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.

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