In the darkest hour before dawn, cars and ghost-like white vans roll into the parking lot of a Manassas mall. Doors slam, keys jangle and hurrying figures exchange muffled greetings.

It is time for the morning ritual of commuting.

Commuters say they are creatures of habit, and burly Bob Singleton is perhaps the most exacting of creatures. He swings into the front seat of his year-old van, adjusts his English cap and pats the dashboard like he would a trusty horse. Just as the red digital dash clock clicks to 6:15 he pulls out of the parking lot.

"He about hit my wife the other morning," passenger Conrad Hay grouses good-naturedly. "She had the misfortune of being in front of the van at 6:15."

Singleton, like most van pool operators, drives the same 15 people to work every day for a fee that offsets the cost of the van and gas. He knows the 37-mile route to the District so well he can predict to the minute when he will cross every intersection and pass each patrol car guarding an entry point along the car-pool-only portion of his daily route.

He pulls onto I-66 exactly as his digital clock clicks to 6:29. The trickle of traffic becomes a stream, then a rope of red tail lights disappearing into a now-pink horizon.

"You get some pretty sunrises," says Singleton, shifting the van into cruise control as he reaches the restricted, less crowded section of I-66.

He flips the radio dial and Pearl Bailey croons 'It Takes Two to Tango' as most of the passengers snuggle down in their winter coats and drift off into oblivion. The silence is punctuated only by an occasional wry comment and throaty chuckle.

The passengers start stirring only when the van crosses over Key Bridge into the District, when they begin gathering briefcases and lunch bags. One by one, they are dropped off within a block or two of their respective office buildings. It is barely light, but dozens of other van pools are discharging commuters who wave goodbye and hurry toward their day's work.

By 7:07 Singleton has parked and is off to his own office on M Street NW. He will pick up his passengers for the commute home starting at 4 p.m. Exactly.

"Only way to go," he calls cheerfully, before disappearing down M Street.