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  • Waiting for a ride

Thursday & Friday’s rides – July 29 & 30 – And some numbers after the first tolling month

Knowing that the sun will eventually beat back the fog later today and that it will warm up – a little – keeps me going while I stand shivering in this morning’s short line. It’s been a dilemma how to dress each day. A heavy coat is too hot to wear home in the late afternoon, but it sure feels good in the morning. Warm scarves have become my daily accessory. I pass up the first ride – a sporty 2 seat Mercedes, S-500, I think. Too small, too fast, not safe. The next ride is also a Mercedes – a large comfy and safer C-240. No heat in the car, but I’ll survive. I pay my dollar, the other passenger pays $1.25, so this morning’s ride costs our driver a quarter in tolls. Hey, he’s got a Mercedes – he can handle it, right?

Another long line of cars and I am in a Toyota Corolla. I and the rear passenger hand over our toll contribution, which is graciously received. A very stylish driver with a great hair cut, who actually looks terrific in her Friday jeans! I mention the construction work going on by the Vallejo Ferry Terminal (new parking structure plus re-modeled Ferry terminal building) and that starts a lively conversation that lasts the entire commute – about Vallejo and its future. She’s a former San Franciscan, who moved to Vallejo several years ago, where she bought a home. “I couldn’t afford to buy in the City.” However, she’s come to realize that her commute expense has made it more expensive to NOT live in San Francisco. “But I could never have bought a house there, and that’s the trade-off.” She’s excited about the potential in Vallejo. Especially, she says, after a conversation she had with a recent casual carpool rider. “He was amazing! He had so many great ideas and actually knew how they could be implemented.” These included, among many other things, corporate headquarters on Mare Island and a light rail connection from Vallejo to BART. She encouraged him to run for office and we agreed that anyone with that kind of visionary energy has an obligation to put it into action. A great ride.

Both the Chronicle and Examiner carried front page stories yesterday (Thursday, July 29, 2010) with the latest data on the new bridge toll. The numbers were compared to last July’s traffic and this year there were over 12,000 fewer daily carpoolers on ALL the bay area toll bridges. On the Bay Bridge, the number dropped by 5,350, a 29% decrease from the same time last year. Total traffic also decreased from last year by 3,531 vehicles a day, an 8 1/2% decrease. It looks like some carpoolers may have switched to BART – there were about 1,500 more BART morning commuters in July. Less traffic also meant that the maximum delay on the bridge dropped from 19 minutes to 10 minutes.

These numbers undoubtedly reflect the traditionally light traffic during the summer, as well as job loss. The unemployment rate in California is 12.3%, just below Nevada (14.2% and Michigan 13.2%) and in San Francisco, unemployment is up to 10.5%, almost a 1 percent increase from last year.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is happy with the numbers, and calls the new tolls a success. “We’re raising revenue and seeing decreased congestion”, Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission told the Chronicle.

Having fewer people carpooling doesn’t seem like a success story to me, but I guess it depends on your perspective. We’ll see how wonderful it is to have fewer people carpooling come September and more cars on the road.

Find a warm spot to enjoy the weekend. Back on Monday. CG

Wednesday, July 28 The Old Transbay Terminal – last chance to see it

I arrive at the Vallejo carpool line at 7:30 a.m. and am greeted with a wonderful long line of cars, all patiently waiting. My ride is a VW Passat, a great car. I recognize this driver and have ridden with him before. Suit and tie guy in his 50s, careful driver, nice temperature in the car. I give him $1, the rear passenger gives $1.25 and off we go. Traffic is still vacation-light and when we reach the toll gates, they are nearly empty. I glance at the on-going new bridge construction and remember this is an historic day for the new bay bridge. The first piece of the 525 foot tower will be put in place today. Once completed and lit up, it’s going to make a powerful architectural statement – one giant tower holding the cables for the 4 1/2 mile span.

Another major transportation project begins next week with the closing of the old Transbay Terminal at 1st and Mission Streets. Check out the website (www.transbaycenter.org). The proposed animated sketches you see are a HUGE departure from the old building – very light and airy. Construction on the new permanent terminal, which will be located where the old one now stands, will be ongoing for the next 7 years, and will centralize the region’s entire transportation network, including Caltrain and the High Speed Rail.

When the old terminal closes next Friday, August 6, all bus service will move to the new temporary terminal at Howard and Main Streets. A full list of bus stops at the temporary terminal can be seen at http://www.temporaryterminal.org. Us casual carpoolers, who line up on Beale, between Howard and Folsom, will have a front row view of the action at the temporary terminal, which is right across the street from our line up area.

The changes aren’t good news for everyone. Besides displacing a number of permanent homeless residents who’ve come to call the Terminal home, the demolishing of the 70-year old structure will end the lives of the giant trees that have provided shade, homes for hundreds of birds and one of the few living green environments in the south-of-Market chaos.

If you want a last look at the old terminal before it’s blasted away, there are hourly guided tours this FRIDAY, JULY 30. Meet at the ground floor entrance at 1st & Mission Street at noon, 1 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm or 4 pm.

Tuesday, July 27 Remembering the Jitneys

Yawn, shiver. It’s 6:45 a.m. and 55 degrees in the Vallejo carpool line. Happily I’m quickly in a Toyota 2-door pickup truck. No heat, but it’s bearable. The driver is a large, almost sumo-looking fellow and he’s probably not feeling much chill. I plop $1.25 into the little tray between the seats – “thanks” – and we exchange comments on the state of this miserable ‘summer’ weather. KOIT radio, light rock, less talk, and light traffic too, today.

I often think about an earlier version of car-sharing that San Francisco commuters enjoyed in years past. The Mission Street Jitney. If you were around in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s (or earlier), you probably know about the Jitneys, the cars that ran up and down Mission Street, picking up passengers on nearly every corner. A ride at that time cost a dime, although the term “jitney” was slang for a nickel, which was originally the standard fee. The first time I saw a jitney I was relatively new to the City, having just moved here in 1967 from St. Louis. What I saw was an oversized black car pull up to a curb on Mission Street. A couple of people jumped out and another person jumped in. There was a clandestine, almost sinister feel to the activity, and I remember wondering if I was witnessing a CIA or FBI operation of some sort, or perhaps some criminal activity. I became even more alarmed when, a few blocks later, I saw the same thing happening again. At the time I didn’t see any signs on the cars or on the curb indicating that this was a licensed form of public transport. Later, when the jitneys were gone and I learned what jitneys were, I was sorry I’d never had the opportunity to ride in one. Over-regulation and the advent of BART finally did them in.

They first appeared in San Francisco in 1914 as transportation for the workers and attendees to the World’s Fair (the Panama-Pacific International Exposition). By 1915 there were over 1400 private Jitney operators and that number doubled within a few years as they provided transportation for suburbanites coming into San Francisco. Many people moved to Oakland after the 1916 earthquake, along with some Jitneys, and the Jitneys would transport them from various spots in Oakland to the ferries that crossed the bay.

As the years passed, Jitneys upgraded their cars and some even became mini-vans, but the spirit of the Jitney remained. A fast, personalized service with a variety of driver and car styles and a natural flexibility. Sounds a lot like the casual carpool, don’t you think?

An Early Jitney Driver

Monday, July 26 Where It All Began and Where it’s Going (maybe)

Cold Monday morning with a gloomy forecast of more of the same all week. But at least there’s no wait today, and several cars are lined up. I’m in a new Honda Accord and discover I only have five and ten dollar bills, so I dig for quarters and pass four of them up to the front seat. Traffic is moderate and we’re cruising along at 65 mph. NPR on the radio. The driver is a corporate looking fellow, 50-something, in a nice gray-striped suit with a window-pane checked shirt. An easy, quiet ride and we’re in the city by 7:50 a.m.

Ever wonder how carpooling started? The first large-scale carpooling started with war rations in the 1940s. The government had limited amounts of nearly everything during WWII, including oil. To cope with the limited fuel supply, the government imposed a 35 mph national speed limit, called “Victory Speed”. Driving clubs, or car-sharing clubs were encouraged. A marketing campaign publicized the slogan “Keep it Under 40”, and solo drivers were considered practically unpatriotic. And so car-sharing was officially born. When the war ended its popularity waned. Fuel became plentiful, prices were low, and there were no government incentives to motivate people.

In the 1970s carpooling was revived with the OPEC Oil Crisis of 1973 (gas was expensive and scarce once again). Some of you may remember the long, long lines at the pumps. I remember sitting in a line that wound around several blocks, waiting to get to a pump at a filling station near Fisherman’s Wharf. I waited nearly 2 hours and prayed that the pumps wouldn’t run dry before I got there. I was lucky that day and got gas. Some stations alternated days when they would sell gas to cars with even or odd license plate numbers. During this time then-President Nixon instituted Project Independence which included lowering the national maximum speed limit and re-routing funding from highways to mass transit. Out of this funding came the first HOV (high-occupancy vehicle lanes – or carpool lanes), which started in California. And carpooling began in earnest.

But sharing a ride appears to be motivated by money, not the environment or the desire for company while you commute. So while it’s remained a good alternative method of getting to and from work for many commuters, the numbers have declined. In large part because the government and agencies have not been marketing carpooling. And why should they? It’s not economically to their advantage.

In 1980 Regional Transportation Agencies were created in California, receiving sales tax revenues to fund their transportation projects. A fair amount of sales tax revenue comes from bus, rail, and vanpool transportation. But a huge chunk of sales tax comes from the sale of new cars. California has an estimated 32 million cars. If new cars are purchased every 4 years, then 8 million cars a year are purchased in California. This represents about $16 Billion in vehicle sales tax revenue alone. And at about 1500 gallons of fuel per car per year, there is an additional $5 billion in gasoline taxes.

Now we’re in the post-Bush economic meltdown. And California’s sales tax has taken a nose dive. Many car dealerships completely closed down within the last couple of years. Last year in California car dealers sold about 1 million fewer new cars than the previous year. Last summer sales tax declined nearly 9%, and it’s expected to decline another 10% this year with the decline continuing in 2011. This all means less money for the Regional Transportation Agencies, their projects and their salaries. BART is hurting, MUNI is hurting, buslines and ferries are hurting. And last week we saw AC Transit drivers protesting a new contract that would diminish their overtime, health insurance and pensions, in order to close a $56 million budget gap.

So why indeed should our transportation agencies encourage carpooling? Every passenger in a carpool represents the possibility of one less car being purchased, less gas being consumed, and less sales tax. Mmm. Maybe it’s no longer the patriotic (spell that economic) thing to do.

Friday, July 23 Those Cheating Drivers

Friday again, and a light and fast commute. I’m in a very new, White Prius. It has all the extras. Riding in the front seat I feel like I’m co-piloting an airplane. The dashboard is dazzling with all sorts of messages and symbols – inside and outside temperature, a GPS map tracking our every move down the 80 freeway, a diagram of the car and the energy it’s using, and other buttons and switches that I don’t recognize. The driver is a young Asian-American girl, clad in a short black leather jacket and designer jeans. She thanks us for our dollars and says no more.

Because it’s such a light traffic day, we don’t see any solo drivers trying to use the carpool lane illegally, but on heavy traffic days, it is a fairly frequent occurrence. A few years ago the SF Chronicle did a count on cheaters. They counted 11% of the motorists cheating, and as many as 39% of drivers were cheaters on the Sterling Street Carpool Only entrance to the Bay Bridge. (Many of them slowing and looking around to make sure there were no CHP officers nearby). Over a 5-year period, the CHP issued an average of nearly 7,000 carpool ‘cheater’ citations a year on the four busiest carpool lanes: I-80 from the Bay Bridge to Hercules; I-680 in central Contra Costa county; 1-880 in Alameda county and Highway 101 in Marin and Sonoma counties. At $400 a ticket (and up), that’s an expensive ride.

There are stories about solo drivers using inflatable dummies in the passenger seats, dogs with coats and scarves in baby seats, and broomsticks with Styrofoam heads and wigs propped up in seats.

Many law-abiding drivers and carpoolers feel that there is not enough of a CHP presence to deter the cheaters; I rarely see any officers on my I-80 commute. When I do, it’s usually in the evening, but only a few times in the last year. Undoubtedly, cut-backs have trimmed their numbers.

The cheating infuriates a lot of people; 7 years ago a couple of web heads in San Jose got so upset about it they started a website – carpoolcheats.org (you can’t go there – it doesn’t exist anymore). These two guys took pictures of cheaters and published them on their website, along with pictures of their license plates. When they would spot a solo driver behind them in the carpool lane, they would pull into the next lane, then snap a shot of the lone driver as his car passed. They would then snap a shot of the license plate. The website was deluged – they were getting over 5,000 hits a day within a few weeks. Reluctantly they took the site down after they received a number of threatening letters and were even pursued and harrassed on the freeway. One enraged cheater chased them for several miles and hurled his ceramic coffee mug at their car. And the CHP told them they couldn’t use the photos to prosecute cheaters with anyway. “We need to witness the violation in person in order to issue a ticket,” CHP said.

One recent frustration of drivers since the July 1 tolls began has been the deluge of non-carpooling cars flooding the carpool lane minutes before the Bay Bridge converts to a regular lane at 10 a.m. weekday mornings. Apparently many of these cars hit their brakes at 9:58 and 9:59 a.m., waiting for the lane to convert, creating traffic jams and chaos and making the legit drivers crazy and angry.

The things we do out there on the freeway! Here’s the weekend. Enjoy. CG

Wednesday & Thursday, July 21 & 22 and Carpool, the series!

More of the same on WEDNESDAY morning (gray skies, chilly wind) except that there’s a very long lineup of cars, about 20, waiting. Few riders. I’m in the front seat of an Infinity with a pleasant young guy at the wheel. I tuck a dollar into the cup holder. He thanks me and says, “Gotta pay for those budgets.” He sounds dubious about how the money is spent, and I agree with him when he comments,”Those bridges bring in a lot of money.” I’m about 30 minutes later than usual which may account for the very heavy traffic. This lovely car has a compass which tells us we’re going East, Southwest, and an outside thermometer that reads 55 degrees.

THURSDAY morning’s ride is a Honda CR-V. A no-nonsense red-haired lady is driving. The passenger in the rear meekly offers her $1.25, which the driver sternly inspects and tucks away. I put $1 in the cup holder. No comment. This weather will never change. It is like a time loop that keeps repeating – cold – gray – the 80 freeway. We slog along toward the city, covered in a gray flannel blanket of fog. The driver slips her transponder out of a silver envelope as we approach the toll plaza. I ask her if it is new and she says, “Yes, I didn’t want one before the carpool toll started. I had one 10 years ago and they charged me for toll during the time I was out of town on vacation for 2 weeks. Took 6 months to get the credit.” She says you have to check your FasTrak bills on a regular basis to be sure you are being charged correctly. There’s some advice from the world of no-nonsense to you.

Now here’s some very good stuff and nonsense, too. And something fun for you to check out while we’re waiting for the weather to warm up – a British weekly internet TV show called CARPOOL. Yes, it’s true, and it’s a very clever idea created by British actor Robert Llewellyn. Each segment is a half-hour interview, done in a car, with a well-known personality or celebrity (well, well-known in the U.K., anyway) from the fields of science, theater, tv or technology. Llewellyn produces the show and interviews the guest celebrity while he drives them somewhere in his car. The information is fascinating and as a carpooler you will find it a very familiar setting. Besides the novelty of watching someone driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the car and road!

You can view the series on this link: http://www.llewtube.com

Tuesday, July 20 You get what you pay for

A cold and windy 50-degree morning in Vallejo. Many cars and a few riders. I don’t know if my fellow riders are dazed or just rude. As I walk up to where the line begins several riders just walk right past me, getting into the cars that are lined up. I and the fellow right behind me look at each other and shrug. “Anarchy in the carpool line,” I say and we both laugh and get into a shiny new Toyota Corolla. Cozy warm inside and the lady driver gives us a pleasant greeting. We each give her $1. “We need the money for safe bridges,” she says. “Well, that’s the party line,” I comment. “I’d like to see the budgets for those safe bridges and over-runs.” No comment from either of my companions. Okay.

Off we go and this mild, very suburban and mellow looking plump lady hits the freeway at 70 plus mph! She’s driving like a maniac. As we hurtle down the 80 Freeway a small truck pulls out in front of us to join the carpool lane. The driver does not slow down until I gasp and then she tailgates the guy. Near Berkeley all the lanes are full and moving at about 45 mph, and I can breathe easier.

There are a number of stories carpoolers tell about drivers they wish they’d never been in a car with – check out ridenow.org, a great site that gives good information on car pooling in the bay area and has a great message board with listings of dangerous drivers, including car descriptions and license plate numbers. Our lady today should certainly be on that list. Unfortunately, when I’m in a hurry in the morning, and waiting in the carpool line, I just don’t pay attention to people’s license numbers, and even though I describe drivers and their cars in this blog, I seldom recognize anyone I’ve ever ridden with. Well, there are a few that stand out in my mind.

I like this quote from an unknown author: “It takes 8,460 bolts to assemble an automobile, and one nut to scatter it all over the road.” Avoid the nuts. Pay your toll, cross your fingers and be nice. CG

Monday, July 19 Other bridges, other woes

An easy beginning to the week – few riders, many cars. My ride from Vallejo is a Honda Civic with a petite Latina at the wheel. The other passenger and I each give her a dollar bill which she graciously accepts and thanks us for. As we leave the north bay behind we move from a summer morning into late autumn. The sky darkens, the air chills and it’s more like early winter as we move closer to the City. The view of Alcatraz from the Bay Bridge looks like a dark cold tomb. But the fog will lift, the sun will rise and the tourists in their shorts and tank tops will warm up. Traffic’s heavy and the toll gates are packed.

Across the bay at the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin carpoolers who are still reeling from their newly imposed $3 toll, are facing their first day with FasTrak only – no more cash allowed for carpoolers. They were given 3 weeks after the July 1 toll began to either pay with cash or FasTrak. Plus they have to go through a staffed lane, so that their carpool status can be verified. The Golden Gate Bridge Authority says about 2% of their bridge traffic is carpool. They are planning to make $1.3 million a year in additional revenue from the new $3 toll, which will go towards replacing a $132 million budget deficit over the next 5 years. Yikes. – CG

Friday, July 16 Days of Contention

Casual Commuters lining up in Lincoln Park, San Francisco

A friend sent me this very funny photo and I had to pass it along. I need a laugh these days. Commuting has not been much fun lately, not that it ever really was, but it used to have a more comfortable, friendly feel about it. And that is going, going, maybe gone.

This issue of paying or not paying got to me last night. I waited at the Beale Street carpool line for nearly 45 minutes. As I was waiting I asked the rider behind me if he paid toll and how much. “$1.25” he promptly replied. I said “Do you realize that if both riders pay $1.25 the driver pays nothing at all?” “Oh no”, he quickly said. “The driver has to pay for the transponder.”

Before I could reply that the transponder does not cost you money, just the toll, our ride pulled up – a new BMW. As we got seated the rider I’d been talking to, now in the back seat, handed over his $1.25. I got buckled in and laid $1 on the cup rest area. The driver tapped her fingernail on my dollar bill and said, “Do you have a quarter?” When I reluctantly got it out she said with a sarcastic tone, “Thanks, this is really costing me a lot of money.”

A new BMW costs upwards of $50,000. The driver spent a good portion of what seemed a never-ending ride (heavy traffic, rear-enders) to Vallejo talking about the wonders of her BMW, trips she’d taken, cars she’d rented and she wound up having a regular BMW bonding session with the guy in the rear seat. Turned out he too owns a BMW along with a couple of Hondas. These folks are financially challenged? She can’t afford to pay a third of the $2.50 toll?

I feel angry. Even before the tolls began this month, much of the time I sensed an attitude of ‘master-serf’ between drivers and riders. The drivers assuming they are the only ones doing the favor by condescending to give a ride to the huddled masses in the carpool lines. When I discussed this with my daughter, a former Vallejo-SF commuter, she said she avoided the casual carpool for that very reason – the ‘attitude’. As I’ve mentioned in some of these blogs, I’d hoped that the SHARING of the toll would create a more congenial solidarity between drivers and riders, a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ bond. And at the very least, the fact that the riders are putting up money for the ride should level the playing field a bit, doncha think?

As I’ve acknowledged before, the drivers do pay gas, parking, insurance, but that is not a new expense. They have always done that, and never asked for reimbursement for those expenses, that I’m aware of. And I do not mind a bit paying a PORTION of the toll. But as I attempted to explain to both the ‘I OWN A BMW’ commuters, if two riders each pay $1.25, the driver is paying nothing towards the toll. They are still getting the free ride. And yes, the transponder is billed in advance each month, but with everyone contributing to the toll, they will get at least two-thirds of that back. Had I not been so angry, I would have asked this impoverished driver why she didn’t pick up a third rider. That would have meant $3.75 towards the burden of her commute and a profit on last night’s ride. Not only was I subjected to her blathering about her expensive car, I had to listen to her choice of music, which she sang or whistled along with from time to time. Not my choice and not pleasant, even though I was paying for the ride.

Some have commented that $1.25 is damn cheap for a ride between San Francisco and Vallejo and that is true. The issue here is more than just the money or the amount of money. As a matter of fact I spend more than $1.25 each way on my commute. I also spend $4 a day on MUNI and pay for the gas to get to and from the carpool lot. Most of us at this point in history do have money issues, including myself. But in a situation like the casual carpool, started by commuters and maintained and nourished by commuters, taking advantage of a few bucks from riders really smacks of nasty, greedy, selfish behavior. Doing that is just as short-sighted and mean-spirited as the Bay Area Toll Authority’s initiating carpool tolls in the first place. And that’s what makes me mad.

This morning, Friday, was a sunny morning in Vallejo, traffic looked light, there were cars lined up and waiting. Nice and easy. I got in the back seat of an older Chrysler sedan. The couple in the front seat were having an intense conversation about kids and a crisis with a college-age child. As we neared Richmond we entered heavy fog and it looked thick all the way into the City. A splendid tall white egret was walking about in the grasses near the freeway at Emeryville looking at once magnificent and out of place in the freeway setting. The toll gates were all nearly empty. As we got onto the bridge I interrupted the conversation and asked “What is your toll policy?” Without pause, the driver said “1.25.”

Sigh. Off to the weekend. Have a good one. CG

Thursday, July 15 The commute from Vallejo

7:05 a.m. VALLEJO L o n g line of riders waiting for a ride this morning, but the weather is warming and it looks like a lovely day in the offing. I bask in the early morning sun while I wait. It takes about 15 minutes and then I’m in the front seat of a big Lexus SUV. Friendly lady driver smiles and greets us as we get in. The rider in back immediately puts a dollar in the cup holder so once again I pull out my dollar. Traffic is heavy, but moving. There’s a huge gridlock on the east-bound side of the freeway. Roadwork near Hercules has reduced the 4 lanes of traffic on the other side of the freeway to 1 lane so it’s really jammed up. A number of speeding motorcycles zoom past us, darting in and out of the lanes at about 80 mph. The driver and I agree there are more motorcycles on the road and for the most part, they drive too fast. Lite rock on the radio and little talk in the car.

I read in the Vallejo Times-Herald (July 6, “Increase in Bay Area Bridge Tolls Could Help Public Transit”) some interesting statistics about subtle changes in the Vallejo commute, post-new tolls. There was a 10 to 15 percent increase in commuting Vallejo bus riders on July 1, the first day of the new tolls, and more commuters are riding the ferries, although the count is not yet in on that. Vallejo Public Works Directory Gary Leach is hopeful that this is a trend. “We’re hoping we will see more people taking the ferry because we’ve had a reduction in riders. Less people are commuting because of the economy.” Vallejo ferry riders have diminished by about 20 percent in recent years, as the fare has gone up and jobs have gone down.

The toll plaza is paralyzed this morning, especially in the cash lane. All waiting to pay their $6 toll. We are delighted to speed past and are in the city by 7:50.