Riding in a Fit


Wednesday, March 30
So this morning I thought I’d come in a bit later and see if the long line of riders that I encounter at 6:45 a.m is any different at 7:15 a.m. Yes! No waiting! I hopped right into the back seat of a snappy Honda Fit. Since this is a car we are considering purchasing, I was especially happy to have a close up look at this car as a passenger. I have seen very few of these on the road. Our driver was an intense kind of guy looking very much like Charlie Sheen. He had a killer grip on the steering wheel and was hunched over like Mad Max. His subdued clothing color, slate-colored dress shirt, dark grey trousers, complimented the black and gray interior of the car.

I commented on the short line as I got in and explained I was trying a later departure. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he hollered. “There’s no pattern, no pattern at all! Sometimes there’s a line, sometimes there’s not!” Okay.

Our front seat passenger got in and we were on our way. The Fit seemed smaller than our Hyundai Elantra, but leg room was ample and the seating was very comfortable. The Fit is a hatchback and I checked out the space behind the rear seat. It is smaller than a conventional car trunk, but one of the rear seats of the car folds down, allowing more luggage/hauling space.

The driver loves the car. “I have a $98,000 Mercedes – it’s been in the shop 4 times already. I’ve got 60,000 miles on this Fit and it hasn’t needed a thing. I get 37 miles per gallon on the freeway.” All good stuff to consider.

To my amazement, we see a California Highway Patrol take off to corral a carpool lane cheater, lights flashing as he herds the hapless single driver over to the side of the road. I’m amazed because I rarely see CHPs out here, or anywhere. And then, about 5 miles further down the road, it happens again! Another CHP car pulls over a carpool cheater. This must be the Carpool Crackdown day for the 80 Freeway.

Our Mad Max driver moves right along, even taking the 40 mph zone on the construction part of the Bay Bridge at 50 mph (whee – a thrill on that curve! my life quickly flashing before my eyes) and we are in the city within 45 minutes. He kindly extends the ride up to Market Street where I catch my bus and he zooms off. In a Fit.

Out Like a Lamb


Tuesday, March 29
It’s a golden California morning and the view from the carpool is of velvety green hills, dotted with yellow and purple wild flowers – thanks to above normal rainfall over the past weeks – we’re at 113% above average rainfall for the season. I’m enjoying the ride from a big Toyota Highlander and a comfortable ride it is. There were about 60 of us waiting for a ride this morning, a 15 minute wait. I’m riding with 2 other passengers. Two ladies in the back seat. The driver is a casually dressed red haired guy, probably in his 50s, navy blue sweatshirt, casual dark pants, styrofoam coffee cup in the drink well. A string of kukui-nuts hangs from the rear view mirror.

A weird commercial on the radio for bacon and ice cream at Denny’s starts us talking about food. “A friend of mine told me about a vegan restaurant in the Mission and I tried it, even though I’m not vegan”, the driver says. “And it was delicious!” I agree that the occasional vegan dish is fine, but even though I’m not much of a meat eater, I could never give up cheese and eggs. (Or whipping cream for that matter.) “The Mission is full of wonderful food,” I add. “Arizmendi Bakery, The Pie Shop and several terrific taquerias.”

We talk about the frustrations of preparing healthy meals at home while being a commuter. “There’s no time.” “That’s why you need Trader Joe’s,” the driver says. I lament that there is none in Vallejo, or Benicia. “I’ve heard that either a Trader Joe’s or a Fresh and Easy is due to open in Vallejo”, he tells me. I tell him I sometimes stop at the Pinole Trader Joe’s (on the commute route home) but sometimes the temptation to stop at the nearby In N Out in Pinole is too great to resist. We all agree In N Out is delish.

We’re crossing the Bay Bridge under a beautiful blue clear sky, such a treat after the endless gray days. Warmer weather is predicted this week, and our stormy March is going out like a lamb.

A Long Way from St. Louie


FRIDAY, MARCH 18
Delighted to step right into a car with no wait this cold drizzly morning. I recognize car and driver from an earlier ride this week. This is an older Lexus, very comfy and warm. Dad is driving and his little boy is sleeping in the back seat. Similar situation as another ride this week, with a dad driving to work and taking his son to school in San Francisco. Like the other dad, they are somewhat new to the area and to the Casual Carpool. “I might switch him to a Vallejo school after we get to know the area better”. We chat about the weather, carpooling and then discover we have both lived in St. Louis. He was born there and lived there until 1999, when he moved – first to Las Vegas, before coming to San Francisco.

I lived in St. Louis for only 5 years, arriving a few days before the Kennedy assassination and leaving for California in 1967, the year the St. Louis arch was completed. We have a great time talking about the grand old city on the Mississippi River. “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League” was the old reference to St. Louis when the St. Louis Browns baseball team was there, apparently not doing very well, when Anheuser Bush and over 50 other breweries were brewing the beer, and when George Warren Brown started what became a huge shoe manufacturing industry (remember Buster Brown shoes?) in St. Louis. “The breweries are pretty well gone”, he says. I imagine most of the shoe factories are, too. It’s hard to find a pair of shoes made in the U.S. today. And the St. Louis Cardinals have redeemed the the city’s baseball reputation by winning the World Series – 10 times! In 1926, 1932, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964 (when I lived there), 1967, 1982, and just a few years ago in 2006.

He misses St. Louis. “I liked Las Vegas – it was a lot of fun, but I’ve never really felt at home in California. St. Louis is my town.” Turns out he’s a singer, part of a group who sang with the Temptations in Las Vegas. “That’s why I left St. Louis, for the job in Vegas. It was a great time.”

He was at rehearsal last night, getting ready to audition on the new Simon Cowell talent show this fall – The X Factor, the British show that spawned American Idol. How’s that for a Casual Carpool ride!

Welcome to the Casual Carpool


WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16
The long line of riders moves along as the cars pull up and I get into a bright orange VW sedan. A boy about 8 years old is in the back seat, on his way to school in the City. The driver is relatively new to the Casual Carpool – he moved to Vallejo from Treasure Island about 2 months ago. “Even with the $600 in gas and tolls each month, the house we found in Vallejo is a much better deal than we could have gotten closer to the City”.

He comments on the number of single drivers who ‘cheat’ and creep into the carpool lane. “I’ve never seen the highway patrol on this freeway.” I tell him about the proposed express lanes that will gradually become part of California’s carpool lane system (single drivers can use carpool lanes by paying a toll – see my June 24, 2010 blog “A Carpool Lane By Any Other Name is an Express Lane?”). We discuss whether it will reduce congestion (probably not), but that it will put more dollars into the transportation agencies’ budgets. “And reduce the effectiveness of the carpool lane”, I add.

We talk about living on Treasure Island. “Not good” he says. The housing is small, ugly, and robberies are a common occurrence. “They’re military barracks, and they all have sliding glass doors which are real easy to break into.” Plus there’s no amenities, like grocery stores, banks, libraries, etc. He’s happy they moved.

A most unusual and strange looking squat action sort of figure sits on his dashboard, pressed against the windshield. It is a fierce bright yellow. “What is that?” I ask. “Oh, it came with the car. I like it there looking out at the freeway. It keeps me company and watches out for me.” We laugh and agree it looks like an angry pac man.

“So how is the Casual Carpool working out for you?” “I like it. My time is important to me, and the carpool saves me time. I appreciate riders giving me money for the toll, although not everyone does. Some people just give me a quarter, some people give nothing, but most people are okay. It’s a good system.”

March Views from the Carpool


TUESDAY, MARCH 8
It’s a gray morning with a dramatic, moody sky full of clouds and glimmers of the sunrise. I’m comfortable in the back seat of a Honda CRV (an unusually roomy and comfy SUV). The driver is a mellow relaxed fellow in his 30s. Long light brown pony tail, a short bristly beard, wearing jeans. The front seat passenger is a 60s something lady who settles into a book. Traffic’s heavy but we’re all trudging along at about 50 mph. “I’ve been driving the casual carpool for about 3 years and it’s great”, he says. He started carpooling “the last time gas was $5 a gallon”. (Looks like we’re about to go there again.)

Nearing Berkeley I see the tide is way out with lots of muddy shore and a variety of gulls and small water birds plodding about in the mud. We zoom past the gridlocked toll plaza and join very congested bay bridge traffic. Wow – the new bridge is shaping up and that tower is beginning to loom!

In a couple of months, around Memorial Day, all drivers on the bridge are going to shift lanes when the Caltrans bridge crew nudges the eastbound traffic lanes over (that’s traffic headed towards Oakland, away from SF) to make room for more construction. The lanes will change where the bridge ends, or what Caltrans called the ‘Oakland Touchdown’. This is the area where eastbound drivers emerge from the darkness of the lower deck into daylight; the change should be a minor one – nothing like the S-curve going into the city that was implemented in the fall of 2009.

You can check it out in greater detail at http://www.baybridgeinfo.org. The new span, all $6.3 BILLION of it, is scheduled to open in both directions in 2013.