Carpooling, Casually

OK — the demands of a real, honest-to-goodness 9-to-5 week (at KQED-FM, where I’ve been working in the news department on and off since last December) and of my recent Tour de France blogging have kept me away from my posts here. Here’s a sliver of an update

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During the past week, I’ve become reacquainted with the casual carpool. For the uninitiated, the casual carpool is a completely spontaneous system of catching a commute hour ride across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. It started back in the 1970s or ’80s (I’m sure someone has written a history). A single simple element of our regional A.M. commute regime seems to make the system go: the free lane that permits carpools and other “high-occupancy vehicles” like buses to skip the long backup at the Bay Bridge toll plaza. At first, the lane ran parallel to just the final half-mile or so of freeway lanes to the toll plaza; now it’s connected to an HOV lane that stretches all the way to Vallejo, about 20 miles north of the bridge.

But way back when, just that first little segment of carpool lane and its promise of a way around the backup created the incentive for people to pick up a couple of riders on the Berkeley and Oakland side of the bridge and drive them to downtown San Francisco. It was easy for drivers to figure out where to pick up riders: at BART stations and at AC Transit bus stops. In fact, AC Transit hated the casual carpool when it appeared because it was siphoning away morning ridership (for a variety of practical reasons, casual carpooling has not caught for the eastbound, evening commute). At one point, the agency prevailed upon the city of Oakland to put up “no stopping” signs at its bus stops, and police were on hand to ticket violators.

The most often commented upon aspects of the casual carpool are, first, the willingness of total strangers to pick up or ride with each other to work and, second, the typical silence of the casual commute vehicle. I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery about the willingness to cooperate with strangers. Everyone gets something out of the deal. Perhaps the level of trust people display is surprising–I’m guessing that very few people who casual carpool would pick up a random hitchhiker or thumb a ride themselves. But in the quarter-century or more this has been going on, I, at least, have never heard about a crime connected with the casual carpool (the much bigger risk is getting into an accident with some nutso driver). And as far as the silence goes, it is typical but not absolute. I’ve had a conversation with a federal appeals court judge and listened as a fellow rider told the driver, a doctor, all about his prostate condition. Every once in a while I still see that guy around the neighborhood and sometimes call out to him, “How’s your prostate?”

We live a couple blocks from the North Berkeley BART station, a long-time casual carpooling hotspot. Commuters and drivers start appearing at the Sacramento Street curb about 6 a.m. Carpooling hours last until 10 a.m., and it’s not unusual to see diehard drivers or riders waiting as late as 9:55 in hopes of a free ride. Every day is a study in the shifting sands of supply and demand. Many days, two or three hopeful riders will be lined up on the curb with not a car in sight. A sudden flurry of drivers can clear the backlog in 10 minutes or less. Other days, a dozen cars will be queued up around the nearest corner–maybe because potential riders have heard that there’s a monstrous backup over the bridge and BART is a better bet for the day.

The system hasn’t changed much since I first used it in 1990. The one refinement I’ve noticed happened in the late ’90s, when drivers started soliciting riders going further west than the usual drop-off location at Fremont and Howard streets. Soon, two lines of riders started forming: one for downtown, one for Civic Center. During my last stint of employment in the city, I took a Civic Center ride nearly every day. My dropoff point, at Eighth and Harrison streets, was a five-minute walk from work (it’s about 15 or 20 minutes from KQED).

Last week, I found the system as quirky but reliable as ever. Still two lines. Still no telling how long one might wait for a ride. Stiil nearly no conversation among those going in to work together, not even about prostates.

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