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    Zen Martha on Commuting Around (and around,…
    Gypsy Tart on Commuting Around (and around,…
    Raychatter on On the FasTrak
    Miranda V. on Exposed in L.A.
    Victoria P. on Exposed in L.A.
    None on Mercury Retrograde
    Victoria Poulsen on Mercury Retrograde
    Paul Minett on The Lesson of the 405
    Victoria Poulsen on A Toll-Tale of the Blue Truck…
    Commuter Gal on Welcome to the Casual Car…
    Paul on Welcome to the Casual Car…
    Commuter Gal on Welcome to the Casual Car…
    Victoria Poulsen on Welcome to the Casual Car…
    Commuter Gal on February Sunny Groundhog …
    All-time Driver on February Sunny Groundhog …
  • Waiting for a ride

Wednesday, June 30 THE LAST DAY

I slept late and to make matters even later, I spilled makeup on my favorite blue blouse as I was doing my morning-getting-ready-for-work ritual. I had to scrub the makeup out of the blouse and then throw it in the dryer while I finished the rest of getting ready. So here I am on the last toll-free day of casual carpool at 7:20 a.m. with only one other waiting rider and no cars. But then three cars pull up all at once and my ride is the back seat of a Honda Accord.

The driver has his dark hair pulled back in a pony tail and is enthusiastically devouring a crisp red apple. NPR coming out of a speaker near me in the back seat. An ivory-like statue of a seated elephant rests on the dashboard. I sense that the driver and the front seat passenger are both going to work in the same place.

What a gorgeous summer morning. As we approach the toll gates, I say “It’s a special ride today – our last one toll-free!” The driver nods. “I wonder what the drive will be like tomorrow”, he asks. “Well, we’re all going to have FasTrak, so it shouldn’t slow us down”. I agree. I think the jam up might be at the non-carpool lanes for cash only drivers who suddenly realize they’ve got to come up with an extra $2. Unfortunately, the confusion will probably affect all the traffic lanes. “We’ll see.” I voice my concern about the toll creating problems for the future of the casual carpool, plus the fact that the car pool lanes are going to be converted into car pool/express lanes (to include solo drivers who pay a toll). The front seat passenger says she has a hybrid and uses the carpool lane with a permit, and once that started, she figured they’d add single toll drivers as well.

Both of them work in South San Francisco and lament that there is no direct or even good-connecting public transportation from the north bay to south San Francisco. They would happily ride BART or bus if the connection was there. I mention the $3 billion being budgeted for the express lane conversion and we loudly agree that with that kind of money, a LOT could be done to make public transportation in the bay area better. We laugh at the absurdity of it all – the higher tolls, the cost of the ferries and BART, the dependence on oil – as we breeze through the toll gate for a final free ride.

Tuesday, June 29 KPIX puts Casual Carpool on the air!

Check out the blog video link on the left side of your screen (Carpooling in the Bay Area) and you can see the news segment (and maybe yourself!)that aired on KPIX-TV -Channel 5 – last night. Carpoolers (both drivers and riders), as well as myself, Commuter Gal, were interviewed from both the Vallejo and Oakland casual carpools. Kudos to Gerry Watson, KPIX producer, for putting together a great, informative piece on casual carpooling and the new toll issues!

The line today is at least a block long. If it’s vacation time for all the drivers, why not for the riders? After a 20-minute wait, I’m rewarded with a super ride in a lovely Volvo Sedan. The two young fellows in front are chuckling and sipping coffee as I get in and we exchange greetings. The driver is sporting a blue tooth and wearing a terrific pink dress shirt. Traffic is very light again and as we approach the toll area, I ask the driver if he drives the carpool regularly and what he thinks about the toll. “Yes, I drive most days. I don’t have to pay for parking, or I probably wouldn’t.” He expects riders to contribute to the toll. I discuss my concerns about the vulnerability of the casual carpool and tell him about this blog, and the KPIX interviews. He seems pleased to learn that he (and his shirt) will be a part of today’s blog and hastens to explain that he typically wears a tie with his shirts, and a suit, but not while commuting.

As we near the end of the trip, we talk about the possibility of early morning toll gate chaos as the new toll begins on Thursday. “If people don’t have the money, the bridge toll people will send them a bill”, he says. He thinks it’s about $28 if you go through the toll gate without paying. I checked after I got to work and there is a $25 violation fee plus whatever the bridge toll is. They take a picture of your car and license plate as you pass through the gate and track you down. If you ignore the ticket they send you, they’ll send another for $45 and after that they’ll come after you.

Be sure you have your FasTrak account set up by Thursday morning if you’re a carpool driver, and if you’re riding in a casual carpool, have a dollar and some change ready to contribute to the toll. One more day to go.

Monday, June 28 – Last Free Monday!

Wonderful hot weekend. Today is a warm morning and a quick moving line. I am in a gorgeous White Chrysler Sedan. The driver is a good-looking dark-skinned man wearing a white linen jacket. A photo of a baby girl is propped up on the shelf below the dash. A new daughter, I bet. All visual treats.

The passenger in the back seat coughs and sniffles the entire trip and I hope she’s not contagious. KBLX Radio talks about the death of the great Senator Byrd. A fine man who gave us a lot.

A strange phenomenon today – single driver cars keep pulling ahead of us into the carpool lane. So far I have counted 5. There seems to be lots of aggressive lane-changing going on in all the lanes this morning. The last time I saw such frenzied driving was the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced and I was driving back from Burbank to Pasadena. People were driving all over the freeway like some panicked herd of wildebeests.

Perhaps the weather has set everyone off. There’s a warm haze laying over the city as we approach the bridge. Tide is low and a few shore birds are poking around in the mud and shallow water. The vacation-traffic is light and we’re quickly into the city.

Two more days to toll-time. Get your dollar bills ready.

Friday June 24 A Carpool Lane by any other name is an Express Lane?

It’s a repeat of the last couple of mornings – cold and overcast. Another long line-up of riders. My ride is the front seat of an Accura SUV. The driver is immersed in soccer on KNBR Radio and gulping coffee. An icy air conditioner is on, with the vent blasting away at me. I quickly close the vent, but the car is still chilly enough that I’m uncomfortable. Heavier traffic than I usually see on Fridays, but the carpool lane is doing 60 mph. Or should I now say the “Express Lane?”

There’s a plan afoot to transform the carpool lanes in the Bay Area (did you realize there are 400 miles of carpool lanes here?) into optional single driver express lanes. Single drivers will be permitted in these lanes if they pay a toll (anywhere between $1 and $5). The amount will be determined by the amount of traffic and speed as measured by sensors installed in the pavement. Car poolers, buses,and hybrids with permits will still be able to use these lanes free of charge. The heavier the traffic, the higher the toll, so that single drivers would be discouraged from entering the lane when the commute is extremely heavy. Transportation officials want to keep these lanes moving at 45 mph.

The toll will be calculated via FasTrak through overhead antennas mounted along the way. CHP will allegedly be able to catch ‘cheaters’ by visual and electronic monitoring. I would hope their efforts will be more effective with this express lane situation than what I’ve seen in the existing carpool lane. Single drivers regularly duck into the carpool lane when traffic gets heavy on the 80 freeway. I could count on just one hand the number of times I’ve seen a cheater pulled over in the 5 years I’ve been carpooling. And single drivers really stand out from the cars with 3 or 4 passengers. In a single driver/express situation, visual identification of a cheater would be challenging, to say the least.

The first stretch of carpool lanes to permit single “express-toll” drivers will be opened September 20 on the Sunol Grade. That’s 14 miles of Highway #680, between Fremont and Milpitas. The express lane will be open as a toll lane from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. Regional transportation planners hope to have this system in place throughout the freeway system. The next two sections to be opened for express drivers next year are an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 580, through Livermore, and in San Jose, the connecting freeway between Interstate 880 and Highway 237.

According to SF Chronicle reporter Michal Cabanatuan’s article on June 23 (“Solo in Fast Lane – For a Price”) the “Metropolitan Transportation Commision’s plan for the next 25 years calls for spending $3 -7 billion to create a regional toll-lane network that would convert the existing 400 miles of carpool lanes into toll lanes available to solo drivers.”

Ingenius, isn’t it. Yet another scheme to squeeze more money out of commuters so that there can be more cars on the road. You may have guessed how Commuter Gal feels about this. It feels like another way to disregard the carpooling system, which doesn’t pay as much as a non-carpooling system. I’m guessing that a number of people who somewhat reluctantly pick up riders so they can use the carpool lane, will instead become express lane single drivers. Admittedly, not everyone will want to spend the extra dollars on top of the increased bridge toll for their commute, but I think enough people will so that it will create fewer available drivers and more carpool lane congestion.

And what was the estimated cost for doing this again – oh yes $3 – $7 BILLION?? I bet there’s another way to use that kind of money that would decrease auto traffic and increase carpooling, bus, train, and van transportation, dontcha think?

Enough. A warm weekend looms. Enjoy your time off the freeway.

Thursday, June 24

It’s chilly again with a brisk wind blowing. About 15 shivering riders are ahead of me. As I move to the front of the line I see what looks like a wallet laying alongside the curb. It’s a cell phone in a nifty red leather case. It must have been dropped by a rider as they got into a car. When I pick it up there are sympathetic comments and murmurings from the other riders. “Oh no, someone’s going to be worried!” “Maybe they’ll call their number.” “Lucky you saw it.” I assure everyone I will find the owner as I get in the front seat of a Honda Accord. A 40-something fellow is driving, wearing a knit cap and windbreaker, with his breakfast banana laying next to him. KCBS Radio is on, but shortly after we get underway the banana man puts in a cd and we are subjected to a Christian sermon on true believers.

Fortunately, traffic’s light and the remainder of the trip is short.

Once on the MUNI bus I check out the lost cell phone. As soon as I discover how to unlock it, it rings, and it’ s the owner, a very relieved man named Luis.
We arrange to meet at my office, which is only a few blocks from where he works. Happy ending. True believers and all.

Wednesday June 23 The Cost of Commuting

A long cold wait for a ride this morning. I’m early at 6:30 a.m., hoping to get to the gym before work. It’s 55 windy, foggy degrees and about 40 of us shivering riders are lined up waiting for a ride. After 20 minutes I get a ride in a Chevrolet 4-door pickup truck. A handsome 30-something driver greets us. His stained hoody and workboots suggest he might be a housepainter or some kind of construction worker. He says the long line of riders has been typical for the last month. Once we’re underway, traffic is very light – definitely fewer cars out here. Looks like vacation time!

I ask him if he is a regular casual carpool driver and he says yes. “I don’t have the transponder yet, but I’m going to get one. It’s too bad about the toll, but it’s still a good deal at $2.50.”

I’ve been thinking that this might turn out to be a GOOD thing for the carpool lane. When you do the math, (for example if you’re coming from Vallejo and beyond and paying TWO bridge tolls each day) if you don’t drive in the carpool lane you’re going to pay $12 each day, $60 each week, roughly $240 each month, just for the tolls. If you pick up 2 or 3 riders and they contribute a dollar, you will pay nothing. And even if the riders don’t contribute, you’ll only be paying $5 a day, or about $100 a month, if you drive the carpool lane.

For the riders, it’s only going to be $2 bucks a day, if you carpool both ways. Much cheaper than the $24 round trip on the Vallejo Ferry (there is the option of a reduced monthly pass for $290). My BART fare from the Powell Street Station to North Concord is $5.45 one way ($10.90 a day), plus I have to drive back over the Benicia Bridge ($12 a day if I get a ride from my husband both morning and evening). That’s $22.90 a day for BART. So think about that and it might make you feel better when you’re looking at your transportation budget.

Today’s traffic stays light and fast and I have a quick connection to Muni once we’re in the city. I’m at the gym at 7:45 a.m.

Tuesday, June 22 Your Toll Money at Work (perhaps)

A sunny cool morning with the promise of a warm summer day. The fog is still lapping around the edges of the bay and looks heavier as we get closer to San Francisco. I’m in the front seat of a lovely Mercedes E 320. You know how I love Mercedes, so I’m happy with the ride. Our driver is suited up in a sharp gray suit and a crisp white shirt. A take-out coffee is close at hand. Four of those eternal pine tree-shaped air freshners are hanging in a bunch near his left knee – a veritable air freshner grove. Traffic is moving smoothly.

Radio news says a bike lane from the east bay across the new bay bridge is in the works (has been for awhile). Actually a portion of the bike/pedestrian lane is already in the current budget and has been constructed – the portion that connects Oakland with Yerba Buena island. If you are in a high vehicle when you cross the bridge, you can look down on the finished part and see the lane. Today’s news is that a similar path, on the western span of the bridge, connecting Yerba Buena Island with San Francisco has now been approved by the California Senate (Bill 1061, sponsored by State Senator Loni Hancock). This portion, called the West Span Pathway, is estimated to cost between $178 and $428 million. The Senate Bill, which passed on Monday, June 7, allows toll revenues to pay for the project. So there is some of your toll money at work.

On-line comments I’ve read are mostly pro – coming from bicyclists. They’ve been waiting lo these many years for such a route across the water. But one comment said “. . .it’s way too frigging expensive. Even as a daily cyclist I find this crazy spending to be upsetting for something that really won’t be used much. You could completely fix Muni for that kind of money . . ”

However, another comment, “Reminds me of the (heavily used) bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge”.

As much as I am not in favor of casual carpool toll, I can at least feel better about the money being used to actually decrease auto use in the bay area. I think once this is built, it will become popular and will be used a lot. And if you don’t ride a bike, you can walk across the bridge. Hey, it’s only 8.4 miles. Just a bit more than Bay to Breakers.

Another bright note for the anti-auto commute: Ferry service is going to be expanded with the construction of an expanded ferry terminal. The new terminal, which will be a “hub” for 12 ferry routes is part of a major project to connect Treasure Island as part of the ferry service. The plan is to triple ferry service during the next 25 years, serving up to 12 million passengers annually. Current service only includes 6 ferry routes. Funding, which will total close to $25 million, comes from state bond money. Completion of this project is expected in 2014 or 2015.

Monday, June 21 The Summer Solstice – the beginning of the end (of summer and free rides)

The longest day of the year. Although officially the first day of Summer, after today the days become increasingly shorter and we begin (today) to count down to December 21 and the Winter Solstice. I’m in a squeaky clean new VW sedan. Our driver is a 60s something clean cut fellow wearing a great shirt. I love it. Small yellow and white checks, worn with khaki pants. Very summery. From his key chain in the ignition dangles a small tag with what may be his name – David. It flashes on and off like a miniature billboard. Odd.

NPR radio nixes any conversation, however when the local KQED Perspectives portion cuts in, there is a right-on-the-money commentary about the upcoming tolls that makes the listening worthwhile. Check out http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R201006210735. It’s by Stewart Florsheim, called “The Cost of a Toll”. He worries that the casual carpool might “go the way of drive-in movies”.

Some more worth-reading words on the toll (this from last month) are in The Island, the on-line Alameda news site. Writer Heather Lyn Wood wrote a good piece, “Casual Carpoolers Face Toll Charges in July” (http://www.theislandofalameda.com/2010/05/casual-carpoolers-face-toll-charges-in-july/.) This gives a good overview of carpooling and the current issues. Great bonus are the comments following the article. I especially liked this plea from Stuart Campau, “What can we do to stop this? If anyone has any ideas, contact me”. Ah Stuart, we all have ideas, but we’re not the ones making the rules. But I strongly believe that message boards, and blogs like this are a positive way to communicate with each other, share our ideas, and maybe come up with a way to change those rules.

Traffic is bad and we crawl, even in the carpool lane. Until, suddenly and mysteriously when we approach the bridge and the toll gates, there is hardly any traffic. We arrive in the city at 8 a.m.

Friday June 18 The party’s over

A long line of cars is waiting this morning. Just a few riders. I take a rear seat in a Honda CR-V. The driver is a young guy with a long pony tail – all Friday light in jeans, sneakers and a red athletic jersey top. He’s intently listening to the soccer match on the radio. It’s Friday light on the freeway, too. We’ll be in San Francisco in about 35 minutes today.

Last evening I watched a bit of the British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward’s testimony before the House Oversight & Investigations subcommittee. Lots of talk. There’s been too much talk for too long about alternative fuels and energy. All the while the oilmen get fatter and richer. We need to plug up the oil for good and change the way we use our resources, our environment, and each other. The fossil fuel party’s over.

Happy Father’s Day Weekend, everyone.

Thursday, June 17 KPIX joins the Casual Carpool!

Early this morning I met Gerry Watson, producer from KPIX-TV, San Francisco (that’s Channel 5) for an interview about casual carpooling and the July 1 tolls. Gerry is putting together a program on these issues and has been talking to carpoolers all over the Bay Area. Gerry and his camera joined me at the Vallejo carpool line, along with another passenger and Kevin, the driver, in his new VW sedan for an ‘on camera’ commute.

We talked about casual carpooling in general, how it works, why it’s great, funny times we’ve had as casual carpoolers, and our concerns about the new tolls and what’s going to happen next. I would have to rate today’s commute as my most unique ride to date. Crammed into a medium size car with 3 other riders and one big video camera is not my typical ride! At one point I was holding the camera, later my fellow rider, a diminuitive and very quiet lady, was asked to hold the camera to get another angle of the riders and the car. We covered a lot of ground in addition to the 35+ miles of the commute itself and I’m looking forward to seeing the program on air next week.

Kudos to Gerry Watson and KPIX for what promises to be a very informative and innovative program on bay area commuting and the July 1 tolls.

I”ll put the date and times in my blog as soon as I get the information. Stay tuned.