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  • Waiting for a ride

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.”

No Fun, No Heat, Just a Ride


WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16
I’m wedged in the back seat of a Honda CRV next to a child seat, the kind that seems to be permanently attached. There is barely enough room for me and the little seat is digging into my ribs. It’s horribly uncomfortable plus, I cannot attach my seat belt – whatever the connection is has been taken over by this contraption. The driver does not acknowledge the fact that there is not an adequate seat for an adult in the back of this huge SUV, nor does she respond to my question about a seat belt.

It’s a cold, wet day and there’s no heat in this car. The driver is a plump be-spectacled woman in her late 20s, early 30s. Her long dull brown hair is pulled back in a pony tail. No make up, no frills. No heat.

The passenger in the front seat is a guy with a shaved head who is about the same age. Both of these folks are wearing dull gray and black clothing. Combined with my physical discomfort, these 2 people are so drab and emotionless I feel like I’m in a prison van. About half-way through the ride the driver rolls down her window and icy air fills the SUV. Fortunately, just as I’m about to complain, she rolls it back up. These kinds of rides, and happily they are few, make me feel like a piece of cargo. It’s just a ride.

Traffic is heavy and sluggish; we’re moving at about 20 mph. Plenty of time to admire the beautiful bay. Lavender-grey and white puffy clouds filter the morning sun and the city softly glows across the choppy winter waters. A solitary snow-white egret hunches over the shallow shoreline pools by Emeryville.

We zip past the gridlocked toll plaza at 60 mph and are in the city by 8:15 a.m.

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.

February Sunny Groundhog Days


WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 2. GROUND HOG DAY. A huge line of cars all the way around the block. I’m the only rider, at least for the moment. I get into the back seat of a lovely, luxurious Cadillac. A very stylish lady is at the wheel in a wonderful black & white checkered pant suit. She’s model thin. A great hair cut and perfect manicure. I want this car and that haircut! The car reminds me of the Chryslers my parents always used to have – big, leathery, roomy. This one has a sunroof, and a super large gps screen. It’s a beautiful sunny morning and there will be more of the same today and for the rest of the week. Almost impossible to imagine the howling snowstorms going on in the east. But the bright sunny light on Groundhog Day means Mr. Groundhog has seen his shadow and we’ll have 6 more weeks of winter. Mmm. We roll past Berkeley and the view of the city in brilliant light and shadow is reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 3. Frost on the windshields this morning but sunny. Once again I’m the only rider in line, but the street is empty and not a car to be seen. Within about 5 minutes they start pulling up and then a few more riders come along. My ride is in the back seat of a sporty Nissan. The driver barely acknowledges us but is eager to take our $1.25 toll. There’s a book on the back seat, “Discipline of Godly Man”. KGO radio is on REAL LOUD. The driver listens intently, concentrating on the traffic. A contrast to his nearly horizontally reclining seat.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 4. Today’s driver looks familiar. But he drives like a maniac, and you’d think I’d remember that before I got in this killer car. Too late now. It’s Friday light so he has more room to drive like a lunatic. Lane changing and going too fast. I’d guess him to be a mid-level management guy. Business suit, crisp blue-striped dress shirt (even on Friday!), short hair and fingernails that look chewed. The car is a small, new Honda. Once the traffic gets heavier near Berkeley he is forced to slow down and we all relax.

He takes 3 of us and accepts the $1.25 without a murmur ($3.75 collected for a $2.50 toll). Ah, but it’s a gorgeous morning and the promise of an even more gorgeous weekend. I saw the first pink blossoms on the flowering quince and plum trees today. I think the Groundhog might be wrong.

Happy weekend.