so it's an education, an awareness and so we support the region. And our transit agency of course supports us but we support the region in taking that message to the masses.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, I like a couple things you pointed out there which is this works for all different industries. Oil and gas tech, it doesn't matter. And it's a solution to help even in car-centric places like Houston. And Frankly, a bunch of places around the US and in the western united states as well. I grew up in Denver and the same thing, super car-centric. Vanpool can help here and even for people who are really into cars. It's still a solution out there. Can you tell me a little bit more about what the experience is for an actual rider of a Vanpool? Like what is maybe that first time you get someone on a Vanpool? What is that experience like and then how does that change over time? Or is it just like a nice consistent thing people can lean back on?

- (Dezra Nauls) Usually, you know… I'm in an interesting position. I'm, as you mentioned… I'm the commuter service program manager. Now prior to this, I spent two and a half, three years in a position where I was an accounting executive. So I actually had accounts and clients that I was responsible for and so I've had a unique experience where I've actually had to be out there, talking to people about it, boots on the ground. So as you can imagine, I've heard it all. I've experienced it all you know. And so I've heard almost every objection that people can possibly have to an alternative commute. And usually, what I tell people I set the expectation. I like to set the expectation for my clients. I tell them that it's going to be. It's going to be very different. You are now going to be in a vehicle with a bunch of other people. Some of them may have worked at the same company for 10 15 years and you still don't know each other. That's very possible… So you got to think about it's going to be all types of personalities. There's going to be you know… Some people are morning people, some people are evening people, and some people don't do people at all, you know… so you know I just try to set the expectation for them that you know, you're going to be a neutral person in a vehicle. And I always set the expectation by telling them, make it work for you. You know what? You know the reason that drove you to do it. You know you need to save money, you need to get home to your children quicker in the evening. you want to start being on time for your son's soccer game. Whatever your motivation is, keep that your motivation. And I'd like to assure them that call me back when you see your first savings. Let's call me and let's have it. Let's celebrate that. Let's have a conversation about you saving, your first amount of money that I assured you that you would save. And so usually when you set it up to people that way, they're like, okay! I know what to look for going into it and then a year or two later when I'm back out at their company, talking about Vanpool at a random moment, they walk up to him and say, Hey, that's… I said, hey, well how's it going? How's the Vanpool going? Like… Oh, man… it's great! Several other people I've gotten them on board and it's just you know… It's a great thing. Usually, you make a lifelong customer. And it usually, it turns into kind of a friendship. They know you. I like to always tell people, you know… Hey, you can call me anytime if there's any issues. Call me. Let's talk through them. And when I tell people, hey call me and let's talk about the savings, they actually take me up on that. Like… Hey, Dezra… I just realized I saved 100 bucks. I'm saying, hey, you know… Send me some tips, treats, or you know send me something.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, exactly! Yeah, that's a… You hit on a couple of really like… Really cool things about Vanpools. One is like that sense of community. Not just between Vanpoolers within the same Van but maybe between vans and even between like you and the Vanpool riders. I mean that's really cool. I think a lot of solutions out there. There's… it's kind of divorced the person operating it from the person who's riding it. I really like that. That's really cool and then you also mention like the longevity. You get a lifelong customer. I was going to ask you this later but I kind of want to ask you it now. What is… How long are people usually staying in vanpools? It seems like you said once you get someone in there and they really start to see that first savings check, they're like… I'm going to stay for a while. Is that true? People are staying for a while in vanpooler? Usually, it is…

- (Dezra Nauls) We actually did last year. Since last year, we did an interesting pull. An interesting report on the longevity of people that we had in the program for a number of years. And at the time, I think we had probably about 100 to 200 people who had been here 20 years.

- (Andy Keeton) Wow - (Dezra Nauls)… who had been in the Vanpool for 20 years. And so you know, they've seen a lot come and go. And a lot of those groups are still together… They're still the same with a few additions here and there over the years but generally, it's the same people. And it warms my heart to hear stories about people, Vanpoolers being at their fellow vanpoolers children's weddings. Unfortunately, we've had Vanpoolers to be a part of someone's homegoing or funeral and so we hear all of these different stories. And we hear stories about vanpoolers who they have vanpool night where all of their families get together and they go out to dinner. It's just you hear all these stories about people who are making lifelong relationships because these are people that you see every day. You depend on each other and you've come to know them as we like to say, it's a van-mily. So we'll take Van in a Van and family and put it together like that. So we like to tell people, it's a vanmily and that's really come into play during the pandemic. Because a lot of the Vanpool that we were able to keep together… Believe it or not, a lot of them were essential workers, were people working in the Texas medical center. There were nurses and administrative staff who we depended on during the pandemic to continue to come to work. while all of us were sheltering in place and what some of them shared with me was that, Hey, we realized that our vanpool is our family. And we all know what it's going to take to keep each other safe. We know the importance of why we wear our mask or why we're washing our hands or sanitizing our Van. So we know the importance of that and we all have… It's kind of just like an unspoken rule where we know we're going to come together. We know it's up to us to keep each other safe. We know that if you're not feeling well stay home so you don't endanger the other people on the Vanpool. And these are stories that I've actually heard from actual people. This is not story that was written. These are actual people who are telling me. Hey, this is how we've kept each other safe. This is how we've stopped the spread in our area and this is what we're doing and this is why we're able to continue to Vanpool and this is why we'll forever tell the story. We'll forever be a champion for the program. And it's stories like that and it's things like that that keep us going, that keep us… make us remember why we do it. I like to brag on the team of people that I have around me because I like to tell people that we're passion-driven.

- (Dezra Nauls)You know, when so many other entities in the world are profit driven, it's refreshing when you see people who are driven by passion. It's our passion to try to help save the planet, and try to leave a world behind for someone, like someone left the world behind for us. And so, it's kind of just refreshing to, every day to wake up, and try to see what problem we can solve today.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, I mean… I really, I love this idea of a Vanmily. I mean that's like sticking together, supporting each other, I mean… I love public transit. I just had a great episode. Talking with Jerome Horne about public transit, it's great, but you kind of miss that. You get on a bus, you might get on a bus with the same person every day, and maybe there's some, "Hey, how you doing?" But that's kinda it. It's not like this real family that you get with a vanpool. I really like that. And I think it's so cool that it extends as well to the metro, to the Houston metro team. It's like everyone is a part of this, is part of the same thing, working toward the same goals, working together. That's really cool. It's something that sets I think vanpools apart from the rest of the solutions out there in the TDM space is that "Vanmily" idea. I love that term as well.

- (Dezra Nauls) And I have to give credit to one of my team members. Her name is Virlee Jackson Scott. That's her saying she originated that when she came up with it, we all thought she was insane but over time, we fell in love with the phrase, and we got t-shirts made, we had them sent out to all the customers. "I love you, you love me, we're the perfect Vanmily." And so… We have t-shirts made, and send them out to all the customers. They love them. They absolutely love the idea.

- (Andy Keeton) That's great! I love that. That's really fun. I'm going to give you kind of a three-part sort of rapid fire here. We hit some of those big things : longevity of Vanpools, the Vanmily aspect, and you've talked about cost savings, you talked about time savings. On this hit quickly, what is that impact from a time perspective, from a cost perspective, and maybe also from kind of an environmental perspective, air quality perspective, that you see as for individuals, for the region, that your vans are helping achieve?

- (Dezra Nauls) Well, here in Houston, we have an expansive HOV lane network, and most people that are on the highways, they don't get to take advantage of that because in some cases, you have to have two, two plus people in the vehicle. As you know, we have a lot of SOVs on the road, and so people are watching people in that HOV lane are zooming by. So we like to tell people : "Well, if you get in a vanpool, you can experience that. You can take advantage of that." So, that's what the cost savings is. You can imagine, even if you're able to get home 20 minutes sooner than you normally would. I like to challenge people and ask them : "what would you do with an extra 20 minutes?"

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah! And you know the average person is like, "Hmm, what would I do with an extra 20 minutes?" In the grand scheme of things you're thinking 20 minutes is not a whole lot of time, but then 20 minutes is really a whole lot of time, you know? That's time that you could meditate. That's time that you can spend talking to your children about their day. That's time that you can spend with your spouse. This time that you can spend with your pet. When you really challenge people to think, that's really what this is about. It's about challenging the thinking of how we may have been raised or reared. We were all raised and reared to do things a certain type of way, sometimes it helps to challenge that thinking. It's just about bringing to people the mindset of that you can save time, and then actually showing them to get into to the money savings, actually showing them how the savings comes in by asking… Usually, how I lure someone, "lure" is probably the wrong word, but usually a conversation starter for me is : "How do you get to work?" And so, the average person says, "Oh, I drive." "Well, okay. How much does that cost you?" And they're like… So, the first thing they want to say is, "Well, I spend about 40 bucks a week in gas." I'm like, "Okay. So, what about the wear and tear in your vehicle?" And they're like, "Oh." They can't quantify that. And so, I'm like : "How much time do you spend on the freeway." And they're like : "Oh." When you start challenging them to quantify that, they're like, "I got a problem." You're right, that's a problem. And I'm like, "How about… Have you traded a vehicle in recently?" And they're like, "Yeah I actually, I did. I just bought a new truck." "Okay" "How much more could you have gotten for the vehicle that you traded in, if it had less miles on it?" They're like, "Oh." Because, I'm saying the first thing, that if you're in a car… and no, no to car dealers out there that may even be listening, but the first thing. When they give you the resale value in your car, they tell you the trade-in value, they say : "Well I probably would have given you a little bit more, but you know, you got quite a few miles on that vehicle"

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, that's true, I just did that like last year. I was like, "Oh, man!, I wish I had some fewer miles on this thing, I could have gotten a lot more".

- (Dezra Nauls) And, you know you're saying : "I know this car is worth more than that" but if you challenge people to say, "how much more could you have gotten for the vehicle if you had less miles on it?" if you had been in a Vanpool. And they're like : "that's it, you got me." And then, from an environmental standpoint, recently we've actually…That's actually what's helped us to make headway with quite a few of our corporate partners. We have decided to take our message directly to them by sending them our environmental reports, letting them know the cost savings that employees are experiencing. We're letting them know the greenhouse gases that we're saving from the environment, vehicle miles travel. We're sending them reports with these actual numbers. There's a famous rapper that I'll quote. His name is Lil' Wayne. Lil' Wayne says "women lie, men lie, but numbers don't lie." When you send them that report, I can call you all day and say : "Hey!, your employees are saving money to and from work" They're saying : "Okay, yeah, that's great." But when I show you, over the course of two years that that's 1.9 million dollars. You're saying : "Oh, I can't argue with that" or "I can't argue with the amount of greenhouse gases that are being saved from the environment" or the number of cars that we're keeping off the road on a daily basis by replacing in a larger Vanpool. You're replacing 13 plus vehicles with one. If you tell them that, you were once in one Vanpool. Let's just say if a Vanpool was a minivan you had six people in it. There were six vehicles coming to your parking garage and taking up six parking spaces. Now there's only one.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah.

- (Dezra Nauls) And so, when you put things to them like that, and saving them on those number of parking spaces that, especially if they're in a multi-lease building, multiple tenant, multi-tenant building, that you're paying for parking space. That now you're paying for six… five less parking spaces. How much money does that save you? and then think about, if you could duplicate that if you could get more people in a Vanpool. How much would that save you? Since, we all know, corporations care about the bottom line, and so, if I can show them direct savings to their bottom line… And then, when you start, HR people, you start speaking to their pain points. What about employee retention? We've had this thing, "the great resignation" How many more people would have stayed at that job if the commute was easier? or if it was easier to get to, or if someone had taken the time to help them get to work, or was interested in how they get to work or, how stressed out they are before they even get to the job and then have to get to the job and deal with the stresses at the job. If I'm at my breaking point when I walk in the door, there's not very much that a person can say that won't set me off. So, just forcing them to think about those types of things, and allowing me, having a person like me, and it's duplicated many times on my team of people that are just like me to say : "I'm not even asking you to do anything. I'm just asking you to let me help you do it." I have a team of people that, that's what we're paid to do, is to come in and solve the problem for you. The only thing I need from you is access.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah.

- (Dezra Nauls) I just need access to the employees, let me talk to them, let me send them a message, or, let me give you a message that you can share with them. And, when they get an opportunity, just tell them to call me, and let's talk it over. And I'm not here to say that it's for everyone, because it won't be for everyone. Vanpooling is not for everyone. We tell people that and they raise eyebrows when we tell them. It may not be for you and that is okay. But, for the people that it's for, we want them to take advantage of it, see the benefits, reap the benefits and as I stated earlier, leave this world better than we found it. Because, leave it to the people who are, the generations of people that will come behind us. Our grandchildren, our great grandchildren. They're going to be people that are going to come after us that they're going to, hopefully they'll thank us for what we tried to do to save it.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah. That's compelling. I mean, all like, every single one of those stats you bring up, the time, the millions of dollars in costs that single employers… employees can save is incredible. And then obviously the mission, fewer parking spaces. This is just… it seems like it's just more and more benefits.

- (Dezra Nauls) One of the big ones I'll say is is when you ask people : "how much would you pay for peace of mind?" You can't put a number on it. You can't put a value on that.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah.

- (Dezra Nauls) Just to get home and calm. "I didn't have to deal with…" We have a freeway here called… and I live on the north end of it, it's called Interstate 45, and everybody in Houston knows about Interstate 45. And I live on the north end of that, so if I get in my car and I work downtown. Metro is located in downtown Houston. And if I have the audacity not to take the park-and-ride, and I want to drive my car in it. Or if I have an appointment that's after work, or during work that I need to get to and I just, I have to drive. and let me tell you, I dread it. It's probably the worst, one of the worst feelings ever, because I know what I'm going to have to deal with, and I can't find anybody that can get in with me, and jump on the HOV lane, so I just dread having to do it, and I just imagine how dreadful that is for the other people that are doing it as well. And if you see, when I'm sitting in traffic, I'm looking around me and I'm looking at all the faces and I'm looking at the people who are like this.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, I've been that, yeah.

- (Dezra Nauls) So it kind of eases my burden because I'm like, I'm not the only person who's dreading this, there's got to be a better way than this. I just try to take that and use that as fuel in my messaging to when I talk to people, I'm like : "Hey!, I'm not telling you anything that I read about, I'm telling you this is my life as well". So I dread having to do it. So that's why I'm a park-and-rider. I believe in the park-and-ride. If my schedule worked out to where I could ride a Vanpool, if my schedule was fluid enough. There are van pools that come from my area and go downtown that I would love to jump on but my schedule is so wonky that it just doesn't work out for me, but I do my contribution, I ride the park-and-ride. I'm a faithful park-and-rider. I know my driver, I know the people who are on my bus. So, I'm faithful to that and that's my contribution to the environment.

- (Andy Keeton) Yeah, I like that. And it goes back to the thing. Vanpool's not for every situation. There's other things out there for that. Vanpool is a great solution for those people that could use it,might want it, might like it. Let's get as many people of that group on it as possible and it makes perfect sense. Okay, cool. We're almost out of time here. So, I want to finish off with the question we always end every episode with. You've talked about a lot of things. If you had to just summarize that down, that one key message. Why will Vanpools help save the planet?

- (Dezra Nauls) Vanpools will help save the planet because people are going to finally realize that, it's time to save time, it's time to save money and it's time to save our planet. And Vanpool can be one of the conduits in which to do all of those things that I just mentioned.

- (Andy Keeton) I mean win-win-win. Hard to argue against it.

- (Dezra Nauls) And can't beat that with a bet.

- (Andy Keeton) Exactly. Awesome, well, Dezra, it's been great having you on. To everyone listening or watching on Youtube, thanks for joining us, make sure you tune in again on our next episode, just coming out in a couple weeks. And if you haven't yet subscribe to our email list you can do that at betweenthelines.io. Or just follow us, subscribe to our podcast, wherever you're listening to podcasts, Spotify, Apple, Google Play, Google Podcasts. Like I said, it's been great to have you on Dezra, excited to continue to see the Vanpool program grow in Houston. Next time I'm down in Houston, I love Houston by the way, some of the best food I've ever had. Next time there I want to see some of these Vanpools in action.

- (Dezra Nauls) Let's do it. Just call me, I'll be glad to do it.

- (Andy Keeton) I will. Alright, thanks again, and thanks again everyone listening. We'll see you next time.

- (Dezra Nauls) Thank you everybody.

- (Voiceover) Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of Between The Lines with Andy Keeton. Be sure to subscribe to hear next week's episode and check out our exclusive commuter playlists on Spotify.

Better commuting starts here.

Better commuting starts here.

Better commuting starts here.