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Should Carpoolers Get a Free Ride?


In San Francisco, carpool capital of the universe, new rules are reducing the incentive for ridesharing.

For 30-plus years in the San Francisco Bay Area, complete strangers carpooled to work together. Why? Well, for a lot of reasons: carpools were exempt from bridge tolls, a special lane allowed vehicles to bypass traffic, and it was often more convenient than taking public transit. On July 1, 2010, all this changed. A toll-structure revamp eliminated carpoolers' free ride, and a new rule made it so that only vehicles equipped with a FasTrak pass—an electronic device linked to the driver’s account—are allowed to use the carpool lane. In the 30 days since, ridesharing has dropped by over 12,000 cars a day.

Why did the city do it? To help pay for earthquake retrofits on the Bay Area's beleaguered bridges, says John Goodwin, a Public Information Officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “If the bridge is unusable due to an earthquake, that’s no good for anybody—a carpooler or a solo driver," he says. "Everyone has a vested interest in being able to safely cross those bridges after an earthquake.”

But no one is arguing about whether or not San Francisco bridges must be safe; the real question is, who should be paying for the retrofits?

Since the mid-1970s, an HOV lane over the Bay Bridge has encouraged ridesharing. Suddenly, a commute from cities like Oakland and Berkeley became a much quicker, cheaper affair. All a potential carpooler had to do was find two other people willing to share their ride to downtown San Francisco, and they'd drive free, and quickly.

An organic solution, unofficially dubbed “casual carpool,” developed between riders and drivers. Drivers would stop at designated spots and once each vehicle had a total of three passengers, off it went. Each car then delivered its riders to the same terminus downtown. Casual carpooling obviated the need to preplan: If you were running 10 minutes late, it wasn't a problem; there was always a steady stream of cars and riders waiting to partner up.

So why put a roadblock in front of a system that reduces energy consumption and increases commuting efficiency? Goodwin says it's the best way to earthquake-proof the bridges while “limiting the toll increase to a single dollar for the 90 percent of vehicles that are neither carpools, RVs, or big trucks." And though five of the area's older bridges were included in an earlier retrofit program, two of them were not—and they need help. The Dumbarton and the Antioch bridges were built to state standards that survived the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, but after the Northridge and Kobe quakes, CalTrans released a new study on seismic safety that made it clear that they also required retrofitting.

Lisa Fasano, Communications Director for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, acknowledges the safety needs, but adds, “We do wish that they had found a way to put the cost on single-occupancy drivers instead of carpoolers. We think that carpoolers are already doing their fair share by taking two additional cars off the Bay Bridge."

The good news for carpoolers is that their commute, while not free, still comes at a large discount—$2.50 per car, as compared to $6 for SOVs during peak hours. And yet it seems that for carpoolers, the biggest impetus for riding with randoms is the time saved by bypassing traffic. But if saving money isn’t the main reason to take casual carpool, then why are so many less people carpooling in general?

Goodwin thinks larger economic conditions are at play. He points out that SOV drivers saw an average time saving of nine minutes in their commute this summer as compared to last year. With the struggling economy, fewer people are working and that means fewer people are driving to the city, which enables quicker commutes for everyone.

Fasano is less concerned with SOV commute times, however. “If the toll authority had decided to increase the toll for SOVs but left it free for carpoolers, I think it would have sent the right message to Bay Area drivers," she says. “The bottom line is that the number of vehicles we have on the roadways in the Bay Area creates an air-pollution problem. Just because you can’t see the pollution doesn’t mean it’s not there. We need to find ways to encourage people to think differently about getting in their car and driving by themselves to work. And we need employers to actively encourage ridesharing of their employees."

It is still too early to tell if the phenomenon of casual carpooling will survive the new toll increases, but Fasano thinks it will. Like Fasano, Goodwin sees the chances for a casual carpool recovery despite the new cost structure. As more people return to work and the economy improves, the roads will grow more congested. When this happens, carpooling’s huge throughput advantage will incentivize people to once again mix up their morning commute by riding with strangers. Time is money; casual carpooling still allows San Francisco’s commuters to save both.

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