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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.

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?

Summer Light


WEDNESDAY, JULY 6 Quick rides yesterday and today. It’s Summer Light and the hour-plus commute has become a 30 minute breeze. On Wednesday I rode in an Audi sedan with 2 other passengers, all of us passing our $1.25 to the driver. The driver reminded me of Chuck Norris – kind of a Marlboro Man style with a blue tooth securely clamped into his right ear and a crisp striped dress shirt. A lovely sunny summer morning, but the fog hangs out on the coast and will have its way with us. As we approach San Francisco and the bay, there it is – that ribbon of soft gray fog dramatically wrapped around the ocean side of the city, covering the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, while the city wakes up to the summer morning sun. When I return home, I treasure these few warm evenings that come our way in northern California, sitting in our garden, not needing a jacket or sweater. In the hour before sunset the California sun turns everything to gold, the trees alongside our house suddenly filled with flickering golden leaves.

THURSDAY I opened the back door of a Nissan sedan to a wonderful blasting Bach piano concerto on KDFC Radio. Great music all the way in to the city. Once we got settled the driver passed a bright yellow flyer to both of us riders, inviting us to attend a fund raiser for a candidate running for Vallejo City Council. How enterprising. Her car is well used with newspapers and coffee cup debris on the floor of the back seat. A great cobalt blue glass with a straw sits in her cupholder, a breakfast drink, I presume. Thicker fog this morning and cooler but a great morning nonetheless.

TODAY, FRIDAY Another quick commute in, alternating layers of cool air and warm sun. Crystal clear bay as we cross the ridge, ferries below leaving snail-like trails across the water as they approach the Ferry Building. My ride this morning is a red Honda sedan. A quick, uneventful Friday light ride with two silent ladies, immersed in headphones and traffic. The weekend is nearly upon us. Friday, summer, light.

Hot Times


TUESDAY, JULY 5 A short and pleasant wait today. A beautiful morning, about 65 degrees at 7 a.m. This side of the bay area (Vallejo, Benicia)had a HOT 4th of July – high ’90s at least, with a spectacular fireworks finale last night in Benicia. Now it’s reluctantly back to the job and commute today. I and another rider climb into the spacious back seat of a Hyundai SUV. The driver wanted to keep the front seat for her purse and asked us to sit in the back. The lady next to me starts talking about ‘gangster drivers’, clearly excited about something. “I always take a picture of the license plate of the car I’m riding in, when it’s with a man”, she said. It sounded like she’d attempted that this very morning, “but the driver got mad when he saw me taking the picture, and drove off!” “I like to take that precaution, just in case. And I always send the photo to my husband”, she added. The driver agreed. “You never know.” But she then added, “it works both ways, though. Some riders can be pretty strange.”

I didn’t comment, mostly because I didn’t want to get into that conversation. The photographer seemed a little over the top with her concerns, not like most of the commuters I ride with. If I don’t feel comfortable about getting in a car, I don’t. I wait for another ride.

But the conversation changed abruptly when we saw traffic stopping in all 4 lanes and a big plume of black smoke up ahead. Thanks to the driver’s husband, who she got on speaker phone, we learned that there had been a multiple car accident on the 80 freeway, near Pinole Valley Road, resulting in a car fire. We slowly inched along and finally passed the car which was totally destroyed. Only a gray metal shell remained, still smoking and being hosed by firemen. Hot! As is often the case, I never found out what actually happened, in spite of all my Googling. But it looked like all the people involved were alive and intact, at least the 6 people I saw, who were sitting on the hood of another car, grimly watching the car go up in smoke.

Still waiting to hear about the first year report on all those tolls we’ve been dutifully paying since last July 1. I did find one hot bit of some unsettling news on Phil Matier’s blog (this from May 4, 2011) – “Extra Bay Area Bridge Toll Money Lost in Bad Credit Deal”. It looks like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees Bay Area bridges, agreed to settle a contract with Ambac Financial Group for $120 million. The contract began in 2003 when the Commission started using Ambac to sell bonds to finance work on the Carquinez, Benicia and Bay Bridges at a much lower rate. Ambac sizzled and went bankrupt in 2008, and the contract said the Commission had to pay up. So there went about a year’s worth of the ‘extra’ tolls we’ve been paying. So glad we commuters could help out. Hot times indeed.

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.

A June Ride


THURSDAY, JUNE 16, 2011
Once again the cars are lined up and waiting and I hop right into a Nissan XTerra – a very high up in the air van. From my view in the back seat I can see over the tops of the cars ahead of us. It’s like riding in a major truck. The driver’s an Asian guy in his late 40s, wearing a black baseball cap, green windbreaker, well-worn jeans. I love the tchotchka hanging from the mirror – it’s a base-ball sized ball covered with tiny paper flowers. A couple of plastic Chinese charms hang alongside the ball. KCBS Radio loud and clear in the back seat says there’s a car fire near the Gilman Street exit by Berkeley. Traffic has slowed down all the non-carpool lanes, but picks up as we near the site. The accident has been cleared and traffic is flowing. Rounding the Eastshore Park corner on the approach to the Bay Bridge I see several small water birds, standing on their skinny stick legs in the still water. The tide is far out, leaving a wide shallow and muddy shore. As our trip ends, we three comment on the lovely June day and wish each other a good one.

Catching Up!


JUNE! Summer Solstice, mid-year and one more month until the anniversary of the bay area Bridge Toll increases. And maybe, just maybe this month will finally bring an end to the cold and gray rainy days.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1 – The day begins with a fabulous rainbow arching over San Francisco Bay. Still plenty of clouds out there, a huge puffy white cloud show. Our driver took 3 of us and happily accepted $1.25 from each one. I always find that tacky and annoying. Especially when it’s not acknowledged.

TUESDAY, JUNE 7. This morning KBLX Radio says “It’s Finally Here – the Summer of 2011”, and indeed it looks like the rains are finally gone. I’m in a big Ford van. A very large guy driving – maybe 300 pounds. This big vehicle is a good fit for him. He’s wearing a short-sleeved white t-shirt, khaki cargo pants and little square glasses. I narrowly missed a ride in the van in front of him – a van with a sliding door and a double row of rear seats. They had just loaded up with 3 passengers and then I saw the driver signal for ‘one more’, so I dashed over. I thought he’d signaled for me to get in the driver’s side so I walked around the van, and – no door. By the time I came back to the other side (maybe 2 seconds), another rider from the line had already jumped in. Wow. You can’t hesitate or falter in the Vallejo line!

THURSDAY, JUNE 9. I’m in the back seat of a black Lexus sedan. The two guys in front are large Hawaiian-Kahuna-looking fellows. Both with very short-cropped hair, wearing black t-shirts. Appropriately, ‘California Girls’ by the Beach Boys is playing on a CD. As I slide into the back seat, the driver reaches back to scoot the remnants of his McDonald’s breakfast out of the way. It’s a great CD and we enjoy it all the way into the city, the driver thrumming his hand in rhythm on his substantial thigh. “Do You Love Me – Now That I Can Dance?” and “The Game of Love” takes us across the Bay Bridge. I leave the car and this jolly, relaxed ride to the strains of “Let’s Go Surfing Now”, another great by the Beach Boys.

TODAY, JUNE 14. Lots of cars, no wait, and a lovely June morning. My ride is a Honda 4-door sedan, well-used. Actually ‘poorly used’ would be better. Torn rear seat pockets, stains on upholstery, and a little pile of accumulated garbage on the floor behind the driver’s seat. I see a Snicker’s wrapper, Rold Gold pretzel package, Talking Rainspring Water Bottle, Crystal Geyser Very Berry Flavored Water bottle and much wadded up paper debris. The driver is a super tall long-legged guy, attempting to disguise his male-pattern-balding by shaving his head. The weather gets cooler as we approach the city and a massive fog bank is resting out on the ocean. The city glows white in reflected sunlight against the dark foggy background. Today Michelle Obama visits the Bay area, at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland. Our front-seat passenger is a youngish Asian lady with long, shiny, fragrant hair that she frequently strokes and tosses around. She plugs into a music device and headphones for the trip. it’s a great day to carpool – gridlocked toll plaza and heavy sluggish traffic in the other lanes. We’re in the city in 40 minutes.

Carpooling Surveys – From Berkeley to Vallejo to Marin County


It seems as though everyone’s interested in taking a survey about casual carpooling this spring. The University of California was passing out survey forms last month at the Vallejo carpool line – they’re compiling information on the effects of the first year of bridge tolls on carpools. The information will be available around July 1, the anniversary date of the toll taking. (stay tuned)

Last week two ladies from 511 Rideshare had a little table set up at the Vallejo carpool line, passing out questionnaires to riders. “We’re following up on last year’s survey”, the smiling Rideshare lady said. The 21 questions on the self addressed, postage paid mailer survey ask everything from ‘How Often Do You Commute by Casual Carpool’, to ‘Annual Income’. Remember that 511 Rideshare is run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority, the same folks who brought us the tolls for casual carpool.

We talked about the surveys in my ride that day (a spic-and-span Honda sedan), the driver an American Airlines employee wearing little wings on her jacket lapel. The other passenger, a lady in the front seat, refused to take the questionnaire. “Last time I filled out one of those they started charging toll! Uh,uh, not again.” “Anything they can do to get money from us, they do!” she added. I mentioned the express lanes (existing carpool lanes that are gradually being converted to single-driver/toll lanes throughout the northern California carpool system). Neither of them had heard about that.

“I make so many trips back and forth to the airport”, the airlines lady said. “If it weren’t for the carpool lane, I just couldn’t afford to do it, time-wise or money-wise. But I don’t know if I want to be paying toll in an express lane.”

We all agreed that the carpool lane/system is being exploited to produce additional revenue. An unwise-move, I believe, that may eventually wipe out carpooling altogether.

There’s yet another survey/questionnaire in the works. This one I heard about through Gilda, a reader of this very blog. Gilda lives in Marin and is a regular commuter to San Francisco. There has been no casual carpool set up in Marin County and Gilda has diligently pursued a way to make it happen.

She e-mailed me a few weeks ago with great news. “I am delighted to report that TAM (Transportation Authority of Marin) is now in the planning stage of creating and possibly launching a carpool program in Marin!” Gilda has been invited to be a part of that planning process and that is where the questionnaire comes in. TAM will compile the results and hopefully get those rides and riders going!

If you live in Marin and would like to participate, go to http://www.MarinCarpool.com and take the survey. It’s very short and concise, and easy to do.

Gilda says, “I hope you’ll join me in this exciting possibility to finally bring carpooling on a grand scale to Marin resulting in a far better quality of life for us all.” Kudos to you Gilda! And to all of us who carpool.

A Toll-Tale of the Blue Truck and The Black Truck


Tuesday, May 10
A couple of months ago I was waiting in the rainy, shivering March line with the other casual carpool riders and when I got to the head of the line, a black pick up truck pulled up and I trotted over to get in. And then stopped. A large white sign was taped to the passenger side window. “THIS IS A SINGLE PASSENGER RIDE. THE TOLL IS $2.50”. Or something to that effect.

The effect being very in your face, and very ‘I’m only doing this so I don’t have to pay the toll’. I walked on past him to the next car, and noticed everyone else did the same thing. I saw the black truck there again a few days later and the lady behind me in line said “no one’s going to ride with him”. She was right, people just walked right by him.

A couple of days later my ride was a blue pick up truck, a Chevrolet, the kind with a small back seat. I and another rider got in with our $1.25 in our hands. “No way” the driver said. “I never charge. You got a free ride today.” And he laughed. He’s got his own construction business and feels like he’s getting enough of a break by being in the carpool lane and enjoying the reduced toll. A jolly guy, in spite of the fact that he makes the godawful drive from Sacramento several times a week.

This morning, once again, I saw the black truck sitting, with riders walking past it. Same truck, but this time the driver was a woman, who was not making eye contact with any of us. I studied the sign on the truck window more closely. “Casual Carpool Riders Pay $2.50. Cash Only. Must Have Exact Change”. I wish I had the time to stand and watch to see if anyone actually gets in that truck. Maybe, someone desperate for a ride, if no other cars pull up.

$2.50 is still a cheap commute to San Francisco from Vallejo, but that’s not what’s bothering me (and apparently other riders) about this. Just think if riders had the same attitude: “No toll from me unless you turn the heat up, remove the child seat that’s digging into my ribs, clean the trash off the floor, and uh, can you get something else on the radio?” “And oh, can you drop me off closer to my work?”

None of us likes the toll that was imposed on the Casual Carpool last July 1, but we seem to be stuck with it. For the most part, drivers and riders alike have accepted the fact and are civil to each other about paying and collecting. The drivers in the black truck appear to be taking advantage of that and the reality that Casual Carpool is part of a larger community of people who are after all, just getting to and from work so we can pay our bills. Because we good-naturedly accept the shortcomings of the commute system and the inconsistencies of the rides and riders does not mean we will easily put up with the kind of attitude the black truck people are sending out with the mean-spirited sign in their truck window.

It sure makes the daily commute much more bearable when a driver like the guy in the blue truck not only gives us a little break on the toll, but gives us something to chuckle about on that long ride, and it reminds us that we’re all in this together.

Welcome to the Casual Carpool


WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16
The long line of riders moves along as the cars pull up and I get into a bright orange VW sedan. A boy about 8 years old is in the back seat, on his way to school in the City. The driver is relatively new to the Casual Carpool – he moved to Vallejo from Treasure Island about 2 months ago. “Even with the $600 in gas and tolls each month, the house we found in Vallejo is a much better deal than we could have gotten closer to the City”.

He comments on the number of single drivers who ‘cheat’ and creep into the carpool lane. “I’ve never seen the highway patrol on this freeway.” I tell him about the proposed express lanes that will gradually become part of California’s carpool lane system (single drivers can use carpool lanes by paying a toll – see my June 24, 2010 blog “A Carpool Lane By Any Other Name is an Express Lane?”). We discuss whether it will reduce congestion (probably not), but that it will put more dollars into the transportation agencies’ budgets. “And reduce the effectiveness of the carpool lane”, I add.

We talk about living on Treasure Island. “Not good” he says. The housing is small, ugly, and robberies are a common occurrence. “They’re military barracks, and they all have sliding glass doors which are real easy to break into.” Plus there’s no amenities, like grocery stores, banks, libraries, etc. He’s happy they moved.

A most unusual and strange looking squat action sort of figure sits on his dashboard, pressed against the windshield. It is a fierce bright yellow. “What is that?” I ask. “Oh, it came with the car. I like it there looking out at the freeway. It keeps me company and watches out for me.” We laugh and agree it looks like an angry pac man.

“So how is the Casual Carpool working out for you?” “I like it. My time is important to me, and the carpool saves me time. I appreciate riders giving me money for the toll, although not everyone does. Some people just give me a quarter, some people give nothing, but most people are okay. It’s a good system.”