Commute Classic: Casual Carpool – Your Mother Would Not Approve Of This Idea

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Living in the San Francisco area has its undeniable charms and attractions, however the traffic is not one of them.  In the late 1990’s to the mid 2000’s we lived in the East Bay while I worked in San Francisco, necessitating a long daily slog across the Bay Bridge.

The first house that we ever purchased was in Dublin, CA, exactly 37 miles from the office and eventually we moved to Oakland, bringing the commute distance down to 11 miles.

This doesn’t sound horrible on the face of it, but realize that on a normal morning, those distances generally amounted to a minimum of an hour in the car even for the shorter commute.  On a rainy day or if there were accidents on the road (and there were always accidents on the road), this would get much longer.

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One of the main reasons for this is the fact that to get to San Francisco from the East, one has to cross a bridge, namely the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  This is the same bridge that famously suffered a partial collapse during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and was found to be seriously deficient from a seismic viewpoint.

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It is only in the last few years (some 20+ years later) that the eastern portion of the span has been replaced and nowadays the new span is experiencing its own structural issues to the surprise of few that are at all familiar with CalTrans and California politics in general.

When crossing the bridge from the East, every driver has to pay a toll.  When I started regularly commuting across it in 1998, the toll was set at $2, currently it is $6 during commute hours.  However the exception was/is for carpoolers, for which there was no toll charged at the time – nowadays a reduced toll is charged.

The toll itself was only part of the problem however.  The bridge has five lanes heading into San Francisco.  The toll plaza has over 20 lanes/booths, mainly due to the fact that three different freeways enter it at the same point (I-80, I-580/24, I-880) and it then widens to accommodate all the drivers having to pay the toll.

One would think that seems like a reasonable amount of lanes and perhaps it could be, but the bridge itself is very much a choke point, being five lanes on the span that at the end of it narrows again to three lanes where it enters San Francisco proper since the two outside lanes end up becoming off-ramps which slows everything down.

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Electronic toll transponders were just being introduced when I began using the Bay Bridge but most toll booths still accepted cash, meaning that it was not much faster depending on the mix of cars ahead of you with cash versus transponders.

Every year since there have been more dedicated “FasTrak” lanes but even if you have a FasTrak transponder you then get stopped at the metering lights beyond the tollbooths before you can actually cross the bridge.

The metering lights control the flow onto the bridge and make for a fantastic launch pad as you are forced to a full stop until your light changes – after the launch your lane then merges with several others before actually getting on the span at which point the traffic is a total crapshoot.  So whether one pays with cash or uses their FasTrak, during commute hours when the metering lights are on, there is not much of an advantage to either method.

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Back to the carpool lanes.  There are two dedicated carpool lanes that go past the toll plaza on the left side.  You can see them in the picture above, just to the left of all of the traffic.

The big advantage (besides saving the toll) is the fact that there are no metering lights, so if you have a carpool you can save huge amounts of time (easily half an hour to over 45 minutes some days) by using those lanes.  However, yet again, there is a “Gotcha” in that this is one of the few places in the state where a carpool has to consist of THREE people as opposed to the usual two.

The only exceptions are motorcycles, and two-seaters, defined as only having two seatbelts.  So a standard Porsche 911 does not qualify, neither does a Ford Mustang, nor a Datsun 280Z 2+2, notwithstanding the fact that there is no real way to get an adult into those rear seats.  A regular cab full-size pickup with three-across seating is perhaps a gray area but those are rare as commute vehicles in the area and it’s not worth the very real risk of getting caught.

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A carpool violation carries significant fines and there is almost always a CHP cruiser stationed at the lanes and often very busy writing tickets.  It was $271 when I lived there and I understand it is $481 nowadays.  I believe that the amount and level of tickets very possibly exceeds the lost tolls due to carpooling.

It is amazing how many people chance it and there is virtually no way to be in the lane “accidentally” as it is very clearly marked with signage and coned off from the regular traffic lanes.

Toyota Prius with California decal for clean air vehicles free access to HOVs

As an aside this is one of the many reasons that Hybrid and Electric vehicles are so popular in California, they are (well, were, in some hybrid cases) issued with stickers that allowed them to use the carpool lanes while only having a single occupant on board.  Compressed Natural Gas vehicles are also issued with the same stickers, giving them the same rights and advantages.

I know numerous people who couldn’t care less about fuel economy, they just want to be able to get in the carpool lane.  This is why you often see people in Priuses running at 90mph+ on California’s freeways, usually in the carpool lanes. A Prius could run on a mixture of twenty pounds of coal and three dead baby seals per 100 miles and they would have sold just as many.

Anyway, the scene is (finally) set.  Carpooling is the way to go, right?  The only problem is that you now need warm bodies in your car and your neighbors may not be needing to go to San Francisco at the same time as you or even at all.  Additionally, parking in San Francisco is limited and expensive so many would rather not drive. Hence, an idea known as “Casual Carpool” was born in the ‘70’s.

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The idea (and I know my mother was horrified when I first explained it to her) is that there are numerous semi-official collection points in the East Bay area where random strangers line up along with random cars.

Every car picks up either one (for two seaters or if there are already two people in the car) or two (to make three total) people in order to create a carpool only for the purpose of crossing the Bay Bridge quicker.

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I first started as mainly being a driver when I was commuting from Dublin in the far reaches of the Bay Area.  I would pull off the I-580 Freeway into a neighborhood and line up beneath a sign that designated it as a carpool collection point (the various cities do generally supply signage but don’t officially publicize or take responsibility for the activity).

The disadvantage of the point I chose as a driver (as with all of them) is that sometimes there would be more cars than people, so there would be several cars waiting, once at the front of the line often one person would get in and then we both waited for a second rider.

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Once we moved into Oakland (closer to the Bridge) I sometimes drove but more often transitioned into a rider and would walk down our hill past the local bakery, buy a couple of fresh-baked rolls to eat while waiting, and head to the collection point in the parking lot under the I-580 overpass to stand in line and get into a random stranger’s car along with another stranger which is where I believe the above picture was taken.

You’ll note that the last two pictures above seem to show areas that no sane person would loiter in for any longer than absolutely necessary but think about it if it’s raining; under an overpass or a bridge makes for a much more comfortable(and drier) wait.  Both those pictures were in Oakland, parts of which are quite rough but the unsavory types (if there ever were any) picked other, less populated places to be.  Other parts of Oakland are extremely nice and very expensive but aren’t the parts that ever make the news unless engulfed in a massive fire such as the one in 1991.

Anyway, this was a more trafficked stop than the one I used to use but it was still somewhat hit or miss if there were more cars than people or vice versa.  However, the wait was almost always far preferable to being stuck in the toll plaza as a solo driver.

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There are several major unwritten rules to the process.

  1. Never are there to be more than three people in a car. Doing so would deprive others of the benefit.  People will split up if they are a larger party, they all end up at the same place.
  2. One must get in the car that pulls up. There is no telling someone to go ahead of you to get into the primered Monte Carlo because you want to get into the new Mercedes S-Class that pulls up behind it.  Luck of the draw.
  3. One does not speak to the driver unless spoken to first, beyond perhaps a perfunctory “Good Morning”. Most rides pass in silence.
  4. The driver controls the audio system and the only generally acceptable entertainment is NPR.
  5. The driver controls the HVAC. A polite driver will inquire as to occupant comfort, a rider virtually never asks for a change, even when asked.
  6. The driver should practice their best driving behavior and passengers should buckle up without being asked to do so.

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Once the passengers are in the car, the driver pulls into traffic and onto the freeway, enters the carpool lanes in the toll plaza, crosses the Bay Bridge and exits at the Fremont Street exit for San Francisco (the first exit which is actually still on the bridge), dropping everyone off at the corner of Fremont and Mission from which point everyone makes their own way onward.

A particularly nice driver may state during the ride where they (the driver) is heading to, sometimes this is more convenient for one or more of the riders and thus works out for everyone but if not, the standard drop off point is the default.

Most passengers simply walk to their office (I myself faced a half-hour walk to the South Of Market office where I worked) and the drivers take their car to their parking place wherever it is in the city or beyond, oftentimes nowhere near the drop off point.

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One of my most memorable rides included being a passenger in one of the first Toyota Priuses sold in California.  I broke protocol by speaking and asking the driver all about it, she was thrilled to explain it all to me and showed me the screen that shows when and where the power was cycling to and from in the car and it was quite an enjoyable experience that opened my eyes to the near future.

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Another time was less enjoyable.  It was a typically rainy fall day and I thought I did well by getting into a Toyota Previa with lots of space in the middle row.  However it became evident that the driver did not believe in ventilation and kept the fan in the OFF position with the selector on recirculate, thus making the van a sealed box.

With zero airflow it was quite warm, clammy and claustrophobic in the van and I was feeling decidedly queasy by the time the ride was over.  To this day I absolutely require some sort of airflow in a car and usually prefer to even have my own window open as compared to just running the fan.

In general though it was just a lot of fun for a car geek like myself to be in a different car every day, especially newer or higher-end ones.  If the car was mundane I’d just zone out, but more often than not it was interesting.

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From the time most of us were little kids, especially in large population centers, our parents generally told us to not get into strangers’ cars and not to pick up random strangers.  On the whole that’s probably good advice.  There is the potential for many things to go wrong.

Casual Carpool, while not perfect and could technically be considered hitchhiking by a different name, does have a generally excellent safety record.  There were/are however sites (as well as Craigslist) where people will post cars to avoid getting into, be it due to a bad or unsafe driver or just getting a creepy vibe etc.

Generally people will shy away from a white cargo van without windows and all of a sudden find reasons to leave the line and walk around the block, no matter how much free candy may be on the dashboard.  I’m obviously exaggerating but you catch my drift.  For the most part, it’s just regular people and regular drivers in cars both old and new, cheap and expensive, trying to get where they are going for either the least amount of money or using the least amount of time.

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Coming home at the end of the day is a bit different.  While Casual Carpool does exist, it is a mere shadow of the morning situation.  One reason is there is no toll heading East across the bridge.  Another is that all of the approaches are bad traffic-wise, even the carpool access lanes on the on-ramps (of which fewer exist).

As for myself, I generally just walked back to the TransBay Terminal and got on the next ACTransit bus headed for my area of Oakland.  When I drove I never bothered with picking anyone up, there was no advantage.

The main reasons for taking someone with you would be if you were going further out along routes that have carpool lanes such as I-80 through Berkeley and beyond, for which there is a single pickup area with signage based on final destination, thus providing a benefit once more.

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Overall it was a great option to have.  I have taken BART in to the city (limited schedule, also cramped with poor ventilation and expensive), owned and ridden a motorcycle (fun but also often scary, a pain in bad weather, story is here), and driven by myself (boring and expensive).

I give high marks to Casual Carpool and while I no longer live in the area myself still have several friends that use it every day.  If I was in the same live/work situation again I would certainly still use it.