Toll increase creates casual carpool conundrum
The ritual of casual carpooling, in which thousands of East Bay commuters join up with strangers each weekday for swifter trips across the Bay Bridge, thrives thanks to its essential quid pro quo.
Drivers pick up enough passengers to qualify for carpool lanes, saving 15 minutes to an hour or more in gridlock plus the usual $4 bridge toll. Riders get a free trip to San Francisco's Financial District.
And everybody gets to scare their friends on the East Coast by boasting about riding with strangers.
But on July 1, an economic shift may test this unregulated system and the reciprocity behind it. As part of a package of toll increases, Bay Area toll bridge officials have decided to do the unthinkable: They're ending the free ride. For the first time, carpools will pay $2.50 to cross state-owned bridges.
That's created a conundrum for the casual carpooling community. Does the driver, who will need to pay the toll through a FasTrak transponder, cough it up in full? Do the passengers - usually two - each pony up $1.25? Or is an even split - 83.33 cents per person - warranted?
And how should this negotiation occur? Should drivers who expect passengers to pay display signs on their cars? Or should there be two lines - one for paying passengers and another for penny pinchers? There's no simple solution.
"I don't know if this is going to work," said Will Tayo, 44, a nurse who lives in Albany and picks up riders.
Can we work it out?
John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, expects that the solutions will vary.
"Much like the casual carpool itself, who pays and how much will be worked out by the parties," he said.
A random and wildly unscientific survey of casual carpoolers at a pickup point in Albany last week found that they're approaching the issue rather casually. Many hadn't decided what they'll do, and most said they hoped everyone would work out a solution that gave them a cheap, if not free, ride without ruining the casual carpool system.
A stab at consensus
Kim Goentano, an El Cerrito resident who drives in casual carpools, said the $2.50 toll seems reasonable and that he'll still be willing to give passengers a free ride.
"I'll probably not ask (for money), but if they offer, I'll take it," he said.
Sanjiv Mishra, who lives in Albany and hops into strangers' cars, said, "I'm willing to pay. Probably a dollar."
Indeed, a dollar seems to be the most popular solution among the commuters Rebecca Olson picks up.
"There seems to be a consensus that each passenger pay a dollar and the driver pays 50 cents. It seems pretty logical," said the 27-year-old from Albany.
But not everyone agrees, as evidenced by the sometimes mean-spirited debate that developed on the casual carpool Web site www.ridenow.org....
"That's sweet of you to think that a majority would agree with your plan," wrote one commenter in response to another writer's suggestion that casual carpoolers agree on a $1-per-passenger contribution.
Many commenters agreed that drivers should help pay the toll, and some thought it fair for passengers to pay $1.25. After all, they said, the drivers donated their car, their driving and the gas.
Others said passengers should pay just 25 cents, reasoning that drivers now save $4 and will save $3.50 when the toll increases come July. For drivers not in carpools, the Bay Bridge toll will rise to $6 during commute hours.
At least one commenter took a more analytical approach.
"DK the engineer" said he considered the drivers' costs of gas, wear and tear, and insurance, the costs of public transportation and the locations of various pickup points. Then he used three methods to calculate costs: equal savings, equal costs and equal increase. Then he averaged those costs and came up with the fair share for each casual carpool rider to pay the driver: $1.29.
Sharing the toll would be the polite thing to do, said Daniel Post Senning, etiquette maven Emily Post's great-great grandson and blogger for the Emily Post Institute.
"Since the (current) system is one in which both sides benefit, it would make sense to split the toll," he said, adding that in such situations "a new local standard will emerge."
But until it does, he said, it's important for both riders and drivers "to be clear on what their expectations are," he said. In other words, don't just hop in a car, plug in your iPod and hope the driver doesn't ask for some cash.
"Discussions about money should be candid and honest," he said, "to avoid sticky situations down the road."
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