Tracey Robertson knows the value of carpooling.
She's been saving money on gas and maintenance repairs by riding with others from her Flowery Branch home to her Emory University job for the past four years.
"It's a lot less stressful, even if you're stuck in traffic, because you're not battling it every day and you always have something to do," she said. "A lot of us read or fall asleep in the morning and then return phone calls, read or telephone into a meeting in the afternoon."
Robertson is just one of Hall County's 12,093 residents who carpooled in 2009, according to numbers recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. With 83,000 residents in the county, 14.6 percent of residents carpooled by car, truck or van to work - higher than the state average of 11 percent and national average of 10 percent.
"More employers are finding the need to do more with less, and more people are getting the message that sharing the ride into work makes sense financially and with productivity," said Brian Carr of the Clean Air Campaign, a nonprofit organization that encourages more Georgians to do their part to improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion by carpooling.
"We're encouraged to see that Hall County is higher than the statewide and national averages, and we think one of the largest reasons is that people are looking for more ways to find that work and life balance," Carr said. "With the average commute of 25 minutes, there are so many things you could do. Reclaiming that time is an important factor when you rethink ways you can navigate this challenging economic situation."
Saving money doesn't hurt, either.
"Every mile you drive alone is about 56 cents, and that can add up to thousands of dollars a year. You can defray that cost by sharing it with someone else, and you can avoid more wear and tear on your vehicle," he said. "I think people would be shocked if they actually added up how much it costs over a year in tires, gas, oil changes and servicing. It's important to make things last longer when you don't have new sources of income."
Robertson knows she and her husband have saved thousands by taking alternate routes of transportation. They drive together to Discover Mills shopping center, and Robertson takes a vanpool while her husband rides the Gwinnett County Transit bus.
"I'm very lucky because my company subsidizes me. The amount of money I would have to pay to park on campus, they give that to the vanpool company," she said. "We pay for our seat and our part of the gas, and when prices are low, I only pay $20 per month."
As part of a vanpool, Robertson and others lease a 15-seat passenger van, and they take turns driving each day.
"It drops me right off at my office building," she said. "I was thinking about the savings the other day. Most people who commute into Atlanta get a new car and in five years have 100,000 miles on it before they even pay it off. I got a new car four years ago, and it's just now at 60,000."
Hall County's 14.6 percent of commuters in 2009 is down from 18.7 percent in 2008, which was likely up because of high gas prices, Carr said.
"It was an extraordinary year in terms of gas prices, where it began to reach $4 around Memorial Day. More people began to question if they could afford to fill up at the pump," he said. "It was a landmark change in how people thought about their commute, and with the gas shortage in the fall, more people thought about sharing. It brought awareness to the idea that they don't have to go at it alone, and several Hall County employers are on board and offer their workers incentives to carpool."
Despite the decrease in Hall County commuters, the numbers who are registered with the Clean Air Campaign are higher than ever. In 2008, the campaign reached 306 Hall County residents with 108 active participants, and now 660 Hall County residents are registered with 138 active participants.
"About half of the Hall County commuters in The Clean Air Campaign's database commute to Atlanta," said Sarah Waters, spokeswoman for the campaign. "The second most popular city to drive to for Hall County commuters is still Alpharetta."
This year, Hall County commuters registered with the campaign have saved $271,000 in commute costs, for an overall savings of $1.89 million since the program began. Commuters have also kept 542,000 pounds of pollution out of the air, Waters said.
Robertson plans to stick with her carpooling group as long as she can.
"It's much faster than driving yourself because we're in the HOV lane, and it saves a lot of stress. You have a lot of patience when you're not fighting the traffic every day," she said. "I also have great vanpool buddies. We give each other encouragement and do a lot of talking. Every Friday we stop at a Panera with a Starbucks next door. That's our weekly treat."