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  • Waiting for a ride

No Fun, No Heat, Just a Ride

I’m wedged in the back seat of a Honda CRV next to a child seat, the kind that seems to be permanently attached. There is barely enough room for me and the little seat is digging into my ribs. It’s horribly uncomfortable plus, I cannot attach my seat belt – whatever the connection is has been taken over by this contraption. The driver does not acknowledge the fact that there is not an adequate seat for an adult in the back of this huge SUV, nor does she respond to my question about a seat belt.

It’s a cold, wet day and there’s no heat in this car. The driver is a plump be-spectacled woman in her late 20s, early 30s. Her long dull brown hair is pulled back in a pony tail. No make up, no frills. No heat.

The passenger in the front seat is a guy with a shaved head who is about the same age. Both of these folks are wearing dull gray and black clothing. Combined with my physical discomfort, these 2 people are so drab and emotionless I feel like I’m in a prison van. About half-way through the ride the driver rolls down her window and icy air fills the SUV. Fortunately, just as I’m about to complain, she rolls it back up. These kinds of rides, and happily they are few, make me feel like a piece of cargo. It’s just a ride.

Traffic is heavy and sluggish; we’re moving at about 20 mph. Plenty of time to admire the beautiful bay. Lavender-grey and white puffy clouds filter the morning sun and the city softly glows across the choppy winter waters. A solitary snow-white egret hunches over the shallow shoreline pools by Emeryville.

We zip past the gridlocked toll plaza at 60 mph and are in the city by 8:15 a.m.

Valentine Carpool – Did you bring your pillow?

It’s a little drizzly and overcast, but no standing in line for the riders – a long line of rides is waiting for us. I hop into a Valentine-Day-Red Chevrolet truck – a Silverado. Very comfy and even some leg room in the back. The driver is a polite fellow with very short hair, practically bald and a weird-looking beard on his chin. He’s wearing camouflage clothing. A small green fish chochkee dangles from the mirror, looks like a bass. Traffic is bad, but the carpool lane has a definite advantage this morning and we make the 30+ mile commute in under an hour.

So what are you doing for Valentine’s Day? Chocolate, over-priced roses, romantic tea for two? Well, here’s an SF tradition that’s new to me, but will celebrate its 5th anniversary today. The Annual San Francisco Valentine’s Pillow Fight. It takes place today at 6 PM in Justin Herman Plaza (Embarcadero at Market – right in front of the Ferry Building). Check it out on U Tube – there are numerous videos of previous ‘Fights’ depicting the insanity of thousands of people beating each other with pillows. From time to time a pillow bursts open and the flying feathers add an aesthetic punch, especially to those with their mouths open. With the light drizzle out there this afternoon, the feathers may be sticking rather than flying. But it looks like the participants won’t mind either way.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

A Ride and a Chat in a Z Car

Somewhat hesitantly, I step into a 2-seater sports car this morning, small, but not tiny and very comfortable, even with all my usual commuting gear.

Pleasant guy at the wheel. I can tell he loves his car and I ask him what it is – “It’s a Z 2006”. I later learned that Z’s are a Japanese car, manufactured by Nissan. Z cars hold the record as the best selling sports car of all time – over 2 million have been sold. Z owners love their cars!

This Z driver in a bright orange long-sleeved t-shirt, is a regular casual carpool driver and is an SF MUNI bus driver as well. “I love seeing the people and giving them a ride’, he says with a big smile. He’s a terrific driver and I feel relaxed and safe in the car. We talk about public transportation and agree that without MUNI San Francisco would be paralyzed. “And some people say we’re overpaid! We have to be more than just a driver of a vehicle. I have to be a policeman, fireman, attorney, counselor, tour guide, all on top of driving the bus.”

I tell him that I recently learned (SF Chronicle’s Matier & Ross Monday, February 7) that SF’s about-to-be former police chief Heather Fong, who will be leaving SF Hall of Justice some time this year, will leave with an ANNUAL pension of $229,500.

He exclaims “And the city has these huge projects going on, too! “The new Transbay Terminal plus the underground extension of BART under Stockton Street. Who’s paying for all this?” Take a look in the mirror, fellow taxpayers. Our votes on the ballot agreed to salary and pension increases for fire and police officers in 2002, after the 9/11 fall out.

We talk more about the frustrations of traffic and commuting, (we’re both concerned about the new tolls for commuters) and his special frustrations as a city bus driver. “People walk right out in front of us without looking. They’re on their cell phones, or trying to beat the light. But it’s still the best job I ever had!”

We’re soon over the bay bridge and into a sunny San Francisco morning. A great ride, a great driver and a super car.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7 – Are you ready for Carpool Showdown?

Beautiful morning – the sun is shining right into the eyes of all the riders waiting for a car and we’re all blinking and squinting. The minor discomfort is a small trade-off for the gorgeous weather we’re having. The weekend was truly spectacular with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. I felt like I’d gone to Tahiti; we even had a multi-colored, romantic sunset.

But here’s Monday and we’re back on the commute. I’m in the very same Chevy van I’ve been getting lately, with the lady in casual clothing who does not want to chat. Today she has a small, scruffy-cute dog with her, in a carrier on the front seat next to her I and the other rider are in the back seat. The traffic is heavy and vigorous; we’re all moving along at about 40 mph. Lots of single passenger cars ducking in and out of the carpool lane, bringing us to a halt from time to time.

Have you seen CARPOOL SHOWDOWN? It’s a new program on KOFY-TV, Cable Channel 13 every Sunday night, at 9 p.m. It started just last month and takes place right in bay area casual carpools. A host from KOFY sits in the car and conducts a sort of game show, asking the passengers various ridiculous and very amusing questions. Winners get CASH! (ye$!!) I’ve only seen one episode so far and besides answering questions about popular culture (movies, music, celebrities, etc.) there was a very funny activity where riders passed a cucumber to each other – by mouth!

Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously, and especially the winners who emerged from the carpool with handfuls of cash. Check it out. KOFY, Channel 13, 9 PM Sundays. Let me know if you’d like to be a contestant. I’ve asked KOFY how the casual carpools are selected. (Carpool Showdown follows another equally amusing show, “Dance Party” at 8 PM, a revival of the original 1980s show, with couples dancing to popular music. Reminiscent of American Bandstand with Dick Clark.

February Sunny Groundhog Days

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 2. GROUND HOG DAY. A huge line of cars all the way around the block. I’m the only rider, at least for the moment. I get into the back seat of a lovely, luxurious Cadillac. A very stylish lady is at the wheel in a wonderful black & white checkered pant suit. She’s model thin. A great hair cut and perfect manicure. I want this car and that haircut! The car reminds me of the Chryslers my parents always used to have – big, leathery, roomy. This one has a sunroof, and a super large gps screen. It’s a beautiful sunny morning and there will be more of the same today and for the rest of the week. Almost impossible to imagine the howling snowstorms going on in the east. But the bright sunny light on Groundhog Day means Mr. Groundhog has seen his shadow and we’ll have 6 more weeks of winter. Mmm. We roll past Berkeley and the view of the city in brilliant light and shadow is reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 3. Frost on the windshields this morning but sunny. Once again I’m the only rider in line, but the street is empty and not a car to be seen. Within about 5 minutes they start pulling up and then a few more riders come along. My ride is in the back seat of a sporty Nissan. The driver barely acknowledges us but is eager to take our $1.25 toll. There’s a book on the back seat, “Discipline of Godly Man”. KGO radio is on REAL LOUD. The driver listens intently, concentrating on the traffic. A contrast to his nearly horizontally reclining seat.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 4. Today’s driver looks familiar. But he drives like a maniac, and you’d think I’d remember that before I got in this killer car. Too late now. It’s Friday light so he has more room to drive like a lunatic. Lane changing and going too fast. I’d guess him to be a mid-level management guy. Business suit, crisp blue-striped dress shirt (even on Friday!), short hair and fingernails that look chewed. The car is a small, new Honda. Once the traffic gets heavier near Berkeley he is forced to slow down and we all relax.

He takes 3 of us and accepts the $1.25 without a murmur ($3.75 collected for a $2.50 toll). Ah, but it’s a gorgeous morning and the promise of an even more gorgeous weekend. I saw the first pink blossoms on the flowering quince and plum trees today. I think the Groundhog might be wrong.

Happy weekend.

January’s Foggy Carpool Lane Issues

Last month some mid-year figures came in on the new toll increases that were put in place last July 1 and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission seems happy with them. But how are we doing? Has commute traffic decreased? Is the transporation agency making more money? How’s the casual carpool surviving?

On average per day, there were 1500 FEWER carpool cars crossing the Carquinez Bridge, and nearly 5,000 FEWER carpool cars crossing the Bay Bridge. There has been a daily drop of 11,407 carpool vehicles for all bridges combined (Antioch, Benicia, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond Oakland-Bay, and San Mateo).

The non-carpool daily traffic has increased by 5,045. Congestion at the Bay Bridge toll plaza has decreased slightly, by about a 4-minute gain for commuters.

The Transportation Commission is pleased. After the first six months, the toll take has increased by $68.4 million and there are a few thousand less cars on the bridge each day (the nexus of most of the morning congestion). Looks like the Commission is meeting its goals. For those of us who champion the shared ride concept, this is somewhat disheartening.

It makes it seem as though pre-toll increase on July 1, casual carpooling might have been creating more congestion on the bridge, and hindering toll revenue. I recently read a UC Berkeley study, done 3 years ago on these very issues. In this study, two Berkeley engineering professors took opposing views on the effectiveness of carpool lanes.

Professor Mike Cassidy found the HOV (high occupancy vehicle “carpool”) lanes to be effective in reducing traffic congestion, but thinks the lanes are not being used properly. “They need more flexibility – use the lanes as needed instead of at fixed times”. Pravin Varaiya, the other professor concluded that the under-used carpool lanes simply take up desperately needed space from the regular non-carpool traffic. “Not enough people use them.”

Some commuters think the drop in carpooling, and in all commuting vehicles is due to unemployment and dwindling jobs. And there has been an increase in BART ridership since last July – an 8% rise in the peak morning commute and that may account for a few former carpoolers who are disgruntled with the new tolls.

Another point in this murky debate is that there’s $21 billion of federal money at stake – billions allocated to double the HOV lanes statewide by 2020. Caltrans, who gets this budget and does the work must be slightly dismayed to see carpooling numbers decreasing. In an effort for greater HOV lane efficiency, Caltrans has increased enforcement of carpool cheating (fewer than 3 passengers in a car), and just last month, construction began on an added stretch of carpool lane to the bay area 680 freeway. There is also a plan underway to create “Express Lanes” within the carpool lanes. This allows single drivers to use the HOV lanes if they pay a fee, thereby, theoretically, better utilizing the carpool lane and de-congesting the other lanes of traffic.

While I understand (somewhat) the dilemma of these transportation agencies who all seem to be going broke, I am disappointed that there is no mention anywhere of environmental concerns. Our commuting hordes in their cars and trucks and SUVS are burning up gas and oxygen, while freeways are expanded in a futile attempt to accommodate them. More and more land is cemented over and we are all still stuck in traffic.

Another UC Berkeley study is due at the first anniversary of the new toll increases. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 1. And uh, looks like the fog is back with a vengeance! But I’m enjoying a lovely ride in a new Mercedes. A chatty, well-dressed fellow driving. He and the girl in the front seat discuss weather, the storms back east, and how lucky we are to be living in California. Her beautiful long brown hair bounces and sparkles as she talks. She’s from Benicia. “I grew up there.” The driver is a transplant from San Francisco (“We lived in the Laurel Heights neighborhood, and it was always foggy”) and is happy to have moved himself and his family to Benicia. I have no small children but I frequently hear praises sung about the outstanding quality of the Benicia schools.

We duck in and out of the fog as the driver sips his Mountain Dew. Shore birds and ocean grasses poke up through the foggy shoreline water looking like an abstract painting.

January Casual Carpooling Diary

TUESDAY, JANUARY 11. I’m in a Honda sedan, with Christmas decor hanging from the mirror – snowflakes, a silver angel with gold wings, a bell, plus a company parking pass. The driver takes an extra passenger, so we’re four in the car, and I see that she unabashedly accepts $1.25 from each of us. I wonder if she does that every time. The driver is youngish, wearing a jaunty black cap with a little brim. Traffic’s heavy, but the carpool lane moves along with no trouble.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 12. Its a bit warmer and because I’m running about 30 minutes later than usual, there’s more light in the morning sky. A much more optimistic way to start the day than in the damp, dark chill. The ride is a Toyota sedan, the driver a 50s something lady, pleasant. We all comment briefly on the warmer temperatures and then settle down. I saw a brief flash on the news this morning that UC Berkeley had just released a study on carpooling in the bay area – something I’ve been waiting for since the toll increase July 1.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 13. My ride’s a shiny new Mazda 3. Weather is wet sprinkles, but nothing serious. But ah, the sunrise – flaming orange and red! Guy driver is in his late 30s with a cute short, standing-on-end haircut. We pass a huge truck carrying a load of flattened cars. I try to count how many cars are squashed together, but give up. They’re too tightly smashed together, but it could total 100 cars. Fallen warriors taking their final freeway ride.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 14. I’ve ridden in this VW Jetta before. I remember the driver, but not the overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke, which I wasn’t aware of until we were underway. 60s something guy in Friday casual. Navy blue wool jacket, khaki trousers. There’s a handsome leather briefcase on the back seat next to me. The driver turns up the radio – KCBS – for the sports news and then switches to KFOG. He fiddles with the air dials and we get a blast of perfumed air – kinda spicy, a little floral. It’s not bad and it covers the cigarette smell pretty well. It’s a fast Friday light commute and we’re in the city in 35 minutes.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 18. 3 foggy days off work and now today we’re back and the sun is out. Fog still lingers in low spots along the freeway and out in the ocean. Traffic’s heavy and sluggish. The electric freeway sign near Hercules (yes, that’s a town, for you out-of-staters. Hercules was begun in 1881 as company housing for the California Powder Works – manufacturers of dynamite and other explosive products. The town’s name came from the company’s leading explosive product – Hercules Dynamite.) says it’s an hour to San Francisco. Usually it says 25 to 30 minutes. Quite a few non-carpool cheaters are ducking into our lane and slowing us down. The light holiday traffic is definitely over. I’m in a small Ford pickup truck, the kind with a back seat, but it’s small and the three of us are tightly tucked in. The driver’s a young guy, in his 30s. He spent his holiday (Martin Luther King, Jr Day yesterday) at the zoo in San Francisco with his kids a 5 year old girl, 10 year old boy.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 19. A beautiful morning, sun, clear air, about 50 degrees. The weather lady on Channel 4 this morning said it was 85 in L.A. The West Coast is drying out after a soggy beginning to this month. I’m in the back seat of a VW sedan. When I pass my $1.25 toll up, the driver holds out a glass jar that has a hand-lettered sign “$1.25 per person”. The front seat passenger gets in and says “I don’t have any change; I’ll catch you next time.” The driver is clearly not happy with this, but off we go. We enter San Francisco, basking in the California golden sun.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 20. Full moon. Gorgeous sunrise. I’m in a Nissan. Me and my big bag are squished into the front seat. Very heavy stop-and-go traffic in all lanes. The carpool lane is packed and moving even slower than the other 3 lanes. The driver is a round, jolly fellow, dressed all in black. Nearer to the bridge I see the tide is way out.

MONDAY, JANUARY 24. Four of us are in a Volvo sedan. It’s a chilly morning but the young Asian-American driver is not going to turn on the heat. In fact, I see the a.c. is on. I’m wedged into the front seat with my usual big bag. Traffic is plentiful, but moving between 40 and 50 mph. The warmer sunny weather should hang around this week, but this morning it’s the fog and sun light show. Beautiful. I’m earllier than usual, getting back into training for the May 15 Bay to Breakers. So I’ll stop at the gym before work. Groan.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 25. The thick fog swirls around us as we leave Vallejo. Visibility is nearly zero crossing the Carquinez Bridge. I’m in a Chevrolet SUV. A big bald guy is riding in the back seat, I’m in front with the driver. She’s early 50s casually dressed in sweater and slacks. “Your SF Giants” decal is on the windshield. No a.c. today but the heat is at the lowest possible setting and the car is quite cool. Something about the combination of damp and fog that makes it feel even colder. I add my toll payment to one of the cupholders which is holding a fat makeup brush.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 27. Long cold line today. Vallejo and the surrounding area is suffocating in the thickest, wettest fog I’ve seen. It is relentless, accompanied by a brisk icy-cold wind. After a 10 minute wait in the line of riders I’m in the back seat of a Toyota sedan. Mom is driving and her 12-year old daughter is in the back seat, next to me, doing homework, headphones plugged in. Radio is STAR 1013. We emerge from the fog, somewhere around El Cerrito and suddenly it’s a brilliantly sunny morning. Traffic drags past Berkeley and I enjoy the view across the bay of the city softened in a hazy morning glow. The power lines along the freeway are filled with small birds all in line enjoying the morning sun.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 28. The fog thickens. I’m in the back seat of a small Toyota. Feels like an unusually small interior, but I’m not sure of the model. The driver’s wearing her Friday jeans, hanging on to the steering wheel which is encased in a plastic cover featuring Betty Boop. The toll $ is important to her and she looks expectantly at me when I first get in, struggling with my bag, my seat belt, my bulky scarf, and then finally I pull the $1.25 out of my coat pocket. She drums her fingers on her tightly-jean-clad leg as we roll along. The dusk-light light has enveloped the entire bay area this morning.

MONDAY, JANUARY 31. The last day of the first month. Perhaps the fog is finally lifting. There’s a gorgeous sunrise with little pockets of fog hugging the low land areas.
I’m in the same Chevrolet SUV as last Tuesday, the one with the “YOUR SF GIANTS” decal on the windshield. The driver is again dressed casually, and I wonder where she works. Today’s news announces that construction begins on an underground subway link in the city, from the CalTrain station to Chinatown. Stockton Street, which runs alongside Union Square, will be torn up for a year and half.