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  • Waiting for a ride

July Toll Anniversary Coming Up

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.

Tuesday, August 3 The popular cars

Plenty of cars once again, and my ride today is an older Hyundai sedan. Driver is a big guy and the rear seat passenger is too. I feel small and squashed in the front seat, which has been moved forward to accommodate Mr. Big Guy in the rear. Traffic is plentiful, too, but all lanes are moving at 65 mph and then some. I put a dollar in the little tray under the dash (it doesn’t look like the other rider contributed, unless the driver tucked it away). It’s drizzly and grey and this morning’s local weather people say today will be the warmest of the week, with even cooler weather ahead through the weekend. We need a break! I’m sick of this.

We’re listening to KFOG radio and staying warm with the heater on (thank you!). The radio folks are talking about the most popular stolen car this year, which is the Cadillac Escalade, a vehicle I don’t think I’ve ever ridden in. I had to look up the Escalade and see exactly what it is – it’s a big, luxury SUV, that actually comes with a standard antitheft ignition immoblizer. Which should prevent it from being started without a real key. But thieves, ingenious devils that they are, simply put these vehicles on flatbed trucks and haul them away. Number two on the most popular cars to steal is the Ford F-250 crew 4WD (2008 and 2009 models). I was amazed to see the Hummer appear as Number six on the list – it seems like it would be quite a feat to steal a Hummer, and to keep it stolen! However, most car thefts are SUVs, especially the big luxury types, and large pickups. And most stolen vehicles are plundered for their parts, rather than for the ride itself; pickups are frequently stolen because they commonly carry tools and equipment, which can be sold.

The top ten most frequently stolen cars, then are:
1. the Escalade
2. the Ford F0250
3. Infiniti 637
4. Dodge Charger HEMI
5. Chevrolet Corvette
6. Hummer HW
7. Nissan Pathfinder Armada
8. Chevrolet Avalanche 1500
9. Chevrolet Silverado 1500 crew
10. GMC Yukon

So what do you think the safest car is (safe, that is from being stolen)? It’s the Volvo S80, followed by Saturn VUE, Nissan Murano, Honda Pilot, Subaru Imprez, Toyota Prius, Mini Cooper (a surprise to me!), Toyota Tacoma double, and the Toyota Sienna.

The car I drive, a Hyundai Elantra, made neither list. And most of the cars I carpool in frequently are not on those lists either, although I have ridden in three of the ‘safe’ cars – the Prius, the Mini Cooper, the Toyota Tacoma. I’ve had one ride in a Hummer (a real non-event) and I felt like I had betrayed humanity just by being a carpool passenger in one of those overgrown, ostentatious gas guzzlers.

With the exception, maybe, of the Prius, I would like to see all of those cars vanish and be replaced with cars whose lifeblood is not petroleum. And these cars are in the works. Nissan has already produced the LEAF, a little electric hatchback that gets 100 miles on a charge, and is a good little car for daily commutes. Chevrolet is about to launch the VOLT later this year, an electrical hybrid with a gasoline backup. Next year there will be more to choose from, and at better prices. These hybrids and electrics are still pretty pricey, however there are federal and some state tax breaks that bring the prices down a bit.

With the future of ‘popular’ cars looking smaller, less grotesque, and consuming little or no gas, I wonder what the the car thieves will go after then? Maybe they can just raid the salvage yards. That’s where those popular cars belong.

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

Friday, July 16 Days of Contention

Casual Commuters lining up in Lincoln Park, San Francisco

A friend sent me this very funny photo and I had to pass it along. I need a laugh these days. Commuting has not been much fun lately, not that it ever really was, but it used to have a more comfortable, friendly feel about it. And that is going, going, maybe gone.

This issue of paying or not paying got to me last night. I waited at the Beale Street carpool line for nearly 45 minutes. As I was waiting I asked the rider behind me if he paid toll and how much. “$1.25” he promptly replied. I said “Do you realize that if both riders pay $1.25 the driver pays nothing at all?” “Oh no”, he quickly said. “The driver has to pay for the transponder.”

Before I could reply that the transponder does not cost you money, just the toll, our ride pulled up – a new BMW. As we got seated the rider I’d been talking to, now in the back seat, handed over his $1.25. I got buckled in and laid $1 on the cup rest area. The driver tapped her fingernail on my dollar bill and said, “Do you have a quarter?” When I reluctantly got it out she said with a sarcastic tone, “Thanks, this is really costing me a lot of money.”

A new BMW costs upwards of $50,000. The driver spent a good portion of what seemed a never-ending ride (heavy traffic, rear-enders) to Vallejo talking about the wonders of her BMW, trips she’d taken, cars she’d rented and she wound up having a regular BMW bonding session with the guy in the rear seat. Turned out he too owns a BMW along with a couple of Hondas. These folks are financially challenged? She can’t afford to pay a third of the $2.50 toll?

I feel angry. Even before the tolls began this month, much of the time I sensed an attitude of ‘master-serf’ between drivers and riders. The drivers assuming they are the only ones doing the favor by condescending to give a ride to the huddled masses in the carpool lines. When I discussed this with my daughter, a former Vallejo-SF commuter, she said she avoided the casual carpool for that very reason – the ‘attitude’. As I’ve mentioned in some of these blogs, I’d hoped that the SHARING of the toll would create a more congenial solidarity between drivers and riders, a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ bond. And at the very least, the fact that the riders are putting up money for the ride should level the playing field a bit, doncha think?

As I’ve acknowledged before, the drivers do pay gas, parking, insurance, but that is not a new expense. They have always done that, and never asked for reimbursement for those expenses, that I’m aware of. And I do not mind a bit paying a PORTION of the toll. But as I attempted to explain to both the ‘I OWN A BMW’ commuters, if two riders each pay $1.25, the driver is paying nothing towards the toll. They are still getting the free ride. And yes, the transponder is billed in advance each month, but with everyone contributing to the toll, they will get at least two-thirds of that back. Had I not been so angry, I would have asked this impoverished driver why she didn’t pick up a third rider. That would have meant $3.75 towards the burden of her commute and a profit on last night’s ride. Not only was I subjected to her blathering about her expensive car, I had to listen to her choice of music, which she sang or whistled along with from time to time. Not my choice and not pleasant, even though I was paying for the ride.

Some have commented that $1.25 is damn cheap for a ride between San Francisco and Vallejo and that is true. The issue here is more than just the money or the amount of money. As a matter of fact I spend more than $1.25 each way on my commute. I also spend $4 a day on MUNI and pay for the gas to get to and from the carpool lot. Most of us at this point in history do have money issues, including myself. But in a situation like the casual carpool, started by commuters and maintained and nourished by commuters, taking advantage of a few bucks from riders really smacks of nasty, greedy, selfish behavior. Doing that is just as short-sighted and mean-spirited as the Bay Area Toll Authority’s initiating carpool tolls in the first place. And that’s what makes me mad.

This morning, Friday, was a sunny morning in Vallejo, traffic looked light, there were cars lined up and waiting. Nice and easy. I got in the back seat of an older Chrysler sedan. The couple in the front seat were having an intense conversation about kids and a crisis with a college-age child. As we neared Richmond we entered heavy fog and it looked thick all the way into the City. A splendid tall white egret was walking about in the grasses near the freeway at Emeryville looking at once magnificent and out of place in the freeway setting. The toll gates were all nearly empty. As we got onto the bridge I interrupted the conversation and asked “What is your toll policy?” Without pause, the driver said “1.25.”

Sigh. Off to the weekend. Have a good one. CG

Wednesday, June 30 THE LAST DAY

I slept late and to make matters even later, I spilled makeup on my favorite blue blouse as I was doing my morning-getting-ready-for-work ritual. I had to scrub the makeup out of the blouse and then throw it in the dryer while I finished the rest of getting ready. So here I am on the last toll-free day of casual carpool at 7:20 a.m. with only one other waiting rider and no cars. But then three cars pull up all at once and my ride is the back seat of a Honda Accord.

The driver has his dark hair pulled back in a pony tail and is enthusiastically devouring a crisp red apple. NPR coming out of a speaker near me in the back seat. An ivory-like statue of a seated elephant rests on the dashboard. I sense that the driver and the front seat passenger are both going to work in the same place.

What a gorgeous summer morning. As we approach the toll gates, I say “It’s a special ride today – our last one toll-free!” The driver nods. “I wonder what the drive will be like tomorrow”, he asks. “Well, we’re all going to have FasTrak, so it shouldn’t slow us down”. I agree. I think the jam up might be at the non-carpool lanes for cash only drivers who suddenly realize they’ve got to come up with an extra $2. Unfortunately, the confusion will probably affect all the traffic lanes. “We’ll see.” I voice my concern about the toll creating problems for the future of the casual carpool, plus the fact that the car pool lanes are going to be converted into car pool/express lanes (to include solo drivers who pay a toll). The front seat passenger says she has a hybrid and uses the carpool lane with a permit, and once that started, she figured they’d add single toll drivers as well.

Both of them work in South San Francisco and lament that there is no direct or even good-connecting public transportation from the north bay to south San Francisco. They would happily ride BART or bus if the connection was there. I mention the $3 billion being budgeted for the express lane conversion and we loudly agree that with that kind of money, a LOT could be done to make public transportation in the bay area better. We laugh at the absurdity of it all – the higher tolls, the cost of the ferries and BART, the dependence on oil – as we breeze through the toll gate for a final free ride.

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.

Tuesday, June 22 Your Toll Money at Work (perhaps)

A sunny cool morning with the promise of a warm summer day. The fog is still lapping around the edges of the bay and looks heavier as we get closer to San Francisco. I’m in the front seat of a lovely Mercedes E 320. You know how I love Mercedes, so I’m happy with the ride. Our driver is suited up in a sharp gray suit and a crisp white shirt. A take-out coffee is close at hand. Four of those eternal pine tree-shaped air freshners are hanging in a bunch near his left knee – a veritable air freshner grove. Traffic is moving smoothly.

Radio news says a bike lane from the east bay across the new bay bridge is in the works (has been for awhile). Actually a portion of the bike/pedestrian lane is already in the current budget and has been constructed – the portion that connects Oakland with Yerba Buena island. If you are in a high vehicle when you cross the bridge, you can look down on the finished part and see the lane. Today’s news is that a similar path, on the western span of the bridge, connecting Yerba Buena Island with San Francisco has now been approved by the California Senate (Bill 1061, sponsored by State Senator Loni Hancock). This portion, called the West Span Pathway, is estimated to cost between $178 and $428 million. The Senate Bill, which passed on Monday, June 7, allows toll revenues to pay for the project. So there is some of your toll money at work.

On-line comments I’ve read are mostly pro – coming from bicyclists. They’ve been waiting lo these many years for such a route across the water. But one comment said “. . .it’s way too frigging expensive. Even as a daily cyclist I find this crazy spending to be upsetting for something that really won’t be used much. You could completely fix Muni for that kind of money . . ”

However, another comment, “Reminds me of the (heavily used) bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge”.

As much as I am not in favor of casual carpool toll, I can at least feel better about the money being used to actually decrease auto use in the bay area. I think once this is built, it will become popular and will be used a lot. And if you don’t ride a bike, you can walk across the bridge. Hey, it’s only 8.4 miles. Just a bit more than Bay to Breakers.

Another bright note for the anti-auto commute: Ferry service is going to be expanded with the construction of an expanded ferry terminal. The new terminal, which will be a “hub” for 12 ferry routes is part of a major project to connect Treasure Island as part of the ferry service. The plan is to triple ferry service during the next 25 years, serving up to 12 million passengers annually. Current service only includes 6 ferry routes. Funding, which will total close to $25 million, comes from state bond money. Completion of this project is expected in 2014 or 2015.

Friday June 18 The party’s over

A long line of cars is waiting this morning. Just a few riders. I take a rear seat in a Honda CR-V. The driver is a young guy with a long pony tail – all Friday light in jeans, sneakers and a red athletic jersey top. He’s intently listening to the soccer match on the radio. It’s Friday light on the freeway, too. We’ll be in San Francisco in about 35 minutes today.

Last evening I watched a bit of the British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward’s testimony before the House Oversight & Investigations subcommittee. Lots of talk. There’s been too much talk for too long about alternative fuels and energy. All the while the oilmen get fatter and richer. We need to plug up the oil for good and change the way we use our resources, our environment, and each other. The fossil fuel party’s over.

Happy Father’s Day Weekend, everyone.