The Lesson of the 405


Monday, July 18 Sunny pleasant Monday morning with a ride in the front seat of a Toyota Prius. Our driver is a 30s something lady wearing gray sweat pants and a brown sweater. I drop my $1.25 into the cup holder and off we go. We’re hardly 2 miles down the road when traffic starts drastically slowing down. Fearing the worst we crane our necks peering over the traffic to see what disaster lies ahead. All we see is a CHP officer standing by the side of the road with a small pick up truck and driver. One of those never to be solved freeway mysteries. Traffic picks up and we’re soon rolling along again at 60 mph. The driver tells me she’s somewhat new to casual carpooling. “I’ve been enjoying the yellow sticker privileges because of the Prius”, she says. “But no more”. Sounds like she’s been enjoying the luxury and privacy of being a single driver as well. But I point out that now she’s completely toll-free, with two paying passengers covering her toll. She agrees, and says it’s not bad at all. As we near San Pablo, once again there is slowing, and looking down the hill we see traffic completely stopped in all lanes. The sight of an empty freeway makes me think there’s been an horrendous accident, but once again there seems to be nothing going on and traffic mysteriously resumes.

Seeing the empty lanes brought to mind recent images of this past weekend’s closing of 10 miles of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. Perhaps you saw those pictures of that beautifully empty freeway, stretching car-free into the distance. As a former driver of the 405, I have never experienced even light traffic on that route, so it was an amazing sight, indeed. L.A. officials feared the worst with the closing, and a “Carmageddon” was predicted with snarled traffic and backups galore.

Instead, the much publicized week-end began on Saturday morning with nearly deserted streets – the major intersection of the Interstate 405 and Sunset Boulevard was empty except for a few police officers. And all they had to deal with was a group of curious trespassers with cameras, hoping to get a photo of the historic event. Officers at other major intersections simply stood at the ready, with nothing to do.

The weekend closing allowed the demolition of a portion of a bridge that crosses over the 405 freeway. Later in the year, the freeway will be closed once again while the other half of the bridge is torn down. The demolition is part of a plan that will extend L.A. Basin CARPOOL LANES, (yay!) connecting Orange County to the San Fernando Valley.

In a somewhat eccentric move, JetBlue offered flights from Burbank to Long Beach (a distance of 40 miles, about the amount of my carpool commute from Vallejo to San Francisco) for $4.00 during the freeway closure. They sold out.

Responding to the absurdity of flying on a jet for 40 miles, a group of six bicyclists, from a Los Angeles bike group called Wolfpack Hustle challenged Jet Blue, claiming they would arrive in Long Beach before the airline. And they did. Both the bikers and the fliers left from the same intersection in North Hollywood at 10:50 a.m. on Saturday morning. The six pedalers arrived in Long Beach an hour and 20 minutes BEFORE the passengers on Jet Blue. Although the flight itself lasted only 20 minutes, ground transportation and security gave the bikers the edge.

Another Angelino decided to take public transportation and made the trip in 2 hours, 2 minutes, proving, he said, “that there are transportation alternatives, even in L.A.”

The obvious lesson here is that there are ways to get around without a car and without depending on freeways. Although we are not all about to leap onto our bicycles each morning for a 40 mile commute to our jobs, the L.A. story, ridiculous as it may seem (405 t-shirts being sold along the freeway, drivers honking and cheering when the freeway re-opened, exotic snacks and a 405-decorated cake served on the Jet Blue flights) proves that we humans are an ingenious lot. If those committed 405 commuters were able to abandon their freeway for 53 hours, just think what the rest of us car junkies might accomplish if we started to seriously consider, and demand alternatives. Those of us in the casual carpool are off to a very good start.

Wednesday, July 28 The Old Transbay Terminal – last chance to see it


I arrive at the Vallejo carpool line at 7:30 a.m. and am greeted with a wonderful long line of cars, all patiently waiting. My ride is a VW Passat, a great car. I recognize this driver and have ridden with him before. Suit and tie guy in his 50s, careful driver, nice temperature in the car. I give him $1, the rear passenger gives $1.25 and off we go. Traffic is still vacation-light and when we reach the toll gates, they are nearly empty. I glance at the on-going new bridge construction and remember this is an historic day for the new bay bridge. The first piece of the 525 foot tower will be put in place today. Once completed and lit up, it’s going to make a powerful architectural statement – one giant tower holding the cables for the 4 1/2 mile span.

Another major transportation project begins next week with the closing of the old Transbay Terminal at 1st and Mission Streets. Check out the website (www.transbaycenter.org). The proposed animated sketches you see are a HUGE departure from the old building – very light and airy. Construction on the new permanent terminal, which will be located where the old one now stands, will be ongoing for the next 7 years, and will centralize the region’s entire transportation network, including Caltrain and the High Speed Rail.

When the old terminal closes next Friday, August 6, all bus service will move to the new temporary terminal at Howard and Main Streets. A full list of bus stops at the temporary terminal can be seen at http://www.temporaryterminal.org. Us casual carpoolers, who line up on Beale, between Howard and Folsom, will have a front row view of the action at the temporary terminal, which is right across the street from our line up area.

The changes aren’t good news for everyone. Besides displacing a number of permanent homeless residents who’ve come to call the Terminal home, the demolishing of the 70-year old structure will end the lives of the giant trees that have provided shade, homes for hundreds of birds and one of the few living green environments in the south-of-Market chaos.

If you want a last look at the old terminal before it’s blasted away, there are hourly guided tours this FRIDAY, JULY 30. Meet at the ground floor entrance at 1st & Mission Street at noon, 1 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm or 4 pm.

Tuesday, July 27 Remembering the Jitneys


Yawn, shiver. It’s 6:45 a.m. and 55 degrees in the Vallejo carpool line. Happily I’m quickly in a Toyota 2-door pickup truck. No heat, but it’s bearable. The driver is a large, almost sumo-looking fellow and he’s probably not feeling much chill. I plop $1.25 into the little tray between the seats – “thanks” – and we exchange comments on the state of this miserable ‘summer’ weather. KOIT radio, light rock, less talk, and light traffic too, today.

I often think about an earlier version of car-sharing that San Francisco commuters enjoyed in years past. The Mission Street Jitney. If you were around in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s (or earlier), you probably know about the Jitneys, the cars that ran up and down Mission Street, picking up passengers on nearly every corner. A ride at that time cost a dime, although the term “jitney” was slang for a nickel, which was originally the standard fee. The first time I saw a jitney I was relatively new to the City, having just moved here in 1967 from St. Louis. What I saw was an oversized black car pull up to a curb on Mission Street. A couple of people jumped out and another person jumped in. There was a clandestine, almost sinister feel to the activity, and I remember wondering if I was witnessing a CIA or FBI operation of some sort, or perhaps some criminal activity. I became even more alarmed when, a few blocks later, I saw the same thing happening again. At the time I didn’t see any signs on the cars or on the curb indicating that this was a licensed form of public transport. Later, when the jitneys were gone and I learned what jitneys were, I was sorry I’d never had the opportunity to ride in one. Over-regulation and the advent of BART finally did them in.

They first appeared in San Francisco in 1914 as transportation for the workers and attendees to the World’s Fair (the Panama-Pacific International Exposition). By 1915 there were over 1400 private Jitney operators and that number doubled within a few years as they provided transportation for suburbanites coming into San Francisco. Many people moved to Oakland after the 1916 earthquake, along with some Jitneys, and the Jitneys would transport them from various spots in Oakland to the ferries that crossed the bay.

As the years passed, Jitneys upgraded their cars and some even became mini-vans, but the spirit of the Jitney remained. A fast, personalized service with a variety of driver and car styles and a natural flexibility. Sounds a lot like the casual carpool, don’t you think?

An Early Jitney Driver

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.

Wednesday & Thursday, July 21 & 22 and Carpool, the series!


More of the same on WEDNESDAY morning (gray skies, chilly wind) except that there’s a very long lineup of cars, about 20, waiting. Few riders. I’m in the front seat of an Infinity with a pleasant young guy at the wheel. I tuck a dollar into the cup holder. He thanks me and says, “Gotta pay for those budgets.” He sounds dubious about how the money is spent, and I agree with him when he comments,”Those bridges bring in a lot of money.” I’m about 30 minutes later than usual which may account for the very heavy traffic. This lovely car has a compass which tells us we’re going East, Southwest, and an outside thermometer that reads 55 degrees.

THURSDAY morning’s ride is a Honda CR-V. A no-nonsense red-haired lady is driving. The passenger in the rear meekly offers her $1.25, which the driver sternly inspects and tucks away. I put $1 in the cup holder. No comment. This weather will never change. It is like a time loop that keeps repeating – cold – gray – the 80 freeway. We slog along toward the city, covered in a gray flannel blanket of fog. The driver slips her transponder out of a silver envelope as we approach the toll plaza. I ask her if it is new and she says, “Yes, I didn’t want one before the carpool toll started. I had one 10 years ago and they charged me for toll during the time I was out of town on vacation for 2 weeks. Took 6 months to get the credit.” She says you have to check your FasTrak bills on a regular basis to be sure you are being charged correctly. There’s some advice from the world of no-nonsense to you.

Now here’s some very good stuff and nonsense, too. And something fun for you to check out while we’re waiting for the weather to warm up – a British weekly internet TV show called CARPOOL. Yes, it’s true, and it’s a very clever idea created by British actor Robert Llewellyn. Each segment is a half-hour interview, done in a car, with a well-known personality or celebrity (well, well-known in the U.K., anyway) from the fields of science, theater, tv or technology. Llewellyn produces the show and interviews the guest celebrity while he drives them somewhere in his car. The information is fascinating and as a carpooler you will find it a very familiar setting. Besides the novelty of watching someone driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the car and road!

You can view the series on this link: http://www.llewtube.com

Wednesday, July 14 Riding and Counting


Several carpool rides have passed since my last blog on Monday morning. MONDAY EVENING: the return commute was nice and easy. The line in San Francisco was short and moving quickly. I squeezed into the back seat of a Honda 2-door. There was no mention of toll. The driver and rider in the front seat commute together daily. I join their lively conversation about walking and exercise, and learn that the woman passenger regularly walks the Vallejo waterfront as do I. We talk about what a great 3-mile walk it is. I did it frequently during my Bay to Breakers ‘training’. The driver says he used to jog and was in great shape, jogging around Lake Merritt in 9 minutes! He laments his out of shape condition, and we encourage him to walk the waterfront. As we pass through the toll booth his FasTrack transponder does not beep, and he says it hasn’t for awhile. He also thinks the FasTrack people are overcharging him. I urge him to call them, get a new transponder and be sure they know he uses it in the carpool lane. Before I get out of the car I leave $1 for toll which he greatly appreciates. TUESDAY MORNING: No waiting this morning and I ride in a Ford 2-door pickup truck. The driver, who introduces himself – Brian – works in construction. The truck is a company truck, so no toll worries here. He’s resigned to the tolls, “it’s the economy “, he says. “The times we live in.” We chat about family and work. A nice ride. WEDNESDAY MORNING (TODAY): I’m off to a late start. Our hot water heater stopped working last night, so my go-to-work preparations were delayed by having to deal with very cold water. Wakes you up! But there’s no line of riders today, just a long line of cars waiting and I am in the front seat of a black Mitsubishi Evolution X. It looks like there’s $1.25 already in the cup holder (from the rear seat passenger), so I add mine. The driver is a young Asian-American looking snappy in a crisp blue-striped shirt and suit pants. I see the jacket and tie in the back seat. He’s an aggressive driver, doing 80 mph and flying by the three non-carpool lanes until a Camry pulls out in front of us. True to form, he tailgates, but then traffic gets heavy in all the lanes and we’re all moving at about 45 mph to the toll area.

As I ride, I count. I am paying an additional $50 per month toll contribution – $600 a year. The BATA (Bay Area Toll Authority) estimates that the carpool toll alone will raise approximately $30 million dollars a year. The revenue from the carpool toll will go towards the seismic retrofit projects on the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges, estimated at $750 million to complete.

It will also go towards the overruns on the $6 billion (plus) cost of the Bay Bridge retrofit. Steve Heminger, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a 3-person panel overseeing the Bay Bridge Project, said “any cost over-runs on the Bay Bridge will have to be covered through toll revenue.”

The retrofit project became a priority after the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. You undoubtedly remember the chilling photographs of the bridge buckling during the quake, when a motorist was killed on the east span of the Bay Bridge. In 1992 a UC Berkeley team estimated retrofit of the east span to cost up to $200 million. In 1995, Caltrans proposed replacing rather than retrofitting the bridge, due to the high cost, however the report on a replacement for the east span came in at $843 million in 1996. Go figure. $200 million versus $843 million? In 1997 Governor Wilson announced that the eastern span would be rebuilt, and workshops, design submissions, panel recommendations were in the works until June, 1998 when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved the bridge design at a cost of $1.5 billion. What? January 2002 saw the east span groundbreaking, with Caltrans announcing the new bridge would open in 2007. In March 2003 Caltrans increased the cost estimate to $3 billion, citing the unique scale and complexity of the project. Estimates continued to increase, until last December when the estimated cost reached $6.3 billion. Yikes. Whatever happened to that 1992 $200 million retrofit estimate?

$30 million annual revenue from carpool toll
$750 million retrofit Antioch and Dumbarton Bridges
$6.3 billion Bay Bridge rebuild

My $50 a month: chump change. In every sense of the word.

Friday June 24 A Carpool Lane by any other name is an Express Lane?


It’s a repeat of the last couple of mornings – cold and overcast. Another long line-up of riders. My ride is the front seat of an Accura SUV. The driver is immersed in soccer on KNBR Radio and gulping coffee. An icy air conditioner is on, with the vent blasting away at me. I quickly close the vent, but the car is still chilly enough that I’m uncomfortable. Heavier traffic than I usually see on Fridays, but the carpool lane is doing 60 mph. Or should I now say the “Express Lane?”

There’s a plan afoot to transform the carpool lanes in the Bay Area (did you realize there are 400 miles of carpool lanes here?) into optional single driver express lanes. Single drivers will be permitted in these lanes if they pay a toll (anywhere between $1 and $5). The amount will be determined by the amount of traffic and speed as measured by sensors installed in the pavement. Car poolers, buses,and hybrids with permits will still be able to use these lanes free of charge. The heavier the traffic, the higher the toll, so that single drivers would be discouraged from entering the lane when the commute is extremely heavy. Transportation officials want to keep these lanes moving at 45 mph.

The toll will be calculated via FasTrak through overhead antennas mounted along the way. CHP will allegedly be able to catch ‘cheaters’ by visual and electronic monitoring. I would hope their efforts will be more effective with this express lane situation than what I’ve seen in the existing carpool lane. Single drivers regularly duck into the carpool lane when traffic gets heavy on the 80 freeway. I could count on just one hand the number of times I’ve seen a cheater pulled over in the 5 years I’ve been carpooling. And single drivers really stand out from the cars with 3 or 4 passengers. In a single driver/express situation, visual identification of a cheater would be challenging, to say the least.

The first stretch of carpool lanes to permit single “express-toll” drivers will be opened September 20 on the Sunol Grade. That’s 14 miles of Highway #680, between Fremont and Milpitas. The express lane will be open as a toll lane from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. Regional transportation planners hope to have this system in place throughout the freeway system. The next two sections to be opened for express drivers next year are an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 580, through Livermore, and in San Jose, the connecting freeway between Interstate 880 and Highway 237.

According to SF Chronicle reporter Michal Cabanatuan’s article on June 23 (“Solo in Fast Lane – For a Price”) the “Metropolitan Transportation Commision’s plan for the next 25 years calls for spending $3 -7 billion to create a regional toll-lane network that would convert the existing 400 miles of carpool lanes into toll lanes available to solo drivers.”

Ingenius, isn’t it. Yet another scheme to squeeze more money out of commuters so that there can be more cars on the road. You may have guessed how Commuter Gal feels about this. It feels like another way to disregard the carpooling system, which doesn’t pay as much as a non-carpooling system. I’m guessing that a number of people who somewhat reluctantly pick up riders so they can use the carpool lane, will instead become express lane single drivers. Admittedly, not everyone will want to spend the extra dollars on top of the increased bridge toll for their commute, but I think enough people will so that it will create fewer available drivers and more carpool lane congestion.

And what was the estimated cost for doing this again – oh yes $3 – $7 BILLION?? I bet there’s another way to use that kind of money that would decrease auto traffic and increase carpooling, bus, train, and van transportation, dontcha think?

Enough. A warm weekend looms. Enjoy your time off the freeway.