For 30 years, commuters have partaken of the unofficial and unadvertised tradition of the casual carpool to evade Bay Bridge toll costs en route to the city.
It's a symbiotic relationship. Drivers in the East Bay pick up hundreds of random riders from designated spots so they can use the carpool lane reserved for cars carrying three or more people (or two people in a two-seat car) and bypass the backup at the toll plaza and cross the bridge for free. Over the years, the carpool culture has even evolved its own unspoken rules: no cell phones, no food or drink, no smoking, and only the driver can initiate conversation. The private car becomes public transit, and everyone, including Mother Nature, comes out ahead.
But casual carpoolers are about to face a major culture shock. The Bay Area Toll Authority announced last week that it is mulling whether to impose a $2 to $3 toll on carpoolers to help balance its budget. This would still be less than the $4 bridge toll, but some fear the fee threatens the future of this morning incarnation of the Bay Area's do-it-yourself ingenuity.
SF Weekly hopped into the backseat of a Toyota Corolla at the North Berkeley BART station last week to talk to a couple of carpoolers about the planned tolls. Waiving the culture's code of silence, Laurie, the purple-parka–clad driver, said there's already proof that the system would collapse if you remove the savings. The number of casual commuters greatly drops for the evening drive home, because driving across the bridge to the East Bay is free for everyone. "I wouldn't pick them up if there's no incentive," she said. "Why would I pick up a stranger?"
The speed incentive would also vanish: "Usually right about here, things start going really slow, and we're sailing along," she said as she approached the bridge's flyover lane that allows her to bypass the lines at the toll gate and metering lights. If carpoolers had to pay a toll, they'd have to stop like everyone else.
Laurie promptly delivered her husband and her reporter passenger to a Howard Street sidewalk by the Transbay Terminal at 8:16 a.m., where other exiting riders weighed in on the proposed fee. "It's gonna make things extremely confusing, because you won't know if you offer the driver a dollar or what," one said. Others said the diminishing benefits of the system would start to be outweighed by the discomforts: traveling with strangers, the occasional road-rage driver or accelerator "pumper," or being cramped in a tiny backseat full of newspapers and child toys.
Yet the end of the casual commute would still be a loss, said Financial District worker Jessi Callihan after stepping out of a BMW whose driver, she noted, had a thing for Andean pan flute music. "Here a community came up with this really elegant solution to commuting, and they're like, 'How do we profit off of this?'" she said. "I think it would be shitty."