Casual carpool hits a speed bump

In the Bay Area we like to pride ourselves on community, sharing and leading the country in all things green. The casual carpool--a symbiotic relationship between drivers and riders heading into the city from the East Bay on their daily commute--has all of these. Drivers pick up unknown passengers from informally organized sites, and carry them across the Bay. They win by avoiding the bridge toll while zipping through the carpool lane. And riders win by saving at least $2.90 in BART fares. But come July 1, carpool vehicles will have to pay a $2.50 toll, which could make the casual carpool a bit more of a bumpy ride. Nancy Lopez reports.

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NANCY LÓPEZ: It’s early Monday morning and there’s a line of people standing outside the North Berkeley BART station, near the newspaper racks along Sacramento Street. The single file line ebbs and flows as people are swept away by a steady stream of drivers headed across the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco.

And they’re all doing each other a huge favor. The driver gets through the bridge’s carpool lane for free, the riders avoid the $3.70 it costs to BART to the city. And riders have been doing this for a long time.

WOMAN1: For about 10 years.

WOMAN2: About 15 years.

MAN1: For 21 years.

MAN2: Since 2000. I think that was when the last BART strike happened and my wife and I discovered it as an alternate.

Completely self-regulated and based entirely on trust, the casual carpool system runs like a well-oiled machine. Kristin Anderson has been a casual carpooler for ten years.

KRISTIN ANDERSON: I’ve never had a problem. Only one time did a car overheat and actually another casual carpool behind us picked us up, so yeah, it’s always worked. It’s great. I love it.

Carpoolers call it a win-win situation. They save money and they alleviate traffic for the rest of the city.

RANDY RENTSCHLER: Sure, of course. I think everyone likes this notion that they can do something to take a car off the road.

Randy Rentschler works for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, also known as the Bay Area Toll Authority.

RENTSCHLER: They clearly are probably feeling good about the fact that they’re saving energy, not just their own wallet but they’re actually contributing to climate, contributing to this nation’s dependence on oil, even albeit in this very small way.

This same notion of sharing the burden is what brought on the new toll for all car pool vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge. Rentschler says the Commission had to generate an extra $165 million a year to fund the seismic retrofit of the bay area toll bridges.

RENTSCHLER: Of that amount carpoolers are paying about twenty-five million bucks.

In other words, paying their part. According to data from the Bay Area Toll Authority, almost half the traffic on the Bay Bridge during peak morning hours, between seven and eight in the morning, is carpool vehicles.

RENTSCHLER: And to a certain extent it just got to be a question of fairness. At what point are you offering an incentive for carpoolers that’s not really an incentive anymore. It’s kind of a giveaway. When we’re charging everyone five bucks, why don’t the carpoolers have to pay for seismic safety as well? How come they get to go by me and save twenty minutes on the trip in some cases but also get to go free? And really that was the question that was before the commission.

LISA THOMPSON: You know, I talked to one of the drivers and they said they’d continue to drive and not charge anybody. That it was worth their time to go swiftly across the bridge.

JOEL LARMAN: Some people have said, if a driver pulls up and wants to charge maybe they should have a little sign, hey you’re going to have to contribute here.

Joel Larman has been casual carpooling for about a year.

LARMAN: I think it could get a little bit bad blood in that if you get in a car and some drivers are going to want payment and some of the riders are not going to want to give it so I think people are going to have to agree on how it’s going to work

RENTSCHLER: We know that casual carpool culture exists and that the charging of a toll is going to affect it. Are people gonna ask people to help pay for it, are they gonna provide rides for free and not worry about it, these are all decisions that are gonna be made by the individuals who participate in this. It’s one of these things that also happens when government just leaves it alone, just let it do what it does.

For some, casual carpooling is still the best alternative. Like Christine Schwitzer.

CHRISTINE SCHWITZER: If for whatever reason a driver asks me to chip in fifty cents, that’s fine. I mean I, it’s still cheaper than taking BART so I would be okay doing it.

And as far as Rentschler is concerned, casual carpooling will survive.

RENTSCHLER: Casual carpooling is a fact that really identifies a whole bunch of interesting cultural phenomena in the Bay Area. It shows a great deal of trust, of a society that has a lot of shared values and we should encourage them to every extent that we can.

Nancy López is a reporter at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.