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  • Waiting for a ride

Friday, February 26 What A Ride

Vallejo 7:30 a.m.
It’s Friday light and I’m rolling down the freeway in the back seat of an Isuzu Trooper (SUV). Very good jazz tape is playing. Our driver with a diamond stud in his right ear, has on his Friday light sweats. The front seat passenger is dressed up a bit more in casual khakis and pullover sweater. We are moving! 70 mph in the carpool lane.

No-nonsense car interior with the only ornamentation a pine tree cutout air freshener emitting excessive fragrance. The driver has a large unopened bottle of Dasan water close at hand in the well between the front seats.

20 minutes later we approach the Bridge Toll area and whiz by in the carpool lane. The Toll plaza is a mess with 12 lanes backed up like a parking lot waiting to get through the toll gate. The 6 Fast Track lanes are moving slightly faster.

We arrive at the drop off corner in the city 40 minutes out of Vallejo. Whee! A great ride and the weekend starts in about 8 hours.

Thursday, February 24 The view out the window

Vallejo 7:20 am
I again make the choice to pass up the first car in line. A generally unkempt looking and damaged older Chevrolet small sedan. Good choice – my ride is terrific. A 4-door Dodge Charger. Warm. Roomy. I’m in the back seat. KBLK Radio. Huge sort of ‘Lurch-from-the Adams-Family’ looking guy is driving. His enormous hands engulf the steering wheel. He did not respond to my good morning greeting, which sort of adds to the ‘Lurch’ persona. He has his seat pushed back so far in order to accommodate his leg length that it is nearly touching the rear seat. And his legs are still bent and crowded under the dash. This guy must be at least 7 feet tall.

Mirror chochkees are minimal – there’s a wild cherry scented cardboard tree shaped air freshener and a parking permit.

The Asian lady in the front passenger seat has long dark hair pulled back into a pony tail coiled down her back. We are all silent today and it’s a good day to look out the window.

Wave after wave of cars roll along the 6 lanes on Highway 80 on this almost sunny morning. Remaining wisps of fog are fading away as we move closer to the city, and I see clearly how lush the land has become from the recent days of rain and sun and then more rain. Lots of new growth on trees and shrubs and all the wild grasses that grow along the freeway.

Small birds are lined up along the power lines as we pass Berkeley. Maybe drying out from the rain, or just basking in the early morning sun. Or resting as they migrate. It’s 8 AM as we overpass the corner to the Bay Bridge approach and I see that my egret has returned to contemplate the marshy pools of water.

We’re over the bridge and in the city by 8:10.

Wednesday February 24 What color is your ride?

Vallejo once again 7:30 am
Drizzly and chilly, but cars are waiting. I’m in a Honda sedan. It’s immaculate and decked out with several Asian-charm chochkees hanging from the mirror and one tucked into a spot on the dashboard. The driver is a young Asian fellow. We’re listening to NPR.

He’s been in the bay area only a year – from Los Angeles, and he chuckles at the reactions he gets from his LA friends when he tells them about casual carpool. Typically, they are horrified to hear about a bunch of strangers jumping into each others’ cars. He loves the casual carpool and the time it saves him. The upcoming toll does not bother him – “it’s still a great deal”, he says.

This car is a light brown/beige both inside and out. I’ve been observing car colors for awhile, and have noticed that cars have become rather colorless during the last several years. Tans, grays, whites, dull blues and blacks began to dominate the freeway landscape about 4 years ago. I remember a jollier palette before then, with bright reds, yellows, electric blues and silvers.

I’ve attributed the glum years of George Bush, Iraq, the economy and the general despair of the times to the blah colors of our cars. I privately theorized that when Obama became Prez we would see brighter colors. Our freeways would bloom with yellows, cherry reds, oranges and golds.

I survey the freeway each day and am not seeing much of a change. Today for example it’s mostly blacks and grays with a number of whites thrown in. I am cheered to see several bright green cars but so far my theory has not come to pass.
Car manufacturers have been fighting to keep their heads above water on several fronts and now there are the Toyota troubles to add to all that. Perhaps they’re not inspired to turn out cars colored in cheer. And most people are not feeling very optimistic about much of anything these days.

Ah, here’s a sleek black Buick going past us followed by a gray SUV. A dark slate blue Toyota, several more black cars. Now there’s a silver hybrid – nice! an older light turquoise Thunderbird – very nice! And here comes two bright blue small cars – both Nissan, one a Nissan Versa, the other a 2-seater 350Z.

It’s a real lift to see a bright spot of color driving along. Maybe I’m looking at this backwards – instead of the mood of the economy, unemployment, mortgages and what ever happened to health care reform coloring our rides into blah grays and browns, perhaps a hot pink Honda Civic or a pale blue Corolla, a lime green Voyager, or a lavendar Rav4 are just what we need to turn this around. Keep watching.

Tuesday, February 23 Change Your Oil!

Vallejo 7:30 AM Cold rainy morning
Many cars waiting. My ride today is a bright red Nissan Pickup 2-seater. The driver is a 30-something jean-clad fellow, shaved head, goatee. His blue baseball cap lays on the dashboard. No heat, too bad.

Traffic is slow in all lanes this morning. Many trucks are out here today and that slows things down.

Did you see the front page story in yesterday’s SF Chronicle? Here’s the link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2010/02/22/MNVO1C0D4I.DTL
;Toll Increase Creates Casual Carpool Conundrum

It’s a good review of the carpool toll issue written by Michael Cabanatuan and includes opinions from riders and drivers on how the toll will be handled by carpoolers themselves. To pay or not to pay if you’re a rider, and how much should you pay.

The driver drives this freeway every day and is resigned to the lengthy commute. He’s a man of strong opinions. He believes that letting hybrid cars use the carpool lane, regardless of the number of riders, has doomed the system. “All downhill from here”. He thinks it’s wrong to charge a toll for carpoolers, and he hates the cheaters (single drivers who use the carpool lane illegally). His keys are attached to a well worn length of a leather belt, which swings to and fro as we navigate the heavy traffic.

Approaching the bridge we pass a car with dark smoke rolling out of the engine. It’s trying to maneuver out of the lanes of traffic onto the shoulder.

The driver says “If you don’t change your oil, that’s what happens”.

A man to listen to.

Friday and Monday – Riders’ Choices

Friday, February 19, Vallejo 7:20 am

I choose the second car in line, a Honda van, rejecting the first car. I’ve ridden with that driver before and his driving is not so good. The lady driving today is doing a great job.  She’s wearing a black turtleneck and Friday jeans, clutching the ubiquitous silver and black metal coffee container.  Music is odd and discordant.  It’s a tape and sounds like the sound track for a sci-fi movie performed by an aboriginal tribe.  I’m in the back seat with the driver’s running shoes and her back pack.

My weekend is a short one – I came in to work on Saturday.  No car pools on Saturday so I opted to take BART, rather than drive and pay $24 to park in a lot.

Monday, February 22

Back on Monday through the thickest fog we’ve had yet.  I’m in the front seat of a Nissan sedan;  the other passenger is a tall 20-something guy who promptly goes to sleep.  I ask the driver about the big crack on his windshield, and he points to a spot where a rock hit the glass and the crack spread.  He theorizes that the cold weather contracted the glass and caused the crack.   The car is warm and comfortable.    The fog lightens and the traffic thickens as we near Richmond.  We’re moving along nicely in the carpool lane.

I ask the driver how he feels about the new toll that goes into effect July1 for carpool drivers.  Although he’s a regular driver he hasn’t paid much attention to the toll issue.  As long as he doesn’t have to stop at the toll plaza he’s okay with it.  I assure him that the carpool will be fast track (transponder) only.  He was also unaware that many riders are happy to contribute to the toll.


There seems to be a general consensus on car pool etiquette, that says ‘Drivers Rule’.  This means radio, heat, conversation, food, etc. are all at the discretion of the driver. Most of the time this works fine and I think the person handling the horrible job of driving on bay area freeways needs every perk he or she can get.

However – there have been a few instances where it has seemed unfair and even outrageous.  One bad radio experience  I had was in a 2 person pickup truck.  The driver had Rush Limbaugh on LOUD for the entire ride.  This was during the Bush administration.  My politics are about as far away from Limbaugh as you can get, and my blood pressure just kept going up as we rode along.  Finally, when we arrived at our destination, I told the driver how I felt – that to have a strongly politically biased station on in a shared ride is out of line.  He looked dumbfounded.

I’ve also had to endure long tapes of gospel sermons and loud rap music.  Educational, perhaps, but more than I like to take in at 7:30 in the morning on an hour-long ride.   And if you’ve been reading my postings, you know I’ve had many unhappy rides in  cold cars.

I’d like to hear from other car poolers about how they handle this.

Although we don’t do the driving, we do make it possible for the driver to use the advantages of the carpool lane.  In this ‘casual’ system, where it’s pretty much the luck of the draw,  we all still  have  choices – common sense behavior and courtesy for one thing, who we ride with and coming up soon, how we’ll deal with the toll issue.

Thursday, February 18 – Vicarious moments

Vallejo 7:20 AM

Many cars and no riders at all.  I hop into the front seat of a Subaru Forester SUV and off we go into incredibly heavy fog, which stays with us all the way into San Francisco.  As we take off our driver happily announces he’ll only be driving for another month – his job has re-located so he’ll be closer to home.  He is absolutely beaming and both I and the lady in the back seat congratulate him and relish a vicarious moment of joy.  Both of us, I’m sure, visualizing what it might be like to not commute nearly 90 miles round trip every day.

NPR radio keeps us entertained and informed as we make our way to work, a little more slowly today because of the fog.

I’m looking forward to more vicarious thrills tonight with the Winter Olympics.  Tonight’s program features what I like best,  figure skating .  It will be the men’s long program and I’ll be watching for my favorite U.S. skater, Johnny Weir, a flamboyant and quirky skater whose passion for skating always comes across even when the judges don’t care.

Friday light tomorrow.

February 17 – Definitions

Vallejo Carpool 7:15 am

Once again the journey begins through very heavy fog.  I’m in the back seat of a Jeep SUV; half of the seat has been folded down to extend the rear loading area of the Jeep.  But I’ve plenty of room.  The driver looks like a young family man, suited up and ready for work.  A child-crafted paper ornament hangs from the rear view mirror.  The passenger in the front seat is another young guy – tall, lanky with longish hair.  I urge him to scoot his seat back and stretch out his long legs.

It may be overdue to put in a definition here:  what is a ‘casual carpool’?  This is an informal arrangement between drivers and riders who share a common destination.  Both parties meet at pre-arranged pick up sites and all riders are dropped off at the same destination site.  There are 3 urban areas that have this system:  the Bay Area, Washington DC and Houston.  In DC and Houston, they call it ‘slugging’ rather than casual carpooling.

A friend in Kansas City who I told about this blog wrote me an anxious e-mail after reading a few entries.  “This is way too frightening and dangerous”, he said and suggested I and my husband buy a second car so that I would not ‘have to’ subject  myself to casual carpooling.  Thereby missing the entire point.

The advantages seem obvious to me:  it saves the driver the toll, it’s a free ride for the passengers, it puts us in a less crowded and faster moving lane of traffic, enabling us to get to our destination more quickly, and it’s one small way to participate in caring about the planet we live on.  When I get into a car, that’s one less auto on the road.

I checked out carpooling in Kansas City, and while they don’t appear to have a ‘casual’ or ‘slugging’ system in place, they do have a ride share program.   So the concept is there.

Casually carpooling has an added advantage of spontaneously being able to create a carpool, and enjoying the carpooling perks, without having to pre-register, pre-pay, or be in the same place at the same time every day.  It’s why I started doing it and stopped rushing to be at the ferry at 6:30 every morning.

Is it dangerous?  Being on the freeway is dangerous indeed.  Riding with strangers carries a traditional concept of danger, but we soon find out in this situation that there are no strangers.   We’re all in this together and the understood sharing of our ride, our 45 minutes in a car together before or after a day’s work offers a brief glimpse and a touch of each other’s lives (the child’s paper ornament, the radio station, and often a great conversation).

I look out the window again – we’re past the fog and it’s brilliantly sunny – and I look at car after car with only the driver.  No passengers.  This is what’s scary and  dangerous.

Tuesday, February 16 – Happy Mardi Gras

Vallejo Car Pool 7:15 AM

Gorgeous thick fog softens the harsh reality of the back to work after a 3 day holiday morning.  Many cars are lined up and I’m in the front seat of a giant BMW X5 Luxury SUV.  The very suburban driver is handsome in blue striped dress shirt business attire, sipping his coffee, wearing aviator style dark glasses.  KCBS Radio hums away.  Very heavy traffic, even for us carpoolers.  After we cross the Carquinez Bridge in dense fog, we emerge into a nearly sunny day and slow down.  I lean back against the comfortably high-backed seat and peer out the window.  I am surprised to see how many SUVs are still out here guzzling gas.  All of them I see (outside of our carpool lane) have only one person in the vehicle – the driver.

There’s a Honda Odyssey next to us, a GMC  hulk, with the driver on his cell phone, a Dodge Grand Caravan, there’s a Chevrolet Explorer, a Tahoe, a Suburban, and in front of us  Toyota RAV4.

Averaging about 20+  miles to the gallon, (if that), the BMW I’m in along with 2 other people can take credit for getting about 60+ mpg, compared to those single driver SUVs crawling along in the other lanes.

A lovely ride as we cross the bridge into a sunny San Francisco.  The driver very nicely lets me off right at my bus stop and rouses the sleepy passenger in the back seat.

Friday, February 12 Tigers & Valentines this weekend

Vallejo, 7:20 am

Light rain and, thankfully, plenty of cars.  I join a driver and another passenger in a lovely car I’ve been in before.  This is a KIA Amanti, a wide comfy, deliciously warm sedan.  Fake but tastefully done wood paneling on the dash.  An attractive African American woman is driving, wearing a brilliantly multi-colored blouse with a wrist full of bright beaded bracelets.  It’s Friday light on the freeway and we make good time going the speed limit all the way to the bridge.  It’s at the toll plaza where I always feel smug about being a casual carpooler.  All those cars backed up waiting for fast track or to pay the toll, even today, a light Friday. We whiz right by the 6 lanes of non-moving cars.

As we enter the bridge I ask the driver how she feels about paying a toll come July 1.  “I think the riders should pay the driver”, she says without a pause.  I agree with her, but add that I think the toll is not a good idea for the carpool program.   She and  the gentleman in the back seat enthusiastically agree.  They feel that many people who regularly drive will stop picking up passengers once the toll is in place. She thinks she will stop driving, maybe start taking BART.

We arrive at the Fremont Street drop off, and wish each other a good day, and  ‘Happy Valentine’s’.    The Chinese New Year of the Tiger begins on Sunday, April 14, so it’s a double holiday along with Valentine’s Day.  A triple holiday this weekend, with Monday being the holiday for Presidents’ Day.

No commuting for 3 days!  Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Tuesday, February 9

Vallejo 7:25 AM

Today I’m in the huge back seat of a very wide pick up truck.  As I walk up to the truck, the lady in the front passenger seat leans out the tinted window and signals me to go around to the other side.  I climb up into the rear seat behind the driver and see why.  There are 2 child seats anchored to the back seat.  No children there today, just coats and a briefcase.

Looks like Dad is driving, wearing a great hat with a feather tucked into the band, and the passenger in the front seat looks to be his teen-aged daughter.  She’s furiously texting into her I Phone and nodding her head to the rhythms she hears through her ear phones.  The car is very tidy, unusual for a car that transports small children.

Rain sprinkles on and off and traffic is S L O W  – even in the carpool lane.  KGO radio has a long section about the Toyota recall.

On the wide armrest between the two front seat passengers sits a slim cellophane package of the small Hostess donuts.  As we approach Berkley, the daughter opens them up and she and her Dad eat several.  It’s 8 AM and we’re rounding the the corner onto the Bay Bridge approach.  A stunning view of the City across the water.  The sun is shining through the fog and rain, spotlighting the Marin hills.  The daughter loves the view too, and as we crawl across the bridge, she rolls down her window and starts snapping photos with her I Phone.  She’s loving the view and laughing as she clicks one photo after the other.

Traffic picks up as we pass a stalled car in the right hand lane (THAT’S why we were moving so slowly) and we roll into the City.