Century City. 5:16 p.m. The van pool to Cucamonga was late. "We've never left anyone behind," said driver Lynda Moore.
"But if there's a crisis in the morning they have the option of racing me to the next stop or driving in themselves."
Five minutes later the straggler appeared, and Moore pulled out into traffic. She steered easily with one hand as she swung the 12-seat Dodge van through back streets that brought her to the San Diego freeway's La Cienega Boulevard on-ramp at 5:35.
Two hours later, she was home, having dropped off her passengers at three San Gabriel Valley towns en route.
Jack Benny used to get a laugh just by mentioning Cucamonga, now called Rancho Cucamonga, but the commute to Century City is no joke.
Thus, 11 San Gabriel Valley residents welcomed the chance to join together and lease a van for the daily commute under the auspices of the Century City Commuter Center, a ride-sharing program organized by the Century City Chamber of Commerce and Commuter Computer with private and public funds.
The San Gabriel Valley van pool began May 20. "It's great. It's a lot less stress," said Mary Anne Johnson, a receptionist at a financial services company in Century City.
According to figures published by the National Organization of Van Pool Operators, her 64-mile round trip from West Covina would cost about $400 a month in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon, compared to $85 for a guaranteed seat in the van.
A similar van pool has served Long Beach for nearly a year. Riders napped, leafed through magazines and chatted in their plushly upholstered, high-backed reclining seats as driver Larry Turner skipped from one radio station to another to get the latest traffic reports.
"They're more friendly when they get home," he said.
"We talk a lot . . . about food on the way home, especially when we get stuck in traffic and we're late for dinner," someone piped up from the back of the van.
Turner, who works at Saudia, the Saudi Arabian airline, gets free use of the van on weekends in exchange for driving it every day. His share of the monthly leasing fee is paid by the other riders.
Despite the van pool's financial advantages and the relaxation that comes from letting someone else drive, the program got off to a slow start last year. As a result, despite hopes that ride-sharing may prove to be a partial solution for air pollution and traffic congestion, funding ran out this summer and the program's part-time coordinator found another job.
The money has since been renewed, with $57,000 coming from the city's share of county transportation tax funds and about $40,000 in cash and services from local businesses, but organizers say it will take a lot more work to make a dent on the average commuter's driving habits.
"It's an uphill battle to change behavior in the city of Los Angeles," said Alisa Katz, chief deputy to City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky.
The challenge is especially tough at Century City, home to about 35,000 workers at 2,600 businesses, only 93 of which have more than 50 employees.
Ride-sharing programs are generally run by big companies for their own employees. At El Segundo-based Hughes Aircraft, the largest private employer in the state, a staff of just under 20 runs a complex network of private buses and van pools that serve about 30% of its 45,000 employees, according to Bruce L. Rogers, commuter bus project manager for the aerospace giant.
At Century City, where the typical enterprise is a law firm or accountant's office with a handful of employees, organizers hoped that the city-backed program would do the same for workers at firms too small to have ride-sharing coordinators of their own.
But the large number of small businesses meant it was hard to get news of the program out to the workers, said Bonnie Goodman, the former ride-sharing coordinator for the Westside office complex.
"This was something that really hasn't been done before," she said.
It wasn't easy, but Century City now has eight vans and about 100 riders shuttling to destinations as far away as Chatsworth in the northern San Fernando Valley and Huntington Beach in Orange County.
At first, problems were as basic as getting past security guards who had been instructed to keep out all solicitors, Goodman said.
Eventually, word got out through the Chamber of Commerce and other channels. In many cases, however, those who signed up learned about the program when organizers parked a van outside their office buildings and handed out informational leaflets.
In the first year, the Century City program affected 200-250 people, said Joel A. Baker, executive vice president of the Century City Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the program along with Commuter Computer, a nonprofit group that promotes ride-sharing.
"Out of 35,000 that doesn't seem like a lot, but on the other hand, in terms of the monumental task of changing people to group commuterism, this is a very important step," he said.