Carpooling: Anything but Casual

You stand in line, often within sight of a BART station, hop in a stranger’s car, and wait for a couple other commuters to join you. Then you take off for the Bay Bridge.

Casual carpools can have bad moments: no assurance either riders or drivers will show up, cars that smell like wet dogs or gym bags, the driver who always takes a ridiculously long, non-carpool-lane route thinking that it’s a shortcut (it’s not—the whole thing about the carpool lane is that it’s fast!). People rarely talk—the usual soundtrack to the commute is loud NPR, coupled with the occasional book-on-tape. It’s almost impossible to read or nap, as people often do on public transit.

But public transit comes with a price tag: a commuter who rides BART back and forth from Rockridge to Embarcadero five days a week spends around $115 each month—and that’s a short ride compared to many commutes. Add the cost of city bus rides at $1.50 and a weekend drive over a bridge, and the money you hoped to save by living in cheaper areas of the Bay Area and commuting to work is already gone.

Still, the cost of public transportation is nothing compared to driving solo. Yanni Zhao, an Oakland resident who drives to UCSF every day, spends about $250 a month for parking, gas, and tolls. She says she’d rather carpool, but she hasn’t found anyone who wants to share the ride. In the meantime, she’d rather drive alone than take transit: “If I take public transportation,” she notes, “it takes about one and half hours of commute time for coming to work and even longer to go back home.” Driving shaves off about 45 minutes each way, even if she hits a moderate traffic jam, which she says doesn’t happen too often these days—Zhao works 7:30 to 4:30, so she’s en route when traffic is lighter than at peak commute hours She also says she prefers the flexibility of driving, since driving gives her the option of working late, picking up her son from preschool, or doing errands after work.

Despite the cost, 63 percent of all Bay Area commuters brave the traffic alone. But a surprisingly large number carpool—more, in fact, than take BART, buses, ferries, and Caltrain combined. At last count, 18 percent carpool and about 13 percent take some form of public transportation. Formal carpooling is highest among people who travel the greatest distances to work, and in these places public transit use is lowest. In Solano, Santa Clara, and Sonoma counties, under 5 percent of commuters use transit, while 19 percent carpool. Public transit is far more common in densely populated areas; in San Francisco County transit users outnumber carpoolers by 35 to 11 percent. Alameda County has the next highest rate of transit use at 15 percent but that still doesn’t match the 17 percent who carpool.

I often intersperse my BART rides with a casual carpool when I want to save money. My pickup spot in Rockridge is just one of twenty “known” spots in the Bay Area (although there may be many more low-volume pickup sites that go unnoticed). Riders line up and wait for drivers; once the car has the minimum number to qualify for the carpool lane—three to cross the Bay Bridge—it takes off for San Francisco, breezing past the bottlenecked toll plaza and the metering lights. Getting from my pickup to the dropoff in downtown SF usually takes between ten and fifteen minutes, making the carpool a good five to ten minutes faster than BART.

The stats agree with personal experience: almost nine out of ten carpool lane commuters save time. Savings have decreased in the last two years as congestion in the other lanes has decreased, but the 230 miles of new carpool lanes Caltrans plans to build over the next 20 years might reverse that trend. One in four casual commuters say they would not continue carpooling without access to a carpool lane, according to a 2003 report by RIDES for Bay Area Commuters, a nonprofit group that operates the Bay Area’s Regional Rideshare Program.

Not all carpools are informal, and not all Bay Area carpools function as direct substitutes for public transit. Vans wend their way up I-80, delivering East Bay residents to UC Davis; others go from the Sacramento Valley to the southernmost reaches of Contra Costa County. These formal carpools carry those commuting long distances or between hard-to-reach places. Formal carpools are more reliable than their casual counterparts, since people depend on them for longer rides and can’t just hop on BART if the carpool never shows up.

But from an environmental perspective, is carpooling a sound option, or does it simply keep afloat a dependence on cars and highways? If drivers had no one to carpool with, would they switch to public transit? Research Manager Steve Beroldo of RIDES says casual carpooling does add cars to the road—between 450 and 650 per day, based on data from a 1998 report. The report shows that 31.5 percent of drivers in casual carpools would stop driving to work if they no longer had passengers to pick up, while only 5 percent of passengers would start driving if casual carpooling weren’t an option. Beroldo says this doesn’t hold true for formal carpools, which decrease the number of single drivers without taking riders away from transit. Still, he says, casual carpooling isn’t all bad—it reduces crowding on public transit.

But might not overcrowding of the transit system be followed by service increases, since transit would gain revenue from more riders? Beroldo points out that fares don’t cover the costs of operation. According to BART’s 2004 report, the system has operated at a deficit of around $140,000 for the last two fiscal years. Revenue is made up through assistance from state programs, as well as through increases in property and sales taxes.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson argues that increased ridership would indeed help the system expand its service. “BART has the highest operating farebox recovery ratio of any US public transit system,” Johnson says—BART fares pay for an unusually high percentage of the system’s operating costs.

One thing is clear: the Bay Area has seen an increase in air pollution in recent years, and cars are largely to blame. This year, BART instituted a policy of waiving some fares for the first five Spare the Air Days. The rides are free for several hours during the morning commute. Johnson says BART’s new policy responds to a threat both environmental and financial. “California stands to lose a lot of money if our pollution levels exceed the legal limit,” he says, “so [encouraging people to take BART instead of driving on certain days] is in everyone’s interest.”•t

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