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.

Rakin’ in the Tolls


As we move into the second year of higher bridge tolls, we casual carpoolers can be thankful that we have to come up with only $2.50 to cross our bridges – $3.00 for the Golden Gate Bridge. Starting July 1 the big rigs, those giant 5-axle behemoths, started paying $18 to cross bay area bridges, an increase of $6.75. Next July 1, 2012 their tolls will rise again – to $25. On the Golden Gate Bridge, the new toll for big rigs is $22, up from $15 and will also be raised next year to $30.

Hybrid owners who’ve been enjoying car pool privileges and rates lost that perk on July 1 and must now join their commuting brothers and sisters in the non-carpool lanes. The program was sponsored by California assemblywoman Fran Pawley seven years ago, as a motivating nudge to buy cars that consumed less fuel. Does this mean that drivers are now on a roll, purchasing hybrids hand over fist? Probably not, but it sure does mean more toll revenue. However, take a look at the DC area – in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, all hybrids have carpool privileges and they double the number of hybrids in the nearby Maryland suburbs where there is no special privilege for owning a hybrid vehicle. Go figure.

More California tolls are rolling in from the newly instituted use of carpool lanes as express lanes. (In express lanes single drivers may use carpool lanes for a toll-fee which is charged on their FastTrack transponder). Two Northern California freeways added the express lane program last year and now Los Angeles County has joined the club. “It’s really not meant so much as a revenue-generating device as it is a congestion-management device,” said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at the Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corp. Well Martin, that’s good to know because, for one thing, it appears to actually negate the original and splendid use of carpooling as a ‘congestion-management device’ and now it looks like a great deal of money is being invested in the program just to keep cheaters out.

On the Bay Area’s first such toll/express lane, Interstate 680 between Pleasanton and Milpitas, there’s a whole lotta cheatin’ goin’ on and toll road operators are installing cameras along the route in an attempt to catch the solo non-paying drivers. “This is not going to be 100 percent automated enforcement”, said Frank Furger, executive director of the I-680 Express Lane Joint Powers Authority. “We are looking into the ability of technology to supplement and work hand-in-hand with the CHP officers in enforcement. We don’t have the technology to determine the number of occupants in a car.” This new system will also involve the expense of comparing photographs of cars taken at various points along the lane, sending toll-payment notices to the cheaters, and whatever other actions are necessary to collect fees and fines. The Bay Area is in the process of expanding the express lanes throughout the 800-mile network of carpool lanes.

Toll lane revenue actually seems to be diminishing down south in Orange County. Use of the lanes is down from last year – roughly 11 million trips were recorded on the 91 Express Lanes in 2010, compared with 11.5 million the year before. Those numbers were already down from pre-recession annual totals of between 13 and 14 million trips. Seems like much ado and a lot of short-term thinking. But it’s costing commuters a lot of money.

Soon to come with the first annual toll report – how much more are we paying, and (ahem) how is that money being spent?

July Toll Anniversary Coming Up


MONDAY, JUNE 27
Looks like we’re not all on vacation this pre-July 4th week – about 30 riders grimly waiting in line this morning. A chilly, gray, overcast morning. I wait about 10 minutes and then here’s my ride – the back seat of a big Ford Flex. This SUV is a perfect fit for the driver who is a real big guy, easily 300 pounds. He’s wearing a snug short-sleeve red t-shirt and has a bluetooth device securely clamped into his right ear. KBLK on the radio and a big Starbuck’s beverage in his right hand. As I fumble for the seat belt latch my hand closes on a small metal object which turns out to be a tiny red car – a child’s toy. I put it into a pocket on the door. Manila folders filled with papers are stuffed into the back seat pockets of both front seats A sleeping lady is the front seat passenger and another exceptionally large fellow takes the other half (and then some) of the back seat next to me. Yes, we all pay $1.25 (that’s $3.75 for the $2.50 toll). But this driver undoubtedly could use some help with the gas – the Flex gets 24 mpg at best. There’s a dense fog bank along the coast and the sky gets darker the closer we get to San Francisco. Traffic is surprisingly heavy for a summer week, but we stay at the speed limit in the carpool lane and are in the city by 8 a.m.

This Friday, July 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the bridge toll increases in the bay area. I’ll be looking for the updated statistics and pass them along here. A couple of first-year reports have been promised – one from our friends the Bridge Toll Authority and another from the transportation studies people at UC Berkeley. July 1 also marks the end of the 7-year carpool lane privileges for the Hybrids among us. This is not just in the bay area – the new rule is for the entire state. And that means about 70,000 hybrids who’ve been sporting the carpool lane yellow stickers will be joining the ranks of the non-carpool lanes starting Friday. However, the white sticker owners, those drivers of compressed natural gas (CNG) and electric vehicles, will continue to enjoy the privilege of the carpool lane. It is hoped that sales of the CNG and electric cars will go up.

I think sales would go way up if the prices on these cars would go down. Cars cost a lot of money and hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles cost even more. A Honda Civic with compressed natural gas components costs $7,000 more than a normal model.

Valentine Carpool – Did you bring your pillow?


MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14
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.

This week – Other Tolls of Commuting


TUESDAY, DECEMBER 7
Dramatic fog with the sun breaking through is a lovely way to start the morning. I’m wedged in the back seat of a small sedan. I spot a plastic bag of tasty looking cookies next to the driver. I’m dieting (again) and my food radar is highly sensitive. Have you seen the latest reports on American obesity? 68 percent of us are either overweight or considered obese. I struggle to remain in the 32 percent group.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 8
What a rainy morning! I almost decided to take the ferry – the early morning news said there was a 3-car accident on the Bay Bridge and that several lanes were closed. At that time, they predicted a gridlock until 9 AM. But it cleared up quickly, so I decided to go with the carpool. An interesting ride in a Chevrolet 3-door pickup. The driver, a construction sub-contractor, talked at length about his tech toys. His phone does practically everything and can even produce a map and driving directions by voice activation. Traffic was still very heavy, so I and the lady rider in the back seat were treated to a series of short cuts around the freeway system. At first I had my doubts, but it actually saved us time and we eventually ended up in San Francisco at the usual time. I mentioned the express lane system that has just begun on the bay area carpool lanes and both of my companions were appalled, as am I, by this nutty idea. “Short-sighted”, exclaimed the driver. “it may bring in a few bucks for awhile, but before long, there will be too many cars and it won’t be worth it to commuters to pay extra for the lane”. I pointed out it that it would also impact the carpoolers by eventually ending the carpool advantage. “If the idea is to minimize the number of cars on the road and make it easier for commuters, funds should be spent on developing better mass transportation. More BART, more ferries, better connections between all the systems.”

As our shortcut took us past a part of the bay I had never seen up close before (somewhere near the Richmond Bridge), the driver reflected that most of the time he just accepts the long daily rides, but he realizes the toll it takes on his time – time away from family and relaxing. “I’m so tired when I get home at night, all I can do is fall into a chair. I spend 10 to 20 hours a week, just driving.” We all agree. The lady in the back seat added, “and if these tolls and fares go up any more, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m at my limit now.”

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 9
Today I’m in a big Chrysler (I think) sedan. I’m about to sink into the back seat and spread out with my large bag, when I’m joined by the rider who was in line behind me. Two ladies are in the front seat, so we’re a full load. Happily, it’s warm and feels wonderful – a lovely car. I shift around and get settled and the guy next to me asks the driver, “Mind if I crack the window?” She politely nods yes. Well, it’s more than a crack, and the air is cold. And I DO mind. He plugs ear phones into his head and zones out. I pull out my book and start reading and realize it’s getting COLDER. The jerk has increased the crack to halfway down. Now we have a damp cold breeze circulating through the car. I pull on my hat and wrap my scarf around my neck. Usually it’s the driver who calls the shots on the heat and general comfort of the car, not one of the riders, so I’m a bit surprised that the cold air isn’t bothering the ladies up front.

I turn my attention to the view. The fog is spectacular and as we approach the city, just the very tops of the tallest high-rises are jutting out of the foggy blanket.
The driver takes us up to Market, which is a nice extra; saves me 2 long blocks of walking to the bus stop, and I grab my bag and get out.

It’s only later at work that I realize I’ve left my book in the car. Damn, it’s a library book, too. Hopefully the driver will find it and contact me (are you out there?)

Rainy Day Commutes


A few reflections from the past week’s car pooling . .
The day before the Thanksgiving holiday was a good day to stay in bed – a cold, wet and dreary day. But I was out on the freeway. My ride was the back seat of a super-sized pick up truck. The driver was a very young-looking guy with an earnest way about him. He asked if I had enough room and drove carefully. A series of Spanish CDs serenaded us on our trip. Several earlier accidents slowed us down. Heavy traffic in and out of the city. I wonder if more people are driving and avoiding the ‘patting’ and screening mess at the airports.

The following Tuesday, November 30 was cold, but not freezing. There was another spectacular sun rise show this morning. Brilliant shades of crimson. My ride was a Honda sedan and started off well. A crisp, business-suited fellow at the wheel was very solicitous about the heat, the reclining features of the seat, room for my bag. However, once on the road he was a terror at the wheel. Driving too fast, zipping in and out of lanes. All made worse by the fact there was very light traffic and lots of room for him to be crazy in. We made the normally 50 to 60 minutes trip in 30 minutes.

Wednesday, December 1 was another cold commute. I rode in an older model Volvo sedan. Not a bad ride except that there was no heat in the car, although the driver appeared to be fiddling with the dials throughout the trip. It was really uncomfortable. I felt like asking for my toll money back. Traffic was heavy and slow, prolonging the agony, although the carpool lane kept moving between 20 and 40 mph. I thought about the impending express lane conversion and if it had been in place on this ride, we would all be moving at about 10 miles an hour.

Thursday, December 2 I’m in a WARM Toyota Prius. 60s something driver is crisply white-shirted and suited. Yet another amazing sunrise. KCBS radio is talking about the November 11 Fastrack screwup. That was the day that traffic on the Bay Bridge was halted for several hours because of the disturbed driver who claimed he had a bomb. In an attempt to get traffic moving, the California Highway Patrol instructed drivers to turn around and take another route, which many did. Unfortunately, Fastrack counted that as illegal, and all those drivers were billed an additional $56. The transportation officials are working to straighten this one out.

Friday, December 3 I’m snug and warm in a Honda sedan. It’s a damp cold morning. Friday light traffic and the news today is that the wrecking ball will begin demolishing what’s left of the Transbay Terminal. I walk past the demolition each morning on my way up to Market Street and my bus, and today I stop for a final look. The old building is pretty well hollowed out, the roof and windows are gone. A surprising number of people have stopped to look and take pictures. The wrecking ball will strike at 10 a.m., after I’m at work. I say goodbye and trudge on.

Monday, December 6.
A break today in the week-end storm. No cars yet, but it’s not a long wait. I’m in the back seat of a Toyota. The driver is distracted as I and the front seat passenger get in. He seems to be reading an auto repair bill, and barely acknowledges us and our toll money. He’s wearing a cell phone ear device and a too-small black fedora style hat. With his black jacket and glasses, he looks like one of the Blue Brothers. Traffic is heavy so it’s slow-going this morning. I stay immersed in my book (The Coming, by Joe Haldeman) and have tuned out much of the ride, but I sense that this fellow is an aggressive driver. It really shows as we exit the bridge and get in the drop off line. A car cuts in front of him and he goes nuts. Tail gating and obviously angry. He’s further annoyed by the fact that the other rider and I do not spring from the car as he approaches the line. When we finally get out, the other passenger and I agree the guy was a road-rager and will not ride with him again.

Once again I walk past the rapidly vanishing old Terminal building, and although much of the building is now rubble, what shocked me was the destruction of the two 3-story pine trees that had been in front of the building, probably since it went up. I guess I knew they would go, but it’s hard to see trees that were so beautiful and majestic hacked down.

Monday, November 29 The Tolls are Rolling in!


Damn! Ice on the windshield this morning, and it’s 28 degrees. I am happy to see a long line of cars waiting for riders so no waiting in the cold. It’s a beautiful clear morning and a rosey-hued sunrise is pushing up over the horizion. I’m in a commercial electric contractor’s Ford pickup. I’ve ridden with him before. I like him, like his truck and like his radio choices. Today it’s NPR and the buzz is all about the WikiLeaks. He switches the dial to classical piano (a Bach sonata) which is a nice accompaniment to the view of the bay this morning. The sun is now up and the water is so calm it looks like frozen ice. The city is looking lovely as usual in this golden light. A few stray ducks flap along over the water.

The toll gates at the bridge are a backed-up mess for the non carpoolers. It’s one of those moments when I renew my love for the casual carpool. In spite of the toll crazies and the occasional cantankerous ride, it is still such an amazing system. But it seems that Caltrans and some of our other transportation officials don’t see it that way. Take a look at Michael Cabanatuan’s front page article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle (“Toll Lane on I-680 Working as Planned”). I talked about this issue in my September 10 Blog – “The Express Lanes Are Coming”.

What is going on is this: the 800 miles of carpool lanes in the bay area are being converted into Express Lanes, the southbound Interstate 680 over the Sunol Grade being the first to go. An Express Lane means that single drivers can use the carpool lanes by paying a toll, tallied by the ever-lovin’ FasTrack transponder. Sure, carpoolers can continue to use the lanes for free but as I suspected, the increased use by the single, paying drivers is adding congestion to the carpool lane. One carpooler commented, “It used to take me 50 minutes (to get from San Ramon to San Jose) but now it takes me 10 to 15 minutes longer.” I predict it’s just going to get worse.

The story comments on the toll revenue that has already been made, as though this is a marker of the ‘success’ of the new Express Lane plan. Cabanatuan reports, “In its first two months of operation, the lane has collected $105,611.” It is expected to eventually bring in about $5 million a year. The cost of setting this up, reconfiguring this one lane on this one portion of a single freeway (electronic toll-collection equipment) was about $37.6 million.

Of course, Caltrans claims that it is helping to de-congest the traffic. “it gives people some stability in their commute and the ability to get from point A to point B in a fixed period of time.” If you can tell me exactly what that means, go for it. I would also like Caltrans to tell me (and all of us who commute) why this is a better way to spend millions of dollars to accommodate cars instead of coming up with an effective public transportation plan.