Out with the Old, In with the New – 2011 is here


Tuesday, January 4, 2011. Groan. It’s time to get up at 5:15 a.m. and go back to work, after nearly 2 wonderful weeks off. A hard start to the new year. Huge fog going on this morning and we can barely see out the windshield en route to the casual carpool. As the sky begins to lighten, the fog clears slightly. My first carpool ride of 2011 is in a big Ford Pickup with a roomy and comfortable back seat for me and my stuff. Both driver and truck are very tidy and organized. His jacket and satchel are neatly stowed behind the driver’s seat. Driver is wearing a dark plaid shirt and black trousers. Crisply neat hair-cut, slicked back. With the combination of the country music on the radio and the pick-up truck, this guy would look right at home wearing a cowboy hat. The passenger in the front seat talks about the weather for awhile, actually for quite awhile, and then settles down.

We take off in light fog, but as we cross the Carquinez Bridge it’s like being in an airplane. No bridge, no water, no visuals at all. Just thick, thick fog. Sight returns after we get across the bridge and traffic is moving along. A last spectacular look at the fog just before we round the corner to the bay bridge – it lays like delicate lace over the shallow water near the shore.

OLD YEAR/NEW YEAR. It’s time for the old to make way for the new and in California we have our new Governor (Jerry Brown, inaugurated in Sacramento yesterday, California’s 39th governor). It’s a tight budget for him to work with (a $28 billion deficit). I hope this doesn’t impact us commuters with yet more tolls and restrictions and higher mass transit fares.

The old Oakland-Bay Bridge is gradually being taken over by the emerging new Bay Bridge and its 525 foot tower. The tower’s fourth and final section will be in place in March, 2011, and the bridge is now expected to be completed in 2 more years – 2013. We’ll be feeling some of that work in early summer when the lanes get re-routed again.

This morning, as I walked up from the carpool drop off to my bus stop on Market Street, I was shocked to see all the open space where the Transbay Terminal used to be. A lot happened during my 2-week absence. You can check out a speeded up-time-lapse video of some of the demolition at
transbaycenter.org/construction-updates/construction-cameras/demolition- camera. It’s fascinating watching the site grow dark as night falls, and gradually light up with the morning light and traffic. This winter will see the end of the demolition and the beginning of the new foundation construction.

I’ve been looking at new cars – it’s getting time to retire the old Hyundai. I plan to get a hybrid, but have been so happy with my Hyundai Elantra, I’d like to continue with Hyundai. Especially after reading December’s reports from both the auto insurance industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Topping their lists of the safest new vehicles for 2011 is Hyundai Genesis (large sedan) and the Hyundai Sonata (mid-sized). Hyundai even got a high mark from the auto insurance people on its small SUV, the Hyundai Tucson.

Happy New Year to us all and safe commuting.

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?)

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.

November 18 and 19 The Rain Begins and there’s more Toll Talk


THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 18 is a shivery windy day with the sun poking through lots of clouds. Rain predicted for Friday and the week ahead. Cars are lined up and waiting. I pass on the first car – the hip hop blaring from behind the closed windows is practically shaking the car. No thanks. My ride is the next one in line – a Lincoln MKZ. A luxury suv with all the trimmings, and the driver declines the toll. Hey, speaking of tolls, have you heard the one about the Toll Plan for Downtown San Francisco?

This is a congestion pricing plan that would levy a $3 toll for travel in a downtown zone 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. There would be a cap at two trips or $6 a day for travel in and out of the central area as well as within it. Bridge toll payers would get $1 off the congestion toll. People living within the toll zone, low income people and disabled drivers would pay 50% of the toll; taxis, buses and emergency vehicles would not pay at all.

I know, I groan too at the thought of yet more tolls, but have you tried to drive a vehicle in downtown San Francisco during those hours? When I drive and pick up carpoolers, it takes me nearly an hour to get from Union Square to the carpool line on Beale Street. The traffic is practically gridlocked. Something has to be done.
And tolls may help discourage people from bringing their cars into the city; HOWEVER, some sort of alternative needs to be offered – shuttles, better bus and BART connections, and so forth. According to TOLLROADNEWS (Google, and see for yourself), this sort of toll plan has worked in London, Rome and Stockholm. If it happens in San Francisco, it would be the first such plan in North America.

Some years ago when I visited London, I took the subway everywhere and it truly goes everywhere. Connections are easily made with buses and it was easy walking distance to get to where I wanted to go once I emerged from the subway. It’s not quite like that here. BART is good, but limited; MUNI is getting better, but there are long waits between buses on many of the lines. And keep in mind there are people who simply have no alternative way to get to work other than driving their car.

But it doesn’t look like this plan is going into effect any time soon. The project is now in its 4th year of studies and public consultation and there’s a long way to go. Still, it’s encouraging to know someone is thinking about ways to fix this traffic/commute mess. Thank you to Paul Minett at Trip Convergence, Ltd in New Zealand for passing this information on to me. He is a true sustainable transportation hero!

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 19
Cars are lined up waiting for riders. I join 2 guys in a big Chevrolet van. And away we go into a gray misty and chilly morning. The driver is dressed very Friday light, from his 2 layers of t-shirts and loose gangsta style jeans to his reclining position in the driver’s seat. He’s almost laying down. Once underway he strikes up a conversation with the fellow next to him in the front seat. The driver is on disability leave from MUNI, and is on his way to group therapy today. Sounds like he had something like a nervous breakdown from too much MUNI. “I stopped seeing the passengers as people after 9 years,and just saw them as numbers. I couldn’t do it anymore.” Ahem, and this guy is driving my carpool today. Okay, well so far so good. He continues talking about his life, his frustrations as a single parent of 3 kids under 10 years of age (also one 25-year old back east who just made him a 49-year-old grandfather of twins). He was raised in the Bayview section of San Francisco, as was the front seat passenger, and they fist bump when they realize they had classmates, teachers, and various adventures in common. They’ve both moved out of the city for survival reasons. “Too many kids gettin’ shot. I didn’t want that to happen to my kids. I’ve got full custody of them now.”

Intense. The view out the window as we round the corner onto the bridge is a welcome relief. About 30 wild geese are resting in the shallow water, rinsing their feathers and gearing up for more flight. Magnificent.

Tuesday, November 16 Changes in the Air


Today’s ride is in a VW sedan – a two-door. It’s a squeeze to get into the back seat but once I’m in it’s quite roomy. The couple in front seem to be together, both 30-somethings. The guy is driving – he’s a big fellow, probably 300 pounds. The lady is petite. It’s a golden morning, that special California sunlight that only we have. Traffic is awful. The carpool lane is great and is moving, but on heavy days like this many single drivers break the rules, taking a chance on a big ticket, and cut into our lane. So we all wind up slowing down. The warm weather is vanishing, but what a treat these few days have been. Autumn and Winter are about to move in along with Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Each day when I exit the carpool at Fremont and Howard streets, I walk up Fremont to Market Street, where I catch my bus, the #2 Clement. (I have yet to try catching a bus at the new temporary bus terminal.) I’m sure many of you carpoolers walk the same way past the rapidly vanishing old Transbay Terminal. It’s been quite a dramatic demolition over the last couple of weeks. The overcrossing on Fremont street is completely gone, drastically changing the light on that street. Demolition is scheduled to take a total of 8 months, with 4 phases. We are now approaching Phase 3, which will include walls and windows and sidewalks. The crews have been working 24/7, scheduling the noisiest work for nights and weekends.

I walked slowly past the crumbling cement and naked iron supports of the old bulding this morning, recalling an article written by Callie Millner (SF Gate, August 16, 2010 – “Transbay Terminal thrown Under the Bus”). She expressed her surprise that there wasn’t a greater effort made to save the old building, or at least more noise made about it. She took one of the final tours through the place (sorry I missed that) and talks about the old diner and bar: “I was particularly taken with the old diner, which has a teal-and-butter color palette and a long teardrop of a counter. On the far right side of the diner, a shelf of plants were still green, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a former, bustling life for the place – complete with plastic-backed menus and uniformed waitresses slipping pies out of the old-fashioned refrigerated shelves above the sink.”

The architect for the old terminal, Timothy Pflueger. also designed the Castro and Paramount Theatres, 450 Sutter, and the SF Stock Exchange. Callie notes, “it’s loaded with historical features, many of which have been covered or shuttered for years: banks of phone booths, a long and lovely newsstand, an old state police office with a jail cell.” When I turn around at the corner of Market and Fremont and look back at the building, I can still feel the energy of the old place, and am glad to know that some of its artifacts are being preserved in historical museums and in other train and bus terminals.

Wednesday, November 3 – The Winners


Oh yeah, what a beautiful morning! Perfect weather, plus – we’ve got a governor named Brown, a senator named Boxer, a lieutenant governor named Newsom, and a World Series team! The big parade down Market Street today is already jamming up traffic and BART stations and people are in a party mood. I’m riding in a Toyota RAV4. The driver, a lady, and her friend in the front seat, I and another rider in the back. Surprisingly (or maybe not) very little seat and leg room back here for a vehicle that looks so imposing from the street.

With the new progressive lineup in Sacramento, we commuters crammed together out here on the freeways may see some changes in California transportation. As attorney general, Jerry Brown has been waging a war against smog and greenhouse gas emissions and is generally an ally in environmental protection and conservation. As governor I’d like to see him instigate some real action to get more hybrids on the road and to make them more affordable, more accessible. And then there’s the whole issue of mass transit. Our systems are just not keeping up and they cost commuters too much money. I’m expecting a lot out of these new winners. But today they can bask in the glory – it’s a great day for them.

Go California!

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 2 – The Days After


The Giants won last night and it’s a gorgeous autumn morning. Unfortunately, I have to drive in today, so no sitting back enjoying the scenery for me on today’s commute. My friend is the passenger in the front seat, and a lovely lady named Barbara rides in back. Traffic’s a bit frantic, but we move along and are in the city in less than an hour. Along the way we pass 2 CHPs on motorcycles, and further down the road a couple more in their cars, watching for cheaters in the carpool lane. Although a few single drivers ducked in and out along the commute, no one ‘cheated’ long enough to get caught. That dramatic looking low-lying fog hovers in the meadows near the water and makes this beautiful morning even more so.

In case you haven’t seen some of the recent toll update information . . . . .

Fewer drivers are making the trip across the Bay Bridge during the busiest commute hours (5 – 10 a.m. and 3 – 7 p.m.) They are either crossing at a different time period or taking BART. There are also fewer drivers in general crossing the bridge – a gradual reduction since 2003 when tolls began to increase and employment decreased for many commuters in the bay area. But with the increase in tolls, the reduced traffic hasn’t hurt the pocketbook of the Bay Area Toll Authority – they’ll be using $30 million of that new toll money we’ve been shelling out since July 1 to re-build the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza’s headquarters. When they announced the tolls and how they’d use the money, they never mentioned a new headquarters office building. There was a lot of talk about ‘seismic retrofitting’ of the bridge, plus freeway repair and maintenance. Goes to show.