For a while there, Jerry Roman almost thought she’d have to walk home from Schaumburg every day. Her employer’s van service, which provided transportation from her job in the suburbs to her home on the near west side, was being discontinued because of liability-insurance problems. She and the six other van riders would have to find some other alternative. Driving herself was out of the question because Roman has night blindness and can’t drive after dark.

“I checked with the village of Schaumburg to see about buses, but there’s nothing that comes over this way, says Roman, the personnel manager of Metromedia Paging Services. “There is one bus that we could get at River Road that takes us out to Woodfield shopping mall, but there’s nothing from there. It’s a great distance to walk. There’s a train out here to Schaumburg, but it doesn’t even come close to the office.”

Village officials handed Roman a newsletter from the Chicago Area Transportation Study announcing a new van-pool program. If she and the others formed a pool, they could lease a van and get a small subsidy from CATS. Now Roman has a reliable way to get home again.

CATS–a nonprofit organization that receives local, state, and federal funding to study Chicago-area transportation issues–has been on the front line of the battle against traffic congestion for some time. In 1980 it inaugurated a free ride-sharing program that helps commuters find car-pool partners. If a driver from, say, Northbrook who works in Chicago decides that he’s fed up with the expense of commuting alone, CATS’s computerized data base can put him in touch with a fellow Northbrook resident who works downtown but can’t or doesn’t want to drive.

Since 1980 the CATS ride-sharing program has matched up some 25,000 commuters, of whom about 6,000 drivers and riders are currently sharing; even if those commuters are only doubling up, that means 3,000 fewer cars on the highways.

Taking even that many cars off the road over the entire Chicago area doesn’t affect traffic congestion very much–CATS’s studies indicate that the average occupancy of cars for trips to work in the Chicago area is still less than 1.2 persons–but it’s been invaluable for the participants in the car pools. “There are people out there who maybe don’t have a driver’s license or for one reason or another can’t drive, and what do they do?” says Jim Moynihan, chief of ride-sharing services for CATS. “If we can find a driver willing to carpool, that’s gotten them one option that they maybe didn’t have before.”

Moynihan realized some time ago that proliferating suburban office complexes offer fertile ground for car pools, because they often employ a large number of workers who live in other suburbs or in Chicago, but have limited access to public transportation. And a van pool, which can transport six or eight or ten commuters, would relieve traffic congestion more than a car pool with only two or three participants.

Moynihan and other CATS staff studied several existing van-pool programs in Maryland, then went to the RTA with a proposal. They’d administer the program, they” said, if the RTA would provide the money. Last year the RTA agreed to provide $100,000 to CATS for one year of operation, and another $293,000 over the next two years if the results from the first year were sufficiently impressive. That’s peanuts compared to the $210 million being spent to rebuild three miles of the Dan Ryan, or the $880 million price tag on building a light-rail system downtown. Besides, CATS can show some pretty immediate results.

CATS’s first van pool was set up at the beginning of March in the south suburbs. Since then, five other pools have been formed. Each group receives a $700 subsidy during the first six months of operation, which helps pay the leasing fee on the van.

Valerie Gray is one of two drivers for the van that picks up Jerry Roman. She lives in South Chicago and drives during alternate weeks, switching off with Paulette Wallace, who lives in Roseland. The drive can take two hours or more, since the van riders’ homes are scattered throughout Chicago. Still, Gray wouldn’t switch. “If it weren’t for the van pool,” she says, “I’d have to drive my own car, put wear and tear on it, and so on. This seems to work out real well.”

The seven van riders split the $810 monthly leasing fee (which is based on mileage), and each pitches in an extra $10 a week for gas. The $700 subsidy does not ease the financial burden much, but Roman says the guidance offered by CATS was invaluable. “Mr. Moynihan was really just great,” she says. “Now I spend my time on the van reading. Some of the girls sleep, but I’m a great reader.” Unlike the other riders, she only rides one way; her son drives her to work in the morning but his schedule doesn’t allow him to give her a ride home.

Besides finding funding, CATS also faced the problem of finding leasing companies that would meet the program’s stringent requirements. Companies need to have a $5 million insurance policy per van; they need to provide maintenance agreements and a backup vehicle for each van they lease; and they need to check the van driver’s driving record. To date, only one leasing company has met all those requirements, so all six van pools lease their vehicles there.

The subsidy program, unlike the car-pool program, is only available to commuters who work in the suburbs (they may live in Chicago or the suburbs). “Our purpose is to provide another mode of transportation to people where they might not have a good option to the single-occupant auto,” says Moynihan. “Now, in the city of Chicago you can walk a block in any direction, almost, and come up with a bus stop or a train station. There’s a very good public-transportation system available within the city limits. We don’t want to compete with public transit. We’re here to complement public transit, and fill the gaps where public transit is not available or is terribly inconvenient for one reason or another.

“When you get out to the suburban areas, the Pace bus routes more often than not feed into some Metra station that feeds into downtown Chicago. You can go from Elgin to Chicago a lot easier than you can from Elgin to Saint Charles. You can go from Downers Grove to Chicago easier than you can get to Naperville from Downers Grove. So basically that’s what we’re trying to go after.”

Moynihan emphasizes that CATS’s referral service is open to all commuters; only the van-pool subsidy is reserved for those working in the suburbs. He says once again that CATS does not want to compete with public-transportation services. “People who would call us are likely to be driving already, driving alone,” he says, “and they’re looking for a way to cut some of their costs, or maybe not have to drive so much or at all. Obviously they’re not very excited about considering public transportation, so they call us. We didn’t take those people off a bus. What we’re trying to do is get them out of a single-occupant auto some way. If they go onto a bus, we’re just as happy as if they carpool.”

CATS’s goal–to ease congestion–is being met only partly by the van pools. “In terms of reducing traffic congestion, it’ll probably be negligible,” says John Paige, director of planning services for the Northern Illinois Planning Commission. “If you stood on the Roosevelt Road bridge on the Dan Ryan at eight o’clock in the morning, the number of people that will be taken off the road would be about 15 seconds’ worth of cars that pass by.

“But the reason I think it’s really good is that it’s a demonstration program. It’s a start, to get people to consider van pools a viable option. And I think it’s particularly valuable to people in lower-income jobs, where it makes the travel a lot cheaper. It has potential for traffic mitigation, but this particular phase of it I see as a start-up, a demonstration. And maybe if it’s successful, it can go on and be greatly expanded.”

“They’re going to have to do something with transportation,” says Roman. “You think the city’s crowded, and then you come out here and you wonder where all the cars are coming from. Out here in Schaumburg, every time you turn around the bulldozers are out putting up new buildings. And you figure, even if it’s only 25 or 30 people there, that’s going to be another 25 or 30 cars for every building that goes up out here. The way traffic gets tied up, it’s unbelievable.”

Moynihan knows that firsthand. Up until last year he lived on the northwest side and commuted to Schaumburg. In the 1970s he commuted to Palatine. “My memory reminds me that there wasn’t half the traffic back then that I saw even seven years ago when I was going back and forth to work in Schaumburg. It used to take me no time at all. It was like a difference of night and day between ’73 and ’82. And even since then there’s been a noticeable difference. It continues to get heavier.” Now he lives in Schaumburg and commutes to Chicago. Usually he takes the train. When he drives, he admits, he drives alone. “I wind up visiting a lot of companies, and I never know where I’m going to be.”

Visiting companies is one way Moynihan promotes CATS’s programs; many of his clients have learned about the car and van pools through their employers. Others have phoned CATS’s ride-sharing hotline (793-RIDE). Moynihan’s goal now is to form enough van pools to encourage the RTA to continue funding the program. “We would like to see more and more vans,” he says. “Since we don’t have any control over the purse strings, the more success in the program, the greater the probability of the RTA continuing to fund it. There is a need, and the only way we can meet it is if they continue to fund it.”

Next month CATS will deliver an interim report on the van-pool program to the RTA. “So far it’s too early to tell whether we’ll continue it,” says Vincent Petrini, the RTA’s press secretary. “Obviously the suburban transit market is expanding by leaps and bounds. If this sort of innovative program can meet the need and alleviate conditions, then we’ll continue it.

So Jim Moynihan is playing a numbers game. “I am forever hoping we’ll get more vans,” he says. “We have 6, and I guess I’m happy with the 6, but having 6 I want 12. Having 12 I’d be happy with the 12, but then having 12 I’d want 24.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.