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  • Waiting for a ride

Carpooling Surveys – From Berkeley to Vallejo to Marin County


It seems as though everyone’s interested in taking a survey about casual carpooling this spring. The University of California was passing out survey forms last month at the Vallejo carpool line – they’re compiling information on the effects of the first year of bridge tolls on carpools. The information will be available around July 1, the anniversary date of the toll taking. (stay tuned)

Last week two ladies from 511 Rideshare had a little table set up at the Vallejo carpool line, passing out questionnaires to riders. “We’re following up on last year’s survey”, the smiling Rideshare lady said. The 21 questions on the self addressed, postage paid mailer survey ask everything from ‘How Often Do You Commute by Casual Carpool’, to ‘Annual Income’. Remember that 511 Rideshare is run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority, the same folks who brought us the tolls for casual carpool.

We talked about the surveys in my ride that day (a spic-and-span Honda sedan), the driver an American Airlines employee wearing little wings on her jacket lapel. The other passenger, a lady in the front seat, refused to take the questionnaire. “Last time I filled out one of those they started charging toll! Uh,uh, not again.” “Anything they can do to get money from us, they do!” she added. I mentioned the express lanes (existing carpool lanes that are gradually being converted to single-driver/toll lanes throughout the northern California carpool system). Neither of them had heard about that.

“I make so many trips back and forth to the airport”, the airlines lady said. “If it weren’t for the carpool lane, I just couldn’t afford to do it, time-wise or money-wise. But I don’t know if I want to be paying toll in an express lane.”

We all agreed that the carpool lane/system is being exploited to produce additional revenue. An unwise-move, I believe, that may eventually wipe out carpooling altogether.

There’s yet another survey/questionnaire in the works. This one I heard about through Gilda, a reader of this very blog. Gilda lives in Marin and is a regular commuter to San Francisco. There has been no casual carpool set up in Marin County and Gilda has diligently pursued a way to make it happen.

She e-mailed me a few weeks ago with great news. “I am delighted to report that TAM (Transportation Authority of Marin) is now in the planning stage of creating and possibly launching a carpool program in Marin!” Gilda has been invited to be a part of that planning process and that is where the questionnaire comes in. TAM will compile the results and hopefully get those rides and riders going!

If you live in Marin and would like to participate, go to http://www.MarinCarpool.com and take the survey. It’s very short and concise, and easy to do.

Gilda says, “I hope you’ll join me in this exciting possibility to finally bring carpooling on a grand scale to Marin resulting in a far better quality of life for us all.” Kudos to you Gilda! And to all of us who carpool.

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.

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.