New Bay area experience: the casual carpool

Thursday while I was at the office I was bantering with one of the IT people as he fixed my laptop privacy screen (which is essential now that I’m working during my commutes on the ferry). He mentioned that he commutes daily from Vallejo. “Yeah, so I do I,” I said. “Do you take the carpool?” he asked. When I responded with a puzzled no, he proceeded to tell me about the casual carpool, which he has been taking into San Francisco for a very long time. And which costs him $1.25 per ride. Say what?!!!

My cushy ferry ride takes one hour and costs $9.75 each way, and that’s with the Clipper Card discount. Less than $2 round trip sounds outrageously cheap, so I ask him to give me more details. One of the two pick up and drop off locations in Vallejo is conveniently around the corner from the ferry terminal and parking lot where my car is located. As he filled me in with the details, it occurred to me that we could do better than just a conversation; since we leave the office around the same time, he could show me the casual carpool system that day. He agreed to be my guide, and so I had a great adventure that afternoon!

Casual or ad hoc carpooling has apparently been going on for many years, and there is a robust infrastructure supporting it. At the edge of the Financial District — on Spear Street between Howard and Folsom — there are a series of permanent signs marking where the queues begin for the various drop off points: Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, Fairfield, Oakland (multiple points), and Vallejo. We queue up and he introduces me to fellow passengers he has met over the years who patiently wait their turn. Cars pull up every minute or two, picking up people from the front of the queue.

There are two stops in Vallejo that are commonly used: Lemon and Maine. My office pal offers to ride with me to Maine — the stop near the ferry parking lot — even though he usually goes to Lemon. After about 15 minutes of waiting we finally get lucky when a mini-van pulls up, the driver holding up his hand fully extended and wiggling his fingers: he can take five passengers. We hop in, passing forward our neatly folded bills and coins. He carefully stashes the money away, then we’re off to the nearby carpool lane entrance to the Bay Bridge.

This is the impetus behind casual carpools: carpool or HOV lanes are faster and the bridge tolls are reduced. Filling your car with other passengers who are willing to give you a dollar or two not only gets drivers to their destination faster, it also covers the toll and may give one a buck or two more for fuel. Passengers benefit by paying much less than the standard public transit fare. A ride on the BART to any East Bay stop is at least $3.00, but you can get in a casual carpool for less than that and you may make better time, too.

Because we were trying to stick together in the same vehicle my work pal and I missed a few opportunities to get to our destination more quickly. If I had taken the ferry this time I would have made it to my car about 10 minutes earlier. But I wouldn’t have experienced my very first trip across the Bay Bridge, and the running commentary about the communities we passed through on our way up 880 to Vallejo. I learned a lot about the area, met some fun people, and had a great adventure. All for $1.25. 🙂

Chocolate Breeze

There’s this chocolate factory just west of the Loop (business district) in Chicago. Every once in a while — if the wind is just right and they’re working on a fresh batch — the aroma of chocolate envelops you as you walk across the river from the commuter train station. I think it smells like baking brownies and it is a delicious way to start your day.

When I bike into work, I ride right by the chocolate factory and always get to catch that heavenly smell. Just a few minutes away on my bike route is the bread factory which smells equally delicious. Bread and chocolate in the morning…sounds like a great combination to me.   

The chocolate factory is on the west side of the river, and for some reason the smell doesn’t seem to make it across the water. Maybe it’s all those tall office buildings in the way. Whatever it is, by the time you get across the river, the smell is gone and you’re back to the usual urban sensory data: cars, buses, and all of their attendant sounds and odors.

I often enjoy my short walk across the river and wish I had a camera handy. The sights are usually quite pleasing: commuter boats (yes, during the warmer months here you can complete your commute via boat to the east side of the Loop instead of walking it), ducks, sculling crews, barges (reminding us that the river really is still used for commerce and not just pleasure), and patterns in the current. I guess since I usually can’t juggle a camera, a loaded backpack, and a cup of coffee, these sights, sounds and smells will remain my private pleasure. But you can imagine you’re here, walking next to me, enjoying them, too.