Diary of virgin casual carpooler

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This past weekend I moved into a new apartment in Oakland. As a New Yorker I had spent years walking to work and commuting by subway. But when I moved to the Bay Area to work for TerraPass, I began my adventure with a far more remarkable form of “public” transportation — the casual carpool.

Here’s how it works: car commuters pick up random passengers at designated spots in the East Bay and give them free rides over the Bay Bridge into downtown San Francisco. A driver with two passengers can skip the bridge toll and use the carpool lane to speed past the queue of cars waiting to pay.

The casual carpool is entirely free. Free for the passengers, free for the driver, and provides free additional capacity to the public transportation system. It is the perfect win-win-win. With a pick-up spot less than a block from my apartment, the casual carpool takes me door-to-door in twenty minutes or less.

Monday, Columbus Day, 8:00 AM

I strolled around the corner, thinking I would need an hour to get to work. Fifteen people waited in line, hopping into arriving cars two at a time. For my first ride, I followed an older lady into a late model Acura, and sat shotgun next to Kim, a college student on the way to school.

Kim had me pop in her new Kanye CD so she could sing along to the song she liked. We agreed it was too early in her career for Amy Winehouse to fall apart so completely. I asked how chatty her passengers were. “Depends.” Less than 15 minutes after I left home she dropped me off two blocks from TerraPass. I was a happy commuter. Could it always be this good?

Tuesday

I approached the carpool stop and was surprised to see a line of parked cars. Then I realized the cars were actually drivers waiting for me! I got into a nice BMW driven by a mom in her early forties. An older mom climbed into the back. The three of us had a nice talk about Bay Area transportation and schools. She dropped me in front of TerraPass twenty minutes later. Not too shabby.

Wednesday

My first nearly silent ride. A Camry. Older lady driver. Twenty minutes. Still free.

Thursday

My first couple. I sat in the back of their Volvo SUV and was ignored for the whole ride. They discussed plans for picking up kids, coaching practices, Thanksgiving, etc. I was just cargo, but the delivery went straight to my office door in twenty minutes.

. . .

Sure, I take a bus back at night, but my mornings could not be easier and I get the bonus of drawing a low-stakes social wildcard before work. More importantly, I witness each day how incentives can be aligned in a way to save money and time for everyone while reducing environmental impact. Not a bad lesson in these times.

Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Mercybell.

Author Bio

michael

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  1. EthanS - October 15, 2007

    This is surprisingly common in the Washington DC region, where it is called “slugging”. It occurs in large volume on I-95 outside the Beltway in Northern Virginia, where there are limited-access express HOV2 rush-hour lanes (High Occupancy Vehicle, 2 persons or more).

  2. Anonymous - October 17, 2007

    Why doesn’t this occur in Seattle? After having worked or gone to school in the city for 15 years, I’m surprised that it doesn’t seem to exist here.

  3. Monty - October 17, 2007

    I also live in the Seattle area, and this seems like such an easy way to reduce traffic issues. Simply use park and rides on either side of 520 / I-90 and have an area where cars could pull over to pick people up. Then they can car pool their way to the other side of the lake. Seems like a brilliant solution to keeping cars off the road.

  4. Kathy - October 17, 2007

    I was a casual carpooler for years in the Bay Area; also on occasion I was the driver of a casual carpool car. It’s a great way to get to work. I rode BART on the way back. Now I live out in the country in Northern Calfornia and drive a Prius. Life is good.

  5. janet - October 17, 2007

    what a marvellous idea! it might not work here in fresno, where we have air quality roughly equivalent to los angeles, but, unfortunately, the crime rate is such that i think most of us would hesitate before riding with strangers. the people in the nearby mountain communities who work in town use park and ride, and i hear it’s successful for them.

  6. Rhoda - October 17, 2007

    I live in Somerville, MA, a densely populated small city next to Boston. I’ve often wanted to pull over to the bus stand by the side of the major roads and offer to take anyone along the way to where I’m heading, out of pure neighborliness. But I’m afraid to be met with strange stares. It seems to me that these schemes only work when there’s the financial incentive (pay no toll) and the pollution/congestion reduction or neighborliness factor is a nice secondary reason. In other words, I wonder if it would work if someone tried to start this up “only” to reduce traffic issues, such as the Seattle example posted earlier.

  7. chris - October 17, 2007

    Just FYI – this is also available on the commute back to the East Bay – there are designated spots for pickup along Beal Street in between Howard and Folsom with signs posted for different destinations.

  8. JamesG - October 17, 2007

    Used to jump into nice Volvos and BMWs coming out of Piedmont down to a pick-up spot on Harrison. It was awesome. It’s also great how the express bus stop is right there, too, so you can take the bus if the line is too long or it gets later in the morning.

    Anway, for this to work, it seems like you need some kind of geographical barrier or bottleneck such as the Bay Bridge. I also used to commute to Cal State down in Hayward, and from the Piedmont Avenue area there was no easy way to get there besides driving or 4x longer via BART and multiple buses. Those lucky enough to have a job in downtown SF have it made, but those who have to get to odd spots in faceless suburbia, forget it. Not everywhere in the Bay Area so blessed with this strategy. (Light rail line on 580, anyone?)

  9. paula - October 17, 2007

    Have there been any “scary” incidents? As a woman I would be a little nervous about hopping into the car of a complete stranger – sort of goes against everything we’re taught growing up. Is this regulated in any way, or does it just happen on its own?

  10. Karen - October 18, 2007

    This has existed in Washington DC as a grassroots movement for decades….”slugging.” I know impressive-level government employees who use it for years. One of the largest pick-up lanes is in the parking lot of the Pentagon. There are etiquette and safety rules….check out slug-lines.com for all info.

  11. Jamy - October 19, 2007

    As a recent transplant from NYC, I can empathize with your commuting dilemma–BART and MUNI are nowhere near as good or convenient as the MTA. And they’re nearly 2-3 times as expensive! I also , like you, moved out here to work in the green industry and was shocked at how bad it is, i.e. lack of quality mass transit and total car dependence. I dusted off my bike which didn’t get much use in NY and ride it daily.

    You work for a place that sells indulgence offsets. And yes I buy my CO2 credits from TerraPass to offset my own air travel and limited car travel every year. What are you going to do the first time a Hummer H1 pulls up to the carpool pickup? Will you accept the ride? Unless it’s a plug-in hybrid powered by solar and wind or perhaps a biodiesel car, then you’re making some concession.

    Why did you get a place that requires a commute in the first place? Why not live closer to a BART station? These items were things you chose. Why should humanity pay for your luxuries?

  12. Jamy - October 19, 2007

    As a recent transplant from NYC, I can empathize with your commuting dilemma–BART and MUNI are nowhere near as good or convenient as the MTA. And they’re nearly 2-3 times as expensive! I also , like you, moved out here to work in the green industry and was shocked at how bad it is, i.e. lack of quality mass transit and total car dependence. I dusted off my bike which didn’t get much use in NY and ride it daily.

    You work for a place that sells indulgence offsets. And yes I buy my CO2 credits from TerraPass to offset my own air travel and limited car travel every year. What are you going to do the first time a Hummer H1 pulls up to the carpool pickup? Will you accept the ride? Unless it’s a plug-in hybrid powered by solar and wind or perhaps a biodiesel car, then you’re making some concession.

    Why did you get a place that requires a commute in the first place? Why not live closer to a BART station? These items were things you chose. Why should humanity pay for your luxuries?

  13. Michael Kadish - October 19, 2007

    Hmmm, I haven’t seen any hummers out there yet. Jamy I guess we see carpooling differently. I see it as, the people are driving anyway and taking extra passengers makes sense for everyone. Unfortunately the standard you suggested is so far from today’s reality that the casual carpool would fall apart quickly because 99% of the cars wouldn’t meet it. Which would be a real shame since the carpool itself makes each of these cars far more fuel efficient per passenger mile.
    I just moved here and didn’t realize Oakland was known for “luxury” living. I would politely suggest that housing affordability has something to do with commuting, especially in the Bay Area.

  14. Aaron A. - October 22, 2007

    Jamy (#11 & 12) said:
    What are you going to do the first time a Hummer H1 pulls up to the carpool pickup? Will you accept the ride? Unless it’s a plug-in hybrid powered by solar and wind or perhaps a biodiesel car, then you’re making some concession.
    How so? If the car would be on the road with or without a passenger, you’re still saving gas by hitching a ride, even riding in a Hummer. If you want to get technical, the rider’s presence would increase the loaded weight of the vehicle, thus decreasing its fuel efficiency by 2% or so. But he’s not increasing fuel consumption, congestion, or air pollution nearly as much as he would by putting another single-occupant vehicle on the road.
    Ideally, more of us would get to work without a car; we’d ride bikes and busses and commuter trains like we used to a few short decades ago. If that’s not feasible (which, as Michael suggested, is often determined by the availability of affordable housing), using one vehicle for multiple passengers is the next best thing.
    — A.

  15. Tracy Carroll - July 7, 2008

    Check out NuRide.com – A rewarding way to go.
    This is a dynamic internet based ridesharing system that in a highly comfortable context gives drivers and riders choices of people going their way at their time.
    Plus is that both parties are paid. Paid in points which they then can redeem for credits at local establishments, free or discounted items, etc..
    Slugging is like a one night stand.
    NuRide is like dating
    Carpooling is like marriage.
    Any thoughts on these analogies. Thanks, Tracy