Casual carpoolers cruise through BART strike

Casual carpoolers cruise through BART strike

Michele Ellson

Alameda's casual carpool spots.

When Audrey Crane moved to Alameda two and a half years ago, she researched her different options for commuting to work. After trying each one for a week, she elected to use Alameda’s casual carpool to get to work each day.

“It’s really fast, for sure,” said Crane, who has transitioned from passenger to driver in her carpooling years. “I really enjoy the people I meet in casual carpool.”

Last week’s BART strike forced tens of thousands of Bay Area commuters to find other ways to get to work. Here in Alameda, most packed themselves onto ferries – the most advertised alternative for transit-takers – or hopped on transbay buses, while the Island’s West End carpool lineup, on Santa Clara Avenue at Webster Street, had about a half dozen waiting passengers on the first day of the strike.

Casual carpoolers say it’s the cheapest and fastest way to get into San Francisco, with many drivers trading the convenience of using the Bay Bridge carpool lane – and the $3.50 carpool discount on a peak-hour bridge toll – for compensation from riders.

“Love it! Do it almost every morning. The best way to commute,” carpooler Ezra Denney wrote on The Alamedan’s Facebook page.

The informal ride shares got their start in the East Bay 30 years ago, according to ridenow.org, a casual carpool website created and maintained by Dan Kirshner. Riders line up at designated spots – in addition to the West End carpool line, there’s one on Encinal Avenue at Park Avenue – for a ride across the Bay Bridge, to Fremont and Howard streets downtown.

Unlike some other East Bay cities, there are no carpools back from San Francisco to Alameda, so riders must seek out other options for getting home; 511.org has a ride match service, in addition to the wealth of information it offers on transit and other commute options. Crane, for example, said she took a transbay bus home during her years as a carpool passenger.

While the carpools are informal in nature, there are generally accepted rules for their use. Drivers are urged to form as many carpools as possible, drive carefully, keep the radio to a dull roar and stay off their cell phones while passengers are in the car, while passengers are expected not to line-jump or bring food or drink into someone else’s car, and also to allow drivers to initiate conversation.

And while carpool riders The Alamedan talked with said they haven’t really had any issues using casual carpool – save some silent rides into the city – they said it’s okay to refuse a ride and wait for the next car in line. Women may choose not to ride alone with a man driving a two-seat vehicle, for example.

Drivers may request – and passengers may offer – some money to cover a share of the bridge toll, though Crane said that most of the drivers she’s ridden with don’t ask.

“A few people have a cup. It’s their way of asking for a dollar,” Crane said.

In contrast, a one-way BART ride from downtown Oakland to downtown San Francisco costs $3.15, transbay bus service costs $4.20, and a one-way ferry ticket is $6.25 from the San Francisco Bay Ferry’s Main Street terminal and $6.50 from Harbor Bay. Driving solo across the Bay Bridge during peak commute times costs $6, plus gas.

The Alamedan walked to the West End stop Wednesday morning and immediately jumped into a Prius waiting for a second passenger to carpool into the city. The driver made light conversation about the strike and the larger-than-normal line of bus riders outside the exit from the Posey Tube, in Oakland, as the car breezed across the Island and onto the Bay Bridge. The car’s back seat pockets were stuffed with children’s books, and Pokemon and other stickers adorned the interior.

The car glided slowly but surely through the Bay Bridge carpool lane as vehicles in the lanes beside it waited at a standstill for their turn to pass through the toll gates. After 32 minutes, the car reached its downtown destination, its driver disgorging passengers without requesting any money for tolls.

Drivers can take passengers further than the designated dropoff point, if they’re headed in the same direction. Meanwhile, the temporary Transbay Terminal is only a block away from the dropoff site; a reporter hopped a 9 a.m. bus and was back to the Santa Clara Avenue carpool spot in Alameda in 26 minutes.

While problems with the casual carpool appear to be few – ridenow.org shows only occasional reports of issues, and Crane said the East End spot was at one point targeted by a parking enforcement officer – the rides aren’t always predictable. As she waited for a ride Wednesday, carpooler Stacey McDermott said that while the rides usually arrive in under five minutes, she had waited 20 minutes the Friday before the strike for a ride to arrive. The West End carpool line is around the corner from a transbay bus stop, and on Wednesday, several prospective carpoolers opted to take a waiting bus instead waiting for a car to arrive.

Crane said the San Francisco design studio she works for is building an app that she hopes will bring a little more order and certainty to the casual carpool by allowing drivers and riders to check in to see how many people are waiting for rides or to let riders know they’re on their way.

“Every day for the last two years I’ve been sitting in the car with people and thinking, ‘could this work better?’” said Crane, who said a beta version of the app should be available soon. “We’re hoping with this app, people will be more confident (about carpooling). It’s not a good feeling, that feeling of uncertainty, when you have to get to work.”

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