Mercury Retrograde


Chilly gray gloom – the endless loop of the August commute. Actually of the June, July, AND August commutes. Traffic is relatively light, because it IS summer, after all and fewer people are out here on the freeways. Today I’m in a new white 2-door Volvo. The other rider squeezes into the back seat and I squeeze into the front – not a lotta room in this car. Once I’m situated I turn to the driver to say good morning and pay my toll. She’s a young girl all clad in blue denim, right hand on the steering wheel, her left arm resting on the side window with her chin in her hand. No smiles, no good morning from her – only a scowl. KBLX is loud on the radio.

Maybe it’s Mercury Retrograde that’s got her in such a grump. The planet Mercury goes retrograde several times a year and is in the process of doing that right now, beginning August 3rd, lasting until August 26. A planet is described as retrograde when it appears to be moving backwards through the zodiac. Since Mercury’s zodiac prowess is in the areas of communication and travel, when it is retrograde, it seems that these kinds of things get very screwed up.

Look at BART last night. At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, September 8, the bay area’s BART system was shutdown. The problem – the computers. Service resumed at about 10 p.m. but during those 2 1/2 hours, the computer was not allowing the trains to see each other -a big problem, and a mess for the commuters who were on board and in the stations.

My cell phone became cranky yesterday, not sending texts, not receiving them either. My husband’s HP printer refused to recognize a new ink cartridge he installed, claiming it was NOT an HP cartridge. But it was.

But the worst was what happened with this blog. Last Friday, I finished what appeared to be a nice, chatty, informative blog, about a couple of memorable, and not memorable rides, some toll gossip and the commute in general, and when I posted it, it v a n i s h e d. Never to be seen again, and I was unable to retrieve it from the clutches of Mercury Retrograde, or wherever it landed.

“Mercury Retrograde gives rise to personal misunderstandings, flawed disrupted or delayed communications, negotiations and trade, glitches and breakdowns with phones, computers, cars, buses and trains. And all of these problems usually arise because some crucial piece of information or component has gone astray or awry,” says Rob Tillett, astrologer.

So take care fellow carpoolers. Our commutes are at the whim of Mercury this month.

Bay To Breakers – 100 years


I just had to do it – the 100th Bay to Breakers, Sunday May 15. Last year was my first time and I’d thought my last, but the 100-year anniversary this year sounded like a special event I couldn’t resist. In preparation I’ve been going to the gym in the morning before work, doing ‘training walks’ on the weekends and getting shaped up for the 7.46 mile event.

Commute-wise, the best way to get to the race, especially if you’re outside the city, is public transportation. Baylink Ferries (the ferry from Vallejo) had a special Bay to Breakers 5:30 a.m. ferry. For me, that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. – torturous to be sure, but better than taking a car and dealing with traffic and no parking. I ditched my plans for a costume because of the threat of rain and instead found a 99-cent plastic see-through poncho to take along. Although I only used it for part of the race, I was glad I had it.

After a chilly and wet start, the day turned out to be sunny and gorgeous. Because of added security and new regulations, the race was quite calm compared to last year and I missed the craziness and energy. No floats allowed this year, so there was no music along the way, except for a few groups of party folks along Fulton Street with boom boxes. 3/4 of the way, in Golden Gate Park, we passed several live bands. And there were still a few hearty naked folk, some even barefoot, too, but the outrageousness was missing. The best thing I saw was a guy in Golden Gate Park, near the Conservatory of Flowers, standing on a giant debris box. He was wearing a Barack Obama mask and holding a big sign that said “Thank you Navy Seals”. (this was of course, not long after the Bin Laden assassination). He looked bizarre jumping around up there on top of the box with that hilarious mask on.

I walked across the finish line at Ocean Beach about 2 hours after I began, smiling into the cameras, and looked around for my commemorative Bay to Breakers t-shirt. And the 100th Anniversary medal we were promised. I was told I’d have to walk about a quarter of mile back into the park, which I did, reluctantly. Enough walking, already! I was tired and hungry and my feet hurt but I trudged along. Finally, after about a mile there were long tables lined with boxes on one side and young, serious-looking volunteers on the other. The boxes held plastic wrapped commemorative medals. They were great! And now for the t-shirt I was promised. A volunteer said it was a little further up the road. By then hordes of runners were in the park and we could barely move. We walked and walked and no sign of t-shirts or signs indicating where they might be, and no one seemed to know. The runners I saw wearing the new t-shirts said they got them before the race. There were booths set up with free food samples (chips, cheeses, chocolate milk, peanut butter bars) and I managed to snag a few of those and sustain myself as I marched on.

I finally gave up on the t-shirt and joined my family for a delicious lunch at Tsing Tao – one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Richmond district, at 34th and Clement. And I decided to pay another $10 and just have the t-shirt sent to me. Yeah, I’m glad I did Bay to Breakers this year; it’s always a feeling of personal satisfaction to make it across that finish line, but I hope the city relaxes a little in the future and lets some of the craziness back into this wild, unique and very San Francisco celebration.

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.

A Ride and a Chat in a Z Car


TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 8
Somewhat hesitantly, I step into a 2-seater sports car this morning, small, but not tiny and very comfortable, even with all my usual commuting gear.

Pleasant guy at the wheel. I can tell he loves his car and I ask him what it is – “It’s a Z 2006”. I later learned that Z’s are a Japanese car, manufactured by Nissan. Z cars hold the record as the best selling sports car of all time – over 2 million have been sold. Z owners love their cars!

This Z driver in a bright orange long-sleeved t-shirt, is a regular casual carpool driver and is an SF MUNI bus driver as well. “I love seeing the people and giving them a ride’, he says with a big smile. He’s a terrific driver and I feel relaxed and safe in the car. We talk about public transportation and agree that without MUNI San Francisco would be paralyzed. “And some people say we’re overpaid! We have to be more than just a driver of a vehicle. I have to be a policeman, fireman, attorney, counselor, tour guide, all on top of driving the bus.”

I tell him that I recently learned (SF Chronicle’s Matier & Ross Monday, February 7) that SF’s about-to-be former police chief Heather Fong, who will be leaving SF Hall of Justice some time this year, will leave with an ANNUAL pension of $229,500.

He exclaims “And the city has these huge projects going on, too! “The new Transbay Terminal plus the underground extension of BART under Stockton Street. Who’s paying for all this?” Take a look in the mirror, fellow taxpayers. Our votes on the ballot agreed to salary and pension increases for fire and police officers in 2002, after the 9/11 fall out.

We talk more about the frustrations of traffic and commuting, (we’re both concerned about the new tolls for commuters) and his special frustrations as a city bus driver. “People walk right out in front of us without looking. They’re on their cell phones, or trying to beat the light. But it’s still the best job I ever had!”

We’re soon over the bay bridge and into a sunny San Francisco morning. A great ride, a great driver and a super car.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7 – Are you ready for Carpool Showdown?


Beautiful morning – the sun is shining right into the eyes of all the riders waiting for a car and we’re all blinking and squinting. The minor discomfort is a small trade-off for the gorgeous weather we’re having. The weekend was truly spectacular with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. I felt like I’d gone to Tahiti; we even had a multi-colored, romantic sunset.

But here’s Monday and we’re back on the commute. I’m in the very same Chevy van I’ve been getting lately, with the lady in casual clothing who does not want to chat. Today she has a small, scruffy-cute dog with her, in a carrier on the front seat next to her I and the other rider are in the back seat. The traffic is heavy and vigorous; we’re all moving along at about 40 mph. Lots of single passenger cars ducking in and out of the carpool lane, bringing us to a halt from time to time.

Have you seen CARPOOL SHOWDOWN? It’s a new program on KOFY-TV, Cable Channel 13 every Sunday night, at 9 p.m. It started just last month and takes place right in bay area casual carpools. A host from KOFY sits in the car and conducts a sort of game show, asking the passengers various ridiculous and very amusing questions. Winners get CASH! (ye$!!) I’ve only seen one episode so far and besides answering questions about popular culture (movies, music, celebrities, etc.) there was a very funny activity where riders passed a cucumber to each other – by mouth!

Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously, and especially the winners who emerged from the carpool with handfuls of cash. Check it out. KOFY, Channel 13, 9 PM Sundays. Let me know if you’d like to be a contestant. I’ve asked KOFY how the casual carpools are selected. (Carpool Showdown follows another equally amusing show, “Dance Party” at 8 PM, a revival of the original 1980s show, with couples dancing to popular music. Reminiscent of American Bandstand with Dick Clark.

January’s Foggy Carpool Lane Issues


6-MONTH TOLL REPORT
Last month some mid-year figures came in on the new toll increases that were put in place last July 1 and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission seems happy with them. But how are we doing? Has commute traffic decreased? Is the transporation agency making more money? How’s the casual carpool surviving?

On average per day, there were 1500 FEWER carpool cars crossing the Carquinez Bridge, and nearly 5,000 FEWER carpool cars crossing the Bay Bridge. There has been a daily drop of 11,407 carpool vehicles for all bridges combined (Antioch, Benicia, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond Oakland-Bay, and San Mateo).

The non-carpool daily traffic has increased by 5,045. Congestion at the Bay Bridge toll plaza has decreased slightly, by about a 4-minute gain for commuters.

The Transportation Commission is pleased. After the first six months, the toll take has increased by $68.4 million and there are a few thousand less cars on the bridge each day (the nexus of most of the morning congestion). Looks like the Commission is meeting its goals. For those of us who champion the shared ride concept, this is somewhat disheartening.

It makes it seem as though pre-toll increase on July 1, casual carpooling might have been creating more congestion on the bridge, and hindering toll revenue. I recently read a UC Berkeley study, done 3 years ago on these very issues. In this study, two Berkeley engineering professors took opposing views on the effectiveness of carpool lanes.

Professor Mike Cassidy found the HOV (high occupancy vehicle “carpool”) lanes to be effective in reducing traffic congestion, but thinks the lanes are not being used properly. “They need more flexibility – use the lanes as needed instead of at fixed times”. Pravin Varaiya, the other professor concluded that the under-used carpool lanes simply take up desperately needed space from the regular non-carpool traffic. “Not enough people use them.”

Some commuters think the drop in carpooling, and in all commuting vehicles is due to unemployment and dwindling jobs. And there has been an increase in BART ridership since last July – an 8% rise in the peak morning commute and that may account for a few former carpoolers who are disgruntled with the new tolls.

Another point in this murky debate is that there’s $21 billion of federal money at stake – billions allocated to double the HOV lanes statewide by 2020. Caltrans, who gets this budget and does the work must be slightly dismayed to see carpooling numbers decreasing. In an effort for greater HOV lane efficiency, Caltrans has increased enforcement of carpool cheating (fewer than 3 passengers in a car), and just last month, construction began on an added stretch of carpool lane to the bay area 680 freeway. There is also a plan underway to create “Express Lanes” within the carpool lanes. This allows single drivers to use the HOV lanes if they pay a fee, thereby, theoretically, better utilizing the carpool lane and de-congesting the other lanes of traffic.

While I understand (somewhat) the dilemma of these transportation agencies who all seem to be going broke, I am disappointed that there is no mention anywhere of environmental concerns. Our commuting hordes in their cars and trucks and SUVS are burning up gas and oxygen, while freeways are expanded in a futile attempt to accommodate them. More and more land is cemented over and we are all still stuck in traffic.

Another UC Berkeley study is due at the first anniversary of the new toll increases. Stay tuned.

MEANWHILE, IN THE CASUAL CARPOOL
Tuesday, February 1. And uh, looks like the fog is back with a vengeance! But I’m enjoying a lovely ride in a new Mercedes. A chatty, well-dressed fellow driving. He and the girl in the front seat discuss weather, the storms back east, and how lucky we are to be living in California. Her beautiful long brown hair bounces and sparkles as she talks. She’s from Benicia. “I grew up there.” The driver is a transplant from San Francisco (“We lived in the Laurel Heights neighborhood, and it was always foggy”) and is happy to have moved himself and his family to Benicia. I have no small children but I frequently hear praises sung about the outstanding quality of the Benicia schools.

We duck in and out of the fog as the driver sips his Mountain Dew. Shore birds and ocean grasses poke up through the foggy shoreline water looking like an abstract painting.

Car Pooling and Commuting in the Cold First Week of the Year


Wednesday, January 5 Icy cold morning. No fog today, and an incredible sunrise, with bands of pink and gold against a sharp blue sky. I’m in a small Hyundai sedan and snug and warm in the back seat. The driver is a slightly plump pleasant-looking fellow with a beatific smile and wire rimmed glasses. In his black jacket and trousers and white shirt, with a close-cropped thinly-haired head, he’s a stereotypical country preacher. He graciously accepts our toll contributions. It’s a quick ride today, moderate traffic. When the San Francisco skyline comes into view it’s a knock-out. The early sun is bouncing off the high rise windows making a golden light show. The toll gates are nearly empty – where is everybody? Maybe skiing in all that lovely Sierra snow.

Thursday, January 6 We are squealing and moaning in the carpool line this morning. There’s a really dense frigid fog and a brisk wind that feels like small sharp knives on your skin. After about 5 minutes of this agony cars start pulling up. One rider ahead of me in lin is a guy I frequently see. He’s huge – must weigh well over 300 pounds. When I’ve watched him getting into cars the car noticeably sags. Two drivers this morning turn him down, refusing him a ride. Poor fellow. I and another lady get into a small and tidy 4-door Dodge sedan. I’m in back next to a child’s car seat. The driver is being stingy with the heat. I can see it turned down to the lowest setting. Perhaps because he himself is a quite large fellow. The sun is out in Berkeley – no fog, but the city is invisible, covered in the same thick fog we left in Vallejo.

Friday, January 7 Brrr. That damp cold wind is still with us out here in the casual carpool line. About 20 riders are lined up waiting and shivering. The lady in front of me has a horrible cold and I instantly decide not to get in a car with her, even if it means waiting longer. The rider in line in front of her turns down a ride so the coughing, sneezing lady takes the ride. I move up behind the rider who declined the ride and ask her why. “The car smelled like cigarettes and the ashtray was overflowing”, she said. I agree I would not have taken the ride either. After 10 minutes our ride is a big lovely BMW sedan, the full luxury model. Warm. Yum. A young very pretty dark-skinned driver greets us. Unfortunately, just after we enter the freeway she gets on her cell phone and spends the entire 40 minute commute laughing and chatting and I stop relaxing. She occasionally adjusts the heat and radio (KISS-FM) with her one free hand.

It’s a very gray morning, no lovely sunrise to welcome us on our journey. But traffic’s light and we’re breezing along at 70 mph. (and with only one hand!).

MUNI BUS SHELTERS. I usually walk the 3 blocks up Fremont from the carpool drop off to Market Street and catch a bus. Often I have to wait in the bus shelter, and I’ve noticed that it’s really not much of a shelter, especially in this cold, wet miserable weather. The good feature about it is that is has automated signage that keeps riders informed when the next bus is coming. I noticed in Monday’s Chronicle (January 3 Bay Area section) that SF Chronicle writer Will Kane wrote about the bus shelters, and it sounds like I’m not the only one who finds them lacking in, well, shelter.

They are aesthetically pleasing to look at, but they’re full of cracks and openings and on a rainy, windy, 40-degree 7 o’clock commute morning, they provide little comfort. The designer, Olle Lundberg, disagrees, saying they needed to be open for people who are disabled or in wheel-chairs, but I’ve seen people in wheelchairs trying to navigate in and out of them and it isn’t easy. They’re just not wide enough for people to really get into out of the weather and they are very breezy.

Muni has installed 100 of these shelters so far, with 1,000 more planned before 2013. The cost per shelter, $10,000 is underwritten by Clear Channel in exchange for exclusive advertising rights.

Inadequate bus shelters are perhaps a small issue, compared to the greater woes of commuting and working and getting through each day, but when added to the frustrations of traffic, tolls, inadequate public transport, it matters.