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Friday, August 27 – Vacation Next Week!


Finally Friday. I’m on vacation next week and especially after the last few days, I really need it.

This morning is cool but sunny and I’m riding in the back seat of a Toyota Tacoma 4-door pickup truck. A cheery driver in a long-sleeve white polo shirt and jeans greets me with “Happy Friday!” He looks to be in his early 50s, close cropped hair, glasses. He’s wearing several rope bracelets and has a large Starbuck’s sitting in the cup holder. I pass him a dollar and he looks back to see if there’s more, and then quickly looks away. Young Asian-American guy in the front seat gets in and pays “full fare” ($1.25). Nearing Richmond we leave the sunny morning and enter the massive fog bank that’s enveloping the bay and San Francisco. Traffic’s heavy for a Friday, but we’re all moving at the limit.

Next week I’m vacationing with my family on the north coast, south of Fort Bragg. It’s just a few hours away, but wireless connection is iffy, so I may be out of touch. If I can latch onto the internet, I’ll keep you posted on the thrills of driving on scenic coastal Highway 1.

When we’re all back after Labor Day there should be some interesting views and news to share on the increased post vacation commute traffic. I’ll be looking for the new numbers on toll revenue and carpool lane tallies. Till then, keep pooling and enjoy the last of the summer days.

California One

A Rough Week


My last post was on Monday when I mentioned my cat, Lucky. He died on Tuesday. If you’ve lost a beloved pet you know how tough it is to go through this. This was especially devastating because he was relatively young (His 10th birthday was, perversely this last Saturday), in apparently good health and the illness hit him quickly and hard. Our family spent a mellow and blessedly warm last day with him on Tuesday and then said our goodbyes.

Lucky, a dear and constant companion. So much loved and so terribly missed.


When I left for work and the carpool early Tuesday morning, I did not know how sadly the day would end and felt optimistic in the glorious sunny summer morning. The air was deliciously warm and I felt exposed leaving the house without a coat or sweater. I was tired and stressed about Lucky who at that point was undiagnosed. The vet said she’d have the test results this morning. I rode in the back seat of a spotless Lexus with two crisply dressed executive types in front. They sounded like work colleagues, rather than social acquaintances and were engrossed in work chatter during the commute. The driver declined my toll offer, “My company picks up the tab.”

The freeway was packed and the carpool lane was the place to be. We cruised along at about 55 mph. Moving past Berkeley, I looked across the bay at San Francisco basking in the morning sun, and just above the horizon of the hills south of the city was a fine dark line of – oh no, could that be smog? In San Francisco?!!!

Wednesday passed in a sad daze. Still wonderfully warm. I rode in a Toyota sedan, paid my toll, which was unacknowledged by the fellow driving. Air conditioning was going full blast, cold but it felt good this day and helped wake me up. The city looked soft and welcoming in the warm morning haze. The driver maneuvered through several lanes trying to find an opening in the sluggish traffic, but to no advantage. We made up for lost time zooming through the toll gate and were in the city in good time.

Thursday, today. Brrrr. The air from Alaska has returned and it is a windy gray morning. About a 10 minute wait for a ride. I get in the back seat of a big Ford Explorer. Large older guy with his young son, about 11 or 12 years old. I pass up 4 quarters. The driver lays them out in his palm and says “It’s $1.25.” I explain that I usually pay one dollar. “You’ve ridden with me before”, he scolds. “That’s what it is.” I don’t remember riding with him, but I will surely try not to do it again. I feel quite annoyed and would have left the car had we not been on the freeway entry ramp, but I pass up the additional quarter. Good grief. Like I’ve said before it’s not the money it’s the attitude and this guy’s attitude needs some work. But if a quarter is what it takes for him to make it through the day he’s welcome to it. Driving a behemoth like this Explorer he undoubtedly needs to collect whatever he can to pay for the gas. To hell with the planet, right? He clutches and sips at a super-sized paper cup of Cibolo Mountain Coffee throughout the ride. Traffic is heavy and once again the city and bay are invisible under the thick fog. I am grieving, feeling sad and vulnerable and am sorry to be riding in such an unfriendly car.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Today, August 23 – Finally, a Change in the Weather


I’ve fallen behind a couple of days. My dear cat, Lucky, is very ill and I’m giving him all my attention. But I’ll catch up today and take a break from my sick cat duties.
Last Thursday, August 19, I had absolutely no interest in working so was dragging and very late to the carpool line. But after a 10-minute wait I had a great ride. As I approached the car – a VW Passant – the driver signaled through her window that she’d take 3 riders, and I thought oh great, she’s planning to make a little profit on the toll this morning. But no! Just the opposite. She said ” no toll”, looking snappy in a bright cherry-red velour cardigan, black pants and a good looking big yellow leather bag. They two guys in the back seat looked happy and put their money back in their pockets.

I asked her why no toll. ” If I can’t afford the $5 a day to commute, then I shouldn’t be driving”, she said. “And I don’t think the riders should have to be responsible for my toll.” But she was quick to add that she appreciates the offers of toll payment. She mentioned that her husband, an insurance adjuster, had brought up the question of liability for drivers who charge a payment for rides. I’d wondered about that too, so when I got to my computer later that morning I looked up the California State law on such matters. It turns out there is no extra licensing or fee for driving a car-share or carpool vehicle with the riders contributing to the expense of the commute. So all you toll takers are perfectly legal, I’m sorry to say.

The next day, the 20th was a typical Friday light traffic day, Many cars were lined up and I got in the back seat of a Honda sedan. The driver looked like an older version of Miles from “Lost”. He was wearing a short-sleeved white polo shirt with an expensive looking brown suit, the jacket tossed over the back of his seat. He kept flinching as he drove. An unconscious habit perhaps or maybe a nervous disorder. Or maybe, like me, he could use a massage. Near Pinole we pass the In ‘N Out. Many mornings as we go by I think of how good those burgers are and wish I could pick one up for lunch. On this cold cheerless morning, I could use one right now!
We whiz past 3 lanes of suddenly congested non-carpool traffic and are in the city by 8 a.m.

Monday, August 23. My god, summer is finally here! No half-way about it! 80s and 90s predicted for today and it’s already comfortably warm at 7 a.m. Very,very nice and somewhat odd to see the sun at this hour! I walk up to a big Honda SUV. It has two rows of back seats and is actually more of a van. The woman driving must be incredibly tiny. Her seat is pushed so far up that the steering wheel is resting on her chest. A colorful cotton bag covered with about a dozen various sized pouches is hanging off the bag of her seat. It looks like those over the door devices that hold multiple pairs of shoes. These pouches are holding kleenex, bottled water, a power breakfast bar. A huge silver crucifix hangs from the mirror. I lean forward and toss a dollar into a little white plastic basket between the front seats.

A giant truck with a load of smashed cars go by us. These always fascinate me. It’s something about those neatly stacked layers of colorful metal that were once complex engines and roaring vehicles transformed into silent slabs.

Speaking of many cars in small spaces, did you see this picture?

These guys need casual carpool!

This is part of a 62-hour traffic standstill on a road leading to Beijing! 62 HOURS! Some of the drivers have been trapped in it for three days. I examined the picture carefully and it looks like most of the cars have only one person – the driver.

Once again I am delighted to speed past the log-jam of traffic at the toll gates on the Bay Bridge and am thankful for the carpool. The warm weather has lent a tropical flavor to the vegetation near the freeway and there’s a whole patch of the vividly pink naked lady lilies abloom, nodding as we pass.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 18 – The Art of Tailgating


There’s an Accura sedan waiting at the curb as I walk up to the carpool line this morning. I take the front seat and another lady gets in back. She immediately and self-righteously offers her $1.25 to the driver, even before sitting down. She must have been clutching it in her hand as she walked up to the car. That sets the tone of what SHE thinks is the right thing to do. I dig out a dollar after I get my seat belt on.

There is an overwhelming, and not really pleasant, shaving lotion/men’s cologne fragrance saturating this car. The driver is a 30’s something swarthy looking sort of fellow, dressed all in black. He drives too fast and has taken the art of tailgating to a level I have not experienced before, thank God. He is consistently about 3/4 of a car length from the car ahead and keeping the speedometer between 70 and 80 mph. It would be quite nasty if we had to stop suddenly and I check to be sure there are air bags in this car. Small comfort. Just before Berkeley he picks up his cell phone and struggles to punch in a number. Looks like he got it wrong the first time and he tries again. I decide that if he continues with the cell phone I will say something. Fortunately we hit the ‘Berkeley Crawl’ area of the freeway and traffic slows to about 25 mph. He ends a short phone call to someone who he tells he will arrive at 8 a.m. It is 7:30.

I did some research on tailgating and tailgaters and learned that there are no definitive answers on why some drivers do it and why some don’t. But there are some interesting observations.

First of all, tailgating, or following too closely means different things to different drivers, depending on their perception. Safety experts used to use the car length rule – for every 10 mph of speed the following distance should be one car length (2 car lengths for 20 mph, 6 car lengths for 60 mph, etc.) But in more recent years the 2-second rule has been adopted. This says you should never be more than 2 seconds behind the car ahead of you, regardless of the speed. Two seconds in slow traffic might be a car length or two, but at high speeds it would be much more. This rule is based on perception and reaction time. If the driver ahead of you slams on his brakes it will take a certain amount of time to be aware of it and then more time to react. Allowing two seconds for all of that doesn’t seem like a very generous margin. Plus, it sounds confusing to me. I think the car length rule is easier to visualize.

Knowing that, which seems like useless information since I have only seen, perhaps one driver observing that rule, as well as the speed limit, in the last 14 years I’ve been driving on the 80 freeway, what makes people tailgate? It is very obviously dangerous to do, especially at high speeds.

Defense of territory is one theory, and this goes hand in hand with overly aggressive drivers. There is another silly ‘slipstreaming’ argument (following closely enough saves you fuel because you are using the energy of the car in front of you to move forward). Ridiculous. Then there are undoubtedly drivers who do it simply for the thrill and to test their own proficiency in being able to follow as closely as possible without colliding with the car ahead of them. Combine this attitude with the fact that many of these drivers have never had a collision and they become complacent about driving this way. And some drivers are just lazy and drive that way out of force of habit. You have to be alert and pay attention to be a good driver.

If tailgaters are driving in this reckless manner because they are in a hurry, they are actually defeating their own purpose. Tailgating requires a limited vision of the road. If you’re tailgating you HAVE to watch just what’s right in front of you; you cannot look ahead or to the side. You cannot calculate a better route in perhaps another lane or do any sort of long-range traffic planning when you tailgate. And because of this you may be stuck behind that car you are following so closely and miss some great opportunities to move ahead through traffic. And you are probably unaware that you are terrorizing the carpoolers who are clutching the edges of their seats and gasping.

At least the car is warm. I can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF skyline for the first time in many mornings, but its only because the fog cover is up higher today. It’s still another gray cool day. In the distance on the other side of the bay the sun has pierced the fog and is shining on the Marin County hills. It looks like a painting. Lovely.

We survive and arrive in the city at 7:50. Looks like the driver will make his 8 o’clock appointment.

THE WEEK BEGINS – MONDAY AND TUESDAY, August 16 and 17


MONDAY MORNING VALLEJO CAR POOL. A cold sluggish start to the week. No cars and 8 riders lined up. But the rides start pulling up right away. Here comes a sad little Toyota. The right front fender is smashed in and a naked tire pokes out. Clutter is visible inside the car and the driver is frantically scooping things up as she pulls up to the line. The guy at the front of the line passes and the next two fellows take the ride. I move up behind the first rider. “Turned it down, huh?” I ask. He smiles apologetically and sort of stammers, “Well, yeah, I, uh. . ” I chuckle and tell him I would have passed on the ride too. We both get in the back seat of the next car, a giant Honda SUV. The kind that has two automatically sliding doors. A couple, husband and wife probably, are in the front. I pass up 4 quarters, which the wife checks out and then drops into the cup holder. My sense is that they took two riders so that their toll would be covered. They’re not big on the warm and friendly greetings. Especially not the warm part. Both of them are wearing short-sleeve cotton shirts and it’s about 50 degrees in the car.

A sparkling green Chinese charm hangs from the mirror. A Chinese food take out menu lays on the floor. The woman is sitting on a flowered, ruffly seat cushion and has a small green blanket tucked around her feet. I wish I had a blanket. My fellow rider in the back seat next to me looks like he could use one, too. He’s huddled over, asleep, arms wrapped around himself.

Traffic is moving at the limit and is light, until the toll area where it’s a gridlock with traffic backed up for about half a mile. The new Bay Bridge is definitely taking shape. From today’s high SUV view I can see the two sweeping side-by-side lanes of the new bridge, nearly all the way to Treasure Island now. The traffic signs and lights posts have been installed on much of the completed section. As much as I resent the inflated expense of the new bridge and the undoubted boondoggling with how long it’s taking to build, I am pleased to see that it will be a very dynamic part of the architectural look of the bay area. A real knock out.

TUESDAY MORNING. A great start to the day. A big flock of Canadian Geese fly over our car on my way to the carpool. Beautiful flyers, flapping and honking as they carry on their mystical and eternal tradition of migrating. It’s a short wait at the line today and my ride is a sleek 2-door BMW. The rider in front of me takes the small back seat and we adjust and settle before getting out our toll contributions. The guy in the back asks as he prepares to hand over his money, “Is that a cup of coffee or a toll cup?” We all laugh. It actually IS a cup of coffee and the other cupholder contains a berry smoothie. “I’m a road warrior today,” the driver says. “I have to drive all the way down to Santa Clara, so this is my breakfast and coffee break.”

The other rider says one car he rides in has a mason jar sitting in the cup holder with a ‘toll’ sign on it. And another ride has a sign on the glove box that says ‘Paying passengers only’. He says it’s still a great deal and he is happy to pay the toll. He doesn’t understand why some riders resent paying. I comment that the drivers are saving $3.50 even without being paid by the riders. I also mention that some drivers are jerks, too.

Yesterday’s Chronicle had a front page story on the toll issue and its effect on carpooling. (“New Bay Bridge Tolls Shake Up Economics of Casual Carpooling”, SF Chronicle Monday, August 16, by Will Kane). Will interviewed 3 dozen drivers and riders and came up with three different ‘camps’: those who will pay a portion of the toll, those who pay only on request, and those who refuse. Most drivers don’t require a contribution, according to this article, but there are some who will turn off their car and wait until the passengers pay up. Several carpoolers he talked to, both riders and drivers, are abandoning the carpool because of the tolls and the discomfort with paying or not paying drivers.

The article also points out that a recent count of carpoolers on the bridges throughout the Bay Area shows 12,000 fewer drivers using the carpool lanes. Time will tell if this is a sign of things to come.

KNBR radio murmurs in the background and we end our ride with a discussion on the summer weather.

THURSDAY AND FRIDAY RIDES – Lotsa Toll Talk


THURSDAY, AUGUST 12. I arrive at the Vallejo carpool site to see at least 50 cars lined up. Nice (for the riders, anyway). I get in the front seat of a Chevrolet pickup. Another passenger is squeezed in the back. We buckle up and get out our toll offerings which are refused. “No money in this truck”, the driver says loudly. “You guys are saving me $3.50 by just riding with me.” He’s a rugged kind of guy, and the truck has a rugged kind of guy smell (not bad, just the way guys smell when they don’t use perfumes). I see part of a large tattoo on his right arm, under his gray t-shirt. He’s a contractor and commutes from Folsom 2 or 3 days a week, sometime on his motorcycle, he says.

“I’ve seen vans pull up and get 4 or 5 riders and charge each one of ’em $1.25”, he says. “A lot of drivers are just tryin’ to cash in on this toll thing.” I agree and relate the story of the BMW driver wanting her full $1.25 ‘fare’. (See my July 16 blog – Days of Contention).

His truck is clean and comfy. “I’m just about 500 miles short of 300,000 miles on this truck. I take real good care of it and like to keep it clean.” He says he see guys pull up to jobs in dirty, torn clothes and beat up trucks and tools. “You just know what kind of work they do.” I agree. “My husband always says you can tell a lot about a worker by the way he takes care of his tools.” A newer pickup truck passes us as we cross the Bay Bridge. The rear window is out and has been taped with plastic, which has torn and is flapping in the wind. The driver points it out. “That’s what I mean. You just know what kind of work you’re going to get from that guy.”

I comment on the light summer traffic, and he thinks it’s mostly the economy. But he also thinks a lot of people are taking unemployment benefits who don’t deserve them – his brother for one. I don’t want to argue with him, but most people do not have a great time being on unemployment. Their benefit amount is usually a fraction of what their salaries were, and now, for the new group of “99rs” – the people who’ve been on the dole for 99 weeks – their benefits have run out. No more extensions. And no jobs.

I know there are people who will always take advantage of situations where money is involved. Look at the banks, look at Wall Street, the credit card companies! And look at the carpool drivers who demand their $1.25 every day.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 13. Another ride in a pickup truck today. This is a much bigger, newer Chevrolet, again with a back seat. The rear passenger gets in and is really cramped. I assure her I’ll move my seat forward, which I do. The driver is a big guy in a red t-shirt and a bluetooth device in his ear. I put a dollar in the cup holder, the other passenger passes up $1.25. We talk about our jobs and the economy. He tells me about his divorce a few years ago. “I lost everything – the cars, 2 houses, the works. I just walked away from it.” Sounds like this disaster hit just as the economy was about to cave in, so he’s been scrambling to put his life and job back together. He’s re-married, and has been commuting from Sacramento to pick up work in the city.

About the tolls, he says “These bridges were supposed to have been paid for years ago, so what are we paying for now?” I tell him that sales tax was a big part of the revenue for the California transportation agencies, and with the real estate disaster, much of that money is gone. “The sales tax revenue helped pay for road and bridge maintenance, as well as the salaries for people in those agencies”, I point out. “Wonder how much their salaries are” he asks. I wonder too and have been doing some research to find out. (Stay tuned).

He thinks that raising the toll fee and charging carpoolers is backfiring. “Look at how many fewer people are on the road”, he says. “So they get a dollar or two more per car in tolls, but 4,000 fewer cars. Stupid!” Looks that way to me too, but I’m waiting to see the numbers in a couple of months.

Until then, enjoy the light traffic and the warmer weather – predicted for next week – and count your blessings. These are rough times. CG

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 11 Some More Toll Talk


A ride today in a comfy, warm Volvo, with a familiar face at the wheel – Jacob, the pink shirt guy! Today he’s wearing an orange shirt and rather amazing wrap-around sunglasses. They are like a Zorro-mask.

I ask him how he’s getting along with riders paying toll, and he says it’s been pretty fine. “Although, there’s this one rider – a guy who wrote me a check for his share.” I laugh. “He actually wrote you a check for $1.25?” “Yes, but he’s ridden with me before, and a couple of other times he either said he didn’t have the cash, or he’d get back to me later.” Sounds like a reluctant toll contributor to me. Or maybe he’s broke.

Jacob says that, being a non-confrontational kind of guy, he doesn’t insist if people don’t want to pay, so he didn’t give the rider a hard time. But a co-worker of his is quite firm about it. “She might let it go once, but she’ll let you know that’s the last time. A few days before the toll went into effect, she was reminding the riders to have their change ready when the tolls began.”

The lady passenger in the back seat says she has seen drivers refuse a ride to people who won’t pay. “And then no one else wants to give them a ride, either!” We all agree that is not a good thing to do. I remind them that even if the riders pay nothing, the driver of a casual carpool is saving $3.50 on the Bay Bridge and $2.50 on the Carquinez Bridge. The SHARING of the toll doesn’t mean the riders should pay ALL of the toll, although most Vallejo drivers seem to expect it.

Because Vallejo carpoolers have to pay for TWO bridges on our commute, I do understand the angst over these tolls, and agree that sharing is the right thing to do.

The return commute in the evening often catches carpoolers at the Carquinez Bridge after 7 PM, and the driver loses his carpool discount (carpool hours are 3 to 7 pm Monday through Friday). Once summer vacation is over, the freeways will be moving much slower, and if you pick up a carpool group in San Francisco after 6 pm, it’s likely you’ll cross the Carquinez Bridge after 7. Because we have a longer commute than other drivers, and more carpoolers than the other commute groups, I think we should get a break from the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA).

What do you think of this?: EXTEND THE CARPOOL HOURS ON THE CARQUINEZ BRIDGE TO 8 PM, TO ALLOW MORE TIME FOR VALLEJO (AND BEYOND) DRIVERS TO MAKE THE CARPOOL TOLL. Let me know what you think, and I’ll let the BATA know.