riders -- casual carpooling rolls on with few hassles
30-year-old social experiment rated high by commuters
Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, January 31,
This is the one line people actually like to stand in. Or
park in, for that matter.
Every weekday morning, mostly in the East Bay, you see
them lined up like lemmings -- sedans, SUVs, pickup trucks
and the odd sports car, creeping along the curb. Coming up
the sidewalk toward them, dressed for the day's battle with
the city, are the hardy commuters.
It's the casual carpool, a free-form, almost completely
unorganized amalgam of that rare thing in the social economy
-- something that actually works, an idea that benefits most
of the people involved. Cars heading for San Francisco get
filled with people going in the same direction, and the
drivers can use carpool lanes to bypass the wait at the Bay
Bridge tollbooths and, as lagniappe, save $3 a day.
Now the carpool experiment -- though it's probably unfair
to call a 30- year-old activity an experiment -- has spread
from its birthplaces in Oakland and Berkeley into such
far-flung places as Vallejo and Fairfield, growing even as
the Bay Area grows.
"It's better than BART. I can always get a seat,
it's free, it's faster, and I hate to drive," said
Helen Wolff, a 26-year-old attorney who has been getting
rides to the city from a carpool pickup point near the
Safeway on Claremont Avenue in Oakland for the past four
months. "It's the closest I'll come to hitchhiking. It
adds a bit of adventure to the morning commute."
Wolff is one of hundreds or even thousands of people, for
all anyone knows -- the beauty of this operation is that no
government agency monitors it -- who are part of a commuting
venture that has produced its own culture of behavior, the
do's and don'ts of being a rider and driver.
Most of the region's casual carpoolers appear to come
from Albany, Berkeley and Oakland, and most of them seem to
work in downtown San Francisco, usually a ride of 20 to 30
minutes from the inner East Bay. And what do they do during
For the most part, nothing. Somewhere along the line, a
form of etiquette evolved that goes like this: no smoking,
don't use your cell phone, driver chooses the radio station
(normally, it's classical music, jazz or, particularly from
Berkeley cars, National Public Radio), and, above all, only
the driver may initiate conversation.
But like many things that purport to have rules, and
people being who they are, the rules get broken.
Michael Floss, a 45-year-old banker, said he's caught
rides from three places -- Oakland's Lake Merritt, North
Berkeley near the BART station and the Claremont
"The Lake Merritt rides were more friendly, more
talkative," Floss said. "The rules about driver
starting conversation weren't as rigid. On one of my first
rides, it turned out the driver and I work at the same
Floss once recommended to some friends who were traveling
around the world on $25 a day that they take the carpool to
San Francisco as a cheap way of getting to town.
"So they're chatting to the driver and as he pulls
over to let them out, he hands them a $100 bill and says, 'I
hope you can stay a couple more days in San Francisco,'
" Floss said.
On the other hand, given that human behavior isn't always
perfect, there can be a few wrinkles in this carpool
business. Although the California Highway Patrol and local
police could not recall any major crimes associated with the
casual carpool system, there are unverified and isolated
reports about quirky drivers, the kind you think twice about
when the car pulls up, and even quirky riders.
One woman, according to Wolff, has been known to walk up
to an SUV and open the door as if she were about to get in.
She suddenly "goes on a tirade, shouting, 'Shame on you
for driving an SUV! You're ruining the environment!' "
Wolff said. "Then she slams the door and takes the car
behind the SUV."
The other day, standing in the Rockridge queue,
47-year-old Stacey Weinberger was first in line for the next
car, a two-seat Thunderbird. (Two- seat cars with two
passengers are allowed in the Bay Bridge carpool lanes.)
Weinberger bent down to have a look at the driver, saw it
was a man, and opted for the next car.
"I'm not comfortable riding in a two-seater with
people I don't know," Weinberger said. She was one of
several women who said they think twice about riding in a
two-seater driven by a man.
But the occasional aberrations are the exceptions. San
Francisco police robbery division Inspector Ray Ragona said
he had never heard of a rider or driver filing a crime
report after carpooling into the city, and he applauded the
carpool system as "one of those strange things that
actually works. I let a total stranger in my car, and he
might be an ax murderer out of Arkansas, but I've never
heard of any such crimes (in the Bay Area carpools)."
Bob Berndt, 41, who comes in from Orinda and picks up
passengers in Oakland, said that in three years of driving
commuters, "I've seen nothing odd. The only thing I
notice is that people bring their own kinds of phobias, like
adjusting the seat or the air vents, but it's no big deal.
They're establishing their space."
And Jennifer Lee, a 34-year-old writer who was getting a
lift in Berndt's Volvo wagon recently, said, "In four
years (of carpooling), I've met only one odd person. He's a
retired man who picks up people and drives them to the city.
He's very talkative.
"He said, 'I do this because I want to meet people.'
He was friendly. But clearly lonely."
For the retiree driving in from Oakland, it's not an
onerous journey -- half an hour at best. From Solano County,
it's more than twice the distance, but in Solano County, one
of the fastest-growing counties of California, distance
doesn't seem to matter. Each day, hundreds of commuters from
Vallejo and even farther afield pour onto Interstate 80 and
The other day, shortly after 7 a.m., a reporter picked up
two commuters at the main rendezvous point in Vallejo, the
big Caltrans park-and-ride lot at Curtola Parkway and Lemon
Street. The lot, where commuters leave their cars for the
day, is usually full by 6:30 a.m.
The 30-mile ride from Vallejo to downtown San Francisco
seems more casual than the journeys from Oakland or Berkeley
-- three people are cooped up in a car for as much as an
hour, and they tend to get to know each other over the long
"I think it's kind of like networking," Oscar
Lumanlan, 47, said as the car slipped into the carpool lane
about six miles south of the Carquinez Bridge. The Financial
District worker said the long ride to work encourages
conversation, and he's used it as an opportunity to
"learn a lot of things" from his fellow
His co-rider, 45-year-old computer expert Tim Savage,
said he's even discovered a new wrinkle on the traditional
journey. Savage said that when he was driving passengers
into San Francisco from Vallejo, he learned that many of
them actually work in Oakland. They find it faster to
carpool into San Francisco and then take BART back to
Oakland than it would have been driving solo from Vallejo
down the creep-and-crawl I-80 corridor.
In the evening, there's a reverse commute from San
Francisco -- drivers returning to Vallejo, Fairfield and
elsewhere pick up riders on Beale Street, between Howard and
"I actually get home earlier than if I drove into
the city myself," Savage said.
For more details
More information about the Bay Area's casual carpooling
can be found at www.ridenow.org/carpool,
created by UC Berkeley computer programmer Dan Kirshner.
-- Rules Of The Road
Over the years, casual carpoolers have developed an
informal etiquette. Here are some of the doís and
- If there are more cars than waiting riders, itís a
max of three people to a car. But when there are many riders
and only the occasionally arriving car, itís OK for a
rider to ask the driver, ďWill you take three?Ē
- First come, first served. Riders should stay in the
queue. Be polite.
- Same thing for drivers: Donít drive around the
neighborhood looking for riders who are heading for the
carpool pickup point. Itís unfair for the drivers who have
been waiting in line. Itís OK for women to decline a ride
in a two-seater driven by a man, letting the first man in
line take the ride instead.
- No talking during the ride, unless itís initiated by
the driver. But itís all right to break that rule if you
see a big truck wandering into your lane and think perhaps
you should warn the driver.
- Radios, if theyíre on at all, are tuned to jazz or
classical music, or to National Public Radio. KCBS is too
jangly and hot for that hour of the morning.
- No smoking. No eating. No drinking. This brings up the
delicate subject of telling the prospective rider, who has
one leg into your car, ďIíd prefer it if you did not
bring your 12-ounce decaf soy milk latte into my car, where
you may well spill it.Ē
- No using cell phones. Stifle the ringer.
- Everyone should buckle up.
- Let people out at Fremont and Howard streets. Itís OK
for passengers to ask drivers to let them out farther down
Howard or up in the Financial District, if thatís where
the car is headed.
1. Claremont and College. By the Union 76 gas station on
the north side of Claremont.
2. Hudson and Claremont. Under Hwy 24 on Hudson, just
3. Grand and Perkins. On the north side of Grand, by the
Shell sign next to AC Transit stop.
4. Lakeshore and Grand. Under I-580 in parking lot, on
the left as you enter.
5. Oakland and Monte Vista. At the intersection of
Oakland and Monte Vista.
6. Park and Hampel. Near TransBay bus stop on Park and
7. Park and Hollywood. Adjacent to TransBay bus stops on
Park between Trestle Glen and Hollywood.
8. High St and MacArthur. At the vacant lot on the
corner. -- Piedmont
9. Oakland and Hillside. On Oakland Avenue, just east of
Hillside.. -- Oakland
Fruitvale & Montana. Just north of Park and Ride lot
on Montana by Flagg.
Moraga Way. North side of Moraga Way, west of School
BART North of the station, just outside and to the right
of the parking lot.
Encinal and Park Ave. On the northeast corner of Encinal
and Park Ave.
-- Emeryville marina
Powell St. between Admiral and Commodore.
North Berkeley BART. On Sacramento, east of the entrance
to the BART station. Some rides to Civic Center. Just carry
a sign saying ďCivic Center.Ē
-- El Cerrito
Del Norte BART. On Eastshore, just south of HomeLife. Do
not park in the HomeLife parking lot. You will be
Pierce St. south of Central Ave. Across the street from
the Pacific Far East shopping mall.
Richmond Parkway Park and Ride. Richmond Parkway just
west of I-80. Caution: the lot fills early (7 a.m.). You may
be towed if you park in the adjacent shopping center lot.
Park and Ride. In the lot, near 80 on San Pablo Ave.,
just north of Sycamore. Caution: the lot has been filling
up. Please do not park illegally; cars will be towed.
-- Orinda BART
In the alley on the north side of Theater Square.
1. Fairfield Transportation Center.
Cadenasso Dr. near Beck Ave south of I-80 W. Texas St.
2. Starting today: Corner of Cadenasso and Magellan.
E-mail Michael Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page A - 1
San Francisco Chronicle