Commuting Around (and around, and around)


http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/09/17/brushfire-shuts-down-2-lanes-on-wb-hwy-80-in-vallejo/

Another warm, dry September  morning and only 3 riders waiting at the Carpool Line in Vallejo.  A comfy new suv pulls up and we were on our way!  I’m in the back seat with an Asian fellow, crisp striped shirt, nifty shoulder bag.  The passenger in the front seat is immersed in her iphone.  The first sign that this might be an out-of-the-ordinary ride is when we do not exit onto the 80 freeway, but cross it, heading away from our commute route.  After about a mile my back seat companion said, “Are we going a different way to San Francisco?”

“Oh, I’m just going to avoid the traffic from the brush fire” (see link above) the driver said.  She’s a 60-ish lady, stylish in designer jeans and sweater.  She exited from the freeway we were on into a Vallejo neighborhood I had never seen before and wound around the residential streets until we emerged – nearly where we started from, somewhere above the 80 freeway, which we could see was indeed gridlocked.  A Channel 4 news van passed us as the driver took off again, heading away from the congested 80 and said she was going to Walnut Creek. The Asian gentlemen and I looked at each other with concern.  (This would have been an extremely out-of-the-way commute to San Francisco). At that point we became aware of a thumping noise somewhere in the car and the driver looked worriedly around.

“Something on roof!”, my companion exclaimed.  The driver immediately pulled to the side of the freeway, cars hurtling by at high speed.  She slid out, dangerously close to the traffic, went around to the back of the van, and threw open the rear door.  Glass crashed and the smell of wine floated into the suv.  “Well, there goes a $250 bottle of wine”, she said and slammed the door shut.  Apparently a bottle of wine had been left on the roof of the van.  Tension grew.

At this point I realized this might be a weird, if not dangerous ride and wondered about asking to be let out somewhere.  Too late.  Off we went towards Walnut Creek.  There is a freeway that exits before Walnut Creek (Highway 4) and returns to the 80 freeway, and I suggested she take that.  Mr. Asian pulled out his smart phone which began speaking to us all with directions on how to do just that.  To my relief, that’s what we did. Relief filled the car.  Asian nodded off, front seat lady resumed her iphone activities, and I perused my latest Christmas catalog (this one from the Art Institute of Chicago).  As the City came into view, glowing in the golden California morning light, a great tune by the Mamas and the Papas “California Dreaming” came on the radio.

Another commute and just another day pooling around.

Exposed in L.A.


I flew to Los Angeles last week, into the Burbank airport, for a long overdue visit to Pasadena, where we’d lived for 7 years. Before Pasadena, we’d been bay area residents for over 20 years, and as the plane began to descend I remembered the ‘culture shock’ I felt as a Northern California transplant in L.A. But it wasn’t long before I adjusted and came to enjoy life in L.A.

The biggest adjustment was freeway driving. As a former San Francisco resident, I rarely ventured out on the bay area freeways; my house and job were both in the city, a short drive from each other. So tackling the 6 and 8-lane southern California freeways was panic attack time. I learned how to do it by focusing on the cars right in front of me – looking ahead at the sea of thousands of cars was too overwhelming. After a couple of years I knew those freeways by heart – the 405, the 110, the 134.

I didn’t appreciate how comfortable I’d become driving down there until we moved back here and became commuters on the 80 and its tributaries (the 580, the 780, the 680, etc.). You’d think that in a smaller setting, like the bay area, the freeway system would be simpler, but not so. I found the driving to be more congested, the drivers (and the general freeway atmosphere) to be angrier, the entrances and exits confusing. But I adjusted, more or less – no choice, right?

And then a strange thing happened – I went back to L.A. not longer after the move, for a weekend visit, rented a car at the airport, and took off down the 134 freeway. And I completely relaxed. A smile popped onto my face and I realized I was having a great time driving on a freeway! I later described it as “being part of a harmonious, fluid community, moving together like a well choreographed ballet”. It was amazing and wonderful.

“It’s the exposure”, my husband said, when we talked about this. “The warm air and comfortable climate means fewer layers of clothing. People are more exposed and open to each other.”

I considered this as I hopped into a Prime Time shuttle at the Burbank airport last week. When we pulled onto the 134 freeway headed toward Pasadena, I instantly felt the same warm relaxed feeling, even as a passenger. The driver was relaxed, the lanes of traffic were moving in harmony, the smile popped up and I felt like I was home again. In spite of the weekday rush hour traffic moving alongside us, there were no jams, no lane changers angrily and frantically accelerating from one lane to the other, no tailgaters looming behind each other at top speed.

Yes, it was warm, almost 90 degrees and as I took off my Northern California jacket I remembered what my husband had said about exposure. I looked around at the other drivers and they were wearing short sleeves or sleeveless tops in light, balmy colors. Many of them, I’m sure had shorts on. I felt dark, overdressed and underexposed.

The next day I took to the freeway in our car (my husband had driven down from SF the day before) with much anticipation. Even though it was very warm I grabbed a jacket out of habit. I wore a short sleeved t-shirt and loose cotton trousers. More than exposed, I felt naked! But once on the 110 freeway, going into downtown L.A., the harmony took over. And I became part of the L.A. freeway symphony – flowing, merging, skin to skin, car to car, in a great collective unconscious bonding. Exposed and loving it.

While I Was Out . . . . .


I’m back from a brief vacation – just a couple of weeks – but I missed some major commuting events. The big one was the BART protests, which seem to be continuing, although at a much lower simmer. The shooting and killing of 45-year old Charles Blair Hill at the Civic Center BART station by BART police on July 3 triggered the protests on August 11. BART’s questionable decision to turn off cell phone access in the stations during the uproar added another layer of fury to the demonstration. The whole planet got involved in that issue, blogging and twittering about free speech and public safety. Commuters were caught in the middle of all this when the stations closed down for a few hours and everyone had to wait.

Commuters driving on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge got caught in a scary confrontation on August 17 when a gunman inside the Extended Stay Deluxe Hotel in San Rafael (located on the 580 freeway near the bridge) appeared to be holding his girlfriend hostage and began firing out the window at the freeway. The California Highway Patrol shut down the freeway and bridge during both morning and evening commutes creating havoc with the commute traffic. Some drivers even ran out of gas during the long wait. The bridge re-opened early in the morning on August 18 when officers were able to place a metal sheet over the hotel window to prevent further gun shots. The gunman died later that day, of causes unknown, and the girlfriend was found safe and sound in another room in the hotel.

Commuting’s enough of a challenge on a ‘normal’ day, so I was glad not to be among the commuters on those stressful days, and sorry for the travelers who were.

My return to the casual carpool in the last days of August before Labor Day was relatively easy. Quick commutes, with light traffic as the final days of vacation counted down for many of us commuters. I grab the best moments of these grueling rides – the sparkle of a prism hanging from a rear-view mirror, the first geese flying over the freeway near Berkeley, the snowy white egret in the shallow water near the Bay Bridge, a rare ride with a Beethoven concerto on the radio, a breath-taking glimpse of a construction worker climbing up one of the 4 swaying cat-walks connected to the emerging bridge tower on the new Oakland Bay Bridge, the sun breaking through the foggy early morning clouds over the Carquinez Strait as we cross the Carquinez Bridge.

Mercury Retrograde


Chilly gray gloom – the endless loop of the August commute. Actually of the June, July, AND August commutes. Traffic is relatively light, because it IS summer, after all and fewer people are out here on the freeways. Today I’m in a new white 2-door Volvo. The other rider squeezes into the back seat and I squeeze into the front – not a lotta room in this car. Once I’m situated I turn to the driver to say good morning and pay my toll. She’s a young girl all clad in blue denim, right hand on the steering wheel, her left arm resting on the side window with her chin in her hand. No smiles, no good morning from her – only a scowl. KBLX is loud on the radio.

Maybe it’s Mercury Retrograde that’s got her in such a grump. The planet Mercury goes retrograde several times a year and is in the process of doing that right now, beginning August 3rd, lasting until August 26. A planet is described as retrograde when it appears to be moving backwards through the zodiac. Since Mercury’s zodiac prowess is in the areas of communication and travel, when it is retrograde, it seems that these kinds of things get very screwed up.

Look at BART last night. At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, September 8, the bay area’s BART system was shutdown. The problem – the computers. Service resumed at about 10 p.m. but during those 2 1/2 hours, the computer was not allowing the trains to see each other -a big problem, and a mess for the commuters who were on board and in the stations.

My cell phone became cranky yesterday, not sending texts, not receiving them either. My husband’s HP printer refused to recognize a new ink cartridge he installed, claiming it was NOT an HP cartridge. But it was.

But the worst was what happened with this blog. Last Friday, I finished what appeared to be a nice, chatty, informative blog, about a couple of memorable, and not memorable rides, some toll gossip and the commute in general, and when I posted it, it v a n i s h e d. Never to be seen again, and I was unable to retrieve it from the clutches of Mercury Retrograde, or wherever it landed.

“Mercury Retrograde gives rise to personal misunderstandings, flawed disrupted or delayed communications, negotiations and trade, glitches and breakdowns with phones, computers, cars, buses and trains. And all of these problems usually arise because some crucial piece of information or component has gone astray or awry,” says Rob Tillett, astrologer.

So take care fellow carpoolers. Our commutes are at the whim of Mercury this month.

On the FasTrak


THURSDAY, JULY 21
A 3-door maroon Chevrolet pickup truck, with a rear seat passenger already in place awaits me. I get in the front seat next to the driver – a 30s something guy wearing a blue chambray work shirt, pressed jeans and nifty soft yellow-leather loafer style shoes. No radio, no talk. Both fog and traffic are heavy, but all lanes are moving along, our carpool lane taking the lead. The truck is fairly new, but the shocks must be pretty well worn. Whenever we hit even the smallest bump, we feel it and the large ring of keys in the ignition hits the dash board and clang, clang, clangs. Each time the driver grabs hold of the keys to silence them, until, after about the tenth time, we look at each other and laugh at this futile gesture.

Within a half hour we’re at the bay bridge toll plaza and as we zip through the carpool area, the driver slows, looks over at me and says, “Should I be over there?”, indicating the non-carpool lanes of paralyzed traffic. “No, no, you’re right where you should be. This is the carpool area”, I tell him, wondering why is he asking me this question. Then he asks, “But where do I pay?”. “You don’t have FasTrak?”, both I and the rider in the back ask in amazed unison.

“Uh, no. Last time I drove carpool it was free.” I explained that to use the carpool reduced toll lane you have to have a transponder (FasTrak) account. I also cautioned him that he would probably be receiving a citation in the mail, but that possibly he could get it waived if he opened a FasTrak account right away.

Later, at my computer, I checked to see what the penalty is for not paying toll. It’s $25 on top of the toll amount ($2.50); if you don’t pay up, they add $45 to the penalty.

As I was looking this up, I came across some interesting FasTrak facts. Fastrak is California’s Electronic Toll Collection system, but there are others throughout the U.S. EZPass on the East Coast was one of the first to be installed by New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Those three states alone account for two-thirds of the $3 BILLION toll industry. There’s the Fast Lane in Massachusetts, I-Pass in Illinois, i-Zoom in Indiana, SunPass in Florida, TollTag in Dallas, Pikepass in Oklahoma just to name a few, in addition to numerous electronic toll collection systems throughout the world.

Texas was the first state to use the system, in Dallas, in 1989 and California soon followed. Orange County was the first California location for electronic tolling in 1993, and that’s where the name FasTrak originated. Another first for California – we were the first state to require all toll bridges and roads to use the same electronic toll collection system.

Just a couple of years ago SF International Airport started accepting FasTrak in all its parking garages.

It seems we are rapidly becoming a FasTrak kind of world, where everyone is being monitored, tagged, tolled and surveilled, actually part of a nation-wide plan called the Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS. The main advantage is to regulate traffic and keep it moving smoothly and efficiently. But it’s become more than just a system to monitor traffic on our toll roads and bridges. I’m sure you’ve become aware of this invasive monitoring if you’ve ever looked up anything on Google and then seen your e-mail almost immediately flooded with advertising for items similar to what you originally Googled. And at the grocery store, Safeway, for example, if you use one of their membership cards (which allegedly gives you a substantial discount at checkout), everything you buy is coded under your account. Safeway (and who knows who else) is privvy to even your consumption habits; how much toilet paper you’re using and which brand of mustard you prefer. And using credit and debit cards for purchases does the same thing on an even larger scale.

All of this watching and recording is after all the philosophy of computerized technology, and we all eagerly go along with it. Hey, take a look at cell phones. Technology can be used to locate and track cell phones for any number of reasons, including origin – destination movements. They can find out where we go, and when we’re going there. Handy if you’re lost in the mountains and your battery hasn’t died, but also scary when you think about what happened to the freedom of the open road?

One wonders where all this information winds up. Our FasTrak people (the Bay Area Toll Authority, or BATA) claim to be very conscientious about security and privacy issues, and promise us that personal FasTrak data (birthdate, social security number, contact information) is all destroyed after a FasTrak account has been inactive for four years. Four years? Really? In the bay area alone, there are about 1 million FasTrak accounts, all being monitored every day, 24/7. That’s a lotta data and a lotta FasTraking. Driving a car may be taking a heavier toll than we realize.

The Lesson of the 405


Monday, July 18 Sunny pleasant Monday morning with a ride in the front seat of a Toyota Prius. Our driver is a 30s something lady wearing gray sweat pants and a brown sweater. I drop my $1.25 into the cup holder and off we go. We’re hardly 2 miles down the road when traffic starts drastically slowing down. Fearing the worst we crane our necks peering over the traffic to see what disaster lies ahead. All we see is a CHP officer standing by the side of the road with a small pick up truck and driver. One of those never to be solved freeway mysteries. Traffic picks up and we’re soon rolling along again at 60 mph. The driver tells me she’s somewhat new to casual carpooling. “I’ve been enjoying the yellow sticker privileges because of the Prius”, she says. “But no more”. Sounds like she’s been enjoying the luxury and privacy of being a single driver as well. But I point out that now she’s completely toll-free, with two paying passengers covering her toll. She agrees, and says it’s not bad at all. As we near San Pablo, once again there is slowing, and looking down the hill we see traffic completely stopped in all lanes. The sight of an empty freeway makes me think there’s been an horrendous accident, but once again there seems to be nothing going on and traffic mysteriously resumes.

Seeing the empty lanes brought to mind recent images of this past weekend’s closing of 10 miles of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. Perhaps you saw those pictures of that beautifully empty freeway, stretching car-free into the distance. As a former driver of the 405, I have never experienced even light traffic on that route, so it was an amazing sight, indeed. L.A. officials feared the worst with the closing, and a “Carmageddon” was predicted with snarled traffic and backups galore.

Instead, the much publicized week-end began on Saturday morning with nearly deserted streets – the major intersection of the Interstate 405 and Sunset Boulevard was empty except for a few police officers. And all they had to deal with was a group of curious trespassers with cameras, hoping to get a photo of the historic event. Officers at other major intersections simply stood at the ready, with nothing to do.

The weekend closing allowed the demolition of a portion of a bridge that crosses over the 405 freeway. Later in the year, the freeway will be closed once again while the other half of the bridge is torn down. The demolition is part of a plan that will extend L.A. Basin CARPOOL LANES, (yay!) connecting Orange County to the San Fernando Valley.

In a somewhat eccentric move, JetBlue offered flights from Burbank to Long Beach (a distance of 40 miles, about the amount of my carpool commute from Vallejo to San Francisco) for $4.00 during the freeway closure. They sold out.

Responding to the absurdity of flying on a jet for 40 miles, a group of six bicyclists, from a Los Angeles bike group called Wolfpack Hustle challenged Jet Blue, claiming they would arrive in Long Beach before the airline. And they did. Both the bikers and the fliers left from the same intersection in North Hollywood at 10:50 a.m. on Saturday morning. The six pedalers arrived in Long Beach an hour and 20 minutes BEFORE the passengers on Jet Blue. Although the flight itself lasted only 20 minutes, ground transportation and security gave the bikers the edge.

Another Angelino decided to take public transportation and made the trip in 2 hours, 2 minutes, proving, he said, “that there are transportation alternatives, even in L.A.”

The obvious lesson here is that there are ways to get around without a car and without depending on freeways. Although we are not all about to leap onto our bicycles each morning for a 40 mile commute to our jobs, the L.A. story, ridiculous as it may seem (405 t-shirts being sold along the freeway, drivers honking and cheering when the freeway re-opened, exotic snacks and a 405-decorated cake served on the Jet Blue flights) proves that we humans are an ingenious lot. If those committed 405 commuters were able to abandon their freeway for 53 hours, just think what the rest of us car junkies might accomplish if we started to seriously consider, and demand alternatives. Those of us in the casual carpool are off to a very good start.

Rakin’ in the Tolls


As we move into the second year of higher bridge tolls, we casual carpoolers can be thankful that we have to come up with only $2.50 to cross our bridges – $3.00 for the Golden Gate Bridge. Starting July 1 the big rigs, those giant 5-axle behemoths, started paying $18 to cross bay area bridges, an increase of $6.75. Next July 1, 2012 their tolls will rise again – to $25. On the Golden Gate Bridge, the new toll for big rigs is $22, up from $15 and will also be raised next year to $30.

Hybrid owners who’ve been enjoying car pool privileges and rates lost that perk on July 1 and must now join their commuting brothers and sisters in the non-carpool lanes. The program was sponsored by California assemblywoman Fran Pawley seven years ago, as a motivating nudge to buy cars that consumed less fuel. Does this mean that drivers are now on a roll, purchasing hybrids hand over fist? Probably not, but it sure does mean more toll revenue. However, take a look at the DC area – in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, all hybrids have carpool privileges and they double the number of hybrids in the nearby Maryland suburbs where there is no special privilege for owning a hybrid vehicle. Go figure.

More California tolls are rolling in from the newly instituted use of carpool lanes as express lanes. (In express lanes single drivers may use carpool lanes for a toll-fee which is charged on their FastTrack transponder). Two Northern California freeways added the express lane program last year and now Los Angeles County has joined the club. “It’s really not meant so much as a revenue-generating device as it is a congestion-management device,” said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at the Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corp. Well Martin, that’s good to know because, for one thing, it appears to actually negate the original and splendid use of carpooling as a ‘congestion-management device’ and now it looks like a great deal of money is being invested in the program just to keep cheaters out.

On the Bay Area’s first such toll/express lane, Interstate 680 between Pleasanton and Milpitas, there’s a whole lotta cheatin’ goin’ on and toll road operators are installing cameras along the route in an attempt to catch the solo non-paying drivers. “This is not going to be 100 percent automated enforcement”, said Frank Furger, executive director of the I-680 Express Lane Joint Powers Authority. “We are looking into the ability of technology to supplement and work hand-in-hand with the CHP officers in enforcement. We don’t have the technology to determine the number of occupants in a car.” This new system will also involve the expense of comparing photographs of cars taken at various points along the lane, sending toll-payment notices to the cheaters, and whatever other actions are necessary to collect fees and fines. The Bay Area is in the process of expanding the express lanes throughout the 800-mile network of carpool lanes.

Toll lane revenue actually seems to be diminishing down south in Orange County. Use of the lanes is down from last year – roughly 11 million trips were recorded on the 91 Express Lanes in 2010, compared with 11.5 million the year before. Those numbers were already down from pre-recession annual totals of between 13 and 14 million trips. Seems like much ado and a lot of short-term thinking. But it’s costing commuters a lot of money.

Soon to come with the first annual toll report – how much more are we paying, and (ahem) how is that money being spent?

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