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Carpoolers abandoning the bridge

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It looks like it may be more than just new tolls contributing to the decline of Bay Area carpoolers.

The number of multiperson vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge dropped almost 8 percent between the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years, a decrease that was more than twice as much as overall drop in bridge traffic.

That drop-off does not factor in a new $2.50 toll that has caused carpooling numbers to further plummet.

During the 2009 fiscal year, which runs from July 2008 to June 2009, 4.6 million carpoolers passed for free over the Bay Bridge, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the span. During the 2010 fiscal year, about 4.2 million carpoolers crossed the bridge, a decrease of 7.8 percent.

Traffic levels on the Bay Bridge have been declining steadily since 2004, dropping by 3.7 percent during the past fiscal year. Since July 1, when the MTC implemented its $2.50 toll for carpoolers, the number of multiperson vehicles has dropped another 23 percent.

John Goodwin, spokesman for the MTC, said the excessive drop in carpoolers before the toll was “somewhat mysterious.”

“It’s really hard to come to any firm conclusions on traffic patterns because there are so many factors at work,” Goodwin said.

David Schrank, a researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute, agreed with Goodwin that no single factor is generally responsible for carpooling trends. Economic problems may have hurt industries located in a specific area, forcing workers that once carpooled together to travel to new jobs at different areas of the Bay, he said. Also, more expensive parking rates and the increase of telecommuting may play a role.

“This is a very complex issue,” Schrank said. “I don’t know if there will ever be a clear answer to the decline.”

Susan Shaheen, with UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, said work public furlough days and job loss in the construction industry could also be contributing factors. Like Schrank, she said a clear explanation of the carpooling decline is difficult to pin down.

Taking a toll


Carpooling has seen a plunge on the Bay Bridge.

4.6 million:
Bay Bridge carpoolers in 2009 fiscal year*

4.2 million:
Bay Bridge carpoolers in 2010 fiscal year

40.1 million:
Total Bay Bridge motorists in 2009 fiscal year

38.6 million:
Total Bay Bridge motorists in 2010 fiscal year

Source: MTC
*Fiscal year runs from July to June

Strangers team up to save cash in casual carpooling


The Transbay Terminal, which just recently opened its new temporary location on Beale Street, is a testament to the conventional transit commuter. Buses from various agencies converge at the spot to pick people up and drop them off, connecting workers from across the Bay Area to the region’s economic hub, San Francisco.

Yet, just across the street from the terminal, a less traditional mode of commuter travel takes place. Lined up neatly on the sidewalk of Beale Street, a few local workers bide their time patiently, hoping to catch a ride in a car from a complete stranger.

All the travelers are part of the Bay Area’s casual carpooling system, an informal network that connects a random driver with a random passenger, a time-tested method to avoid paying costly bridge tolls and gain access to the speedy carpool lanes.

For years, carpoolers traveled for free on the region’s eight spans, but on July 1, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge (among others) imposed tolls specifically aimed at multiperson vehicles. On the Golden Gate Bridge, the toll is $3, and the Bay Bridge, the toll is $2.50.

Most members of the region’s casual carpooling community said the new tolls have not caused a massive shakeup in the system (although ridership data suggest otherwise).

Jagdip Singh, who travels to The City from Vallejo every day, said the carpool toll has scared away a few “freeloaders,” and a couple of college students here and there, but for the most part, the wait to catch a ride and the number of motorists available have stayed the same since July. He said other factors — including the economic downturn — have affected the carpooling network more profoundly.

“Before the toll went into place, I noticed a lot fewer drivers simply because a lot of people lost their jobs,” Singh said. “That’s had more of an effect than anything.”

Brian Bolden, a worker from Fairfield, said he always offers up some money to drivers now, although they don’t always accept his offer. While he does spend a little bit more on his commute — “a few bucks here and there” — its not enough to persuade him to travel by other means.

“Even with the toll, this still beats taking the bus and BART,” Bolden said.

Casual carpooling


Locals rely on strangers to save money:

*How it works: Passengers line up at designated spots in cities across the region. Motorists pick up those workers so they don’t have to pay the full cost of a bridge toll. Carpoolers used to travel for free on all Bay Area bridges. Now, they pay $2.50 on the Bay Bridge and $3 on the Golden Gate Bridge.

*Locations: Pickup sites are usually located near major freeway entrances. In San Francisco, passengers wait on Beale Street, between Folsom and Howard streets. Other participating cities include Alameda, Berkeley, Vallejo and Oakland.

*Background: Although there are no formal records, the casual carpooling network is believed to date back to the 1970s. Rules for the road are strictly up to the driver. An online message board, located at www.ridenow.org/carpool/index.html, allows passengers to make posts about potentially dangerous drivers. Most passengers say that a “couple hundred” commuters use the network in the Bay Area.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com