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Spinning Our Wheels 

The summer has brought a bevy of frustrations, delays, and smoggy afternoons to Bay Area drivers. Do you manage to look the other way?

Wednesday, Aug 16 2006
Among major American cities, San Francisco ranks second in traffic congestion, trailing only Los Angeles. Studies estimate that 75 percent of the Bay Area's freeway lane miles are choked with too many cars, whose drivers spend about 75 hours a year sitting in traffic. Congestion costs nearly $3 billion a year in extra fuel, wasted time, and lost worker productivity. Coupled with this summer's oppressive heat and smog, the increased traffic has caused the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to burn through all six of its allocated Spare the Air Days, when public transportation is free. But even that forward-thinking program has been heavily criticized in its execution, and many commuters throughout the Bay Area have expressed frustration at the delays caused by public transportation breakdowns, construction, and overcrowded freeways. Are you an apologist for the Bay Area's transportation woes? Take our quiz and find out!

1) Spare the Air Days, funded by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, allow free rides on various forms of public transportation throughout the Bay Area, an idea intended to encourage commuters to not use their cars. Have you been able to take advantage of the free service?

A) Nah, I don't use public transportation. Would they pay for my gas?

B) Absolutely. And I'm a typical teenager from Dublin, so I never pay to ride BART anyway!

C) I wanted to, but the Muni cars were all too crowded. You would have thought it was New York, or some other modern metropolis where people of radically different social classes have to stand next to each other for minutes at a time.

2) Commuters have complained that Spare the Air Days bring huge crowds and increased crime, and argue regular rush-hour riders shouldn't be punished by the many riders who don't normally take BART to get to work. Which of the following actual quotes from residents responding to the Chronicle's Two Cents column on Spare the Air Days do you most closely identify with?

A) Kevin Wiggins, Oakland: "One could definitely see and feel a difference in ridership on mass transit. It's like an area-wide carnival!"

B) Bill Reque, San Francisco: "They'd accomplish much more by taking away the transit employees' free parking perks."

C) Ray Heigemeir, San Francisco: "I was trapped next to a woman who reeked of a mix of hazelnut coffee, tea rose perfume, and old hot dog water, and I don't think she even realized it. There should be a law that one person can only smell like one thing at a time." (Bonus point if you can identify the "one thing" Ray smells like.)

3) Complicating the summer commute difficulties, a Muni train derailed in the Twin Peaks tunnel two weeks ago, shutting down underground service between the Castro and West Portal stations all day. It was the second such derailment within a week, and while agitated commuters boarded shuttle buses to get to work, Muni officials refused to speculate on the cause of the derailment, which still hasn't been disclosed. How does the incident affect your opinion of Muni's reliability?

A) Hmm ... was the train on time when it derailed? That would be something, at least.

B) It's outrageous! I work in the Financial District. I haven't been forced to take a shuttle bus since that Dave Matthews Band concert in college.

C) I haven't had my faith in Muni shaken this deeply since my friendly neighborhood NextBus sign went out. Now my life is chaos.

4) There is some good news on the local transportation front: Devil's Slide, the area of Highway 1 that had been closed due to spring storms, reopened two weeks ago — six weeks ahead of schedule. The closure had turned Highway 92, the only other route to the Bay Area from Half Moon Bay and its northern neighbors, into a nightmarish commute, and local businesses lost a lot of tourist traffic into and out of San Francisco. What do you think the early reopening of Devil's Slide means to the Bay Area?

A) Well, given that it's a precarious stretch of roadway on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and that it's called "Devil's Slide," I can only hope it didn't reopen too early.

B) Outstanding. Now we'll finally get all those tourists we've been waiting for!

C) It means that a 20-minute commute will no longer take 90. (Bonus point for adding: "Unless it's raining. Then all bets are off.")

5) Citing worrisome data from sensors, Caltrans closed Devil's Slide in early April, just before two large boulders dropped onto the road and enormous cracks began to appear in the pavement. A $7 million stabilization project followed, with workers blasting rocks apart and inserting steel cables into the sloping hillside above and below the highway. As Caltrans director Will Kempton told the Chronicle: "It's like taking rubber bands and tightening them, and it all squeezes together." What do you think?

A) Um ... is that just how the engineers explained it to Mr. Kempton?

B) Great! As long as Caltrans didn't use actual rubber bands.

C) Oh, sure, that'll work just fine — until the first jackass comes speeding along in his Hummer, honking his horn and yelling "Avalanche" out of the window.

6) Among recent innovations aimed at speeding up traffic is the FasTrak system, wherein commuters who sign up for a transponder that automatically pays their tolls can take advantage of a dedicated FasTrak lane. In fact, FasTrak is such a hit that a New Jersey company has begun selling $10-20 covers for the transponders, which stick on to drivers' windshields. The hope is that the designs — which consist of flags, sports team logos, and even union insignias — will allow drivers to express themselves. What kind of design would you get?

A) Is there a toll booth workers' union? I'd get their emblem.

B) I dunno, but I do know this: Americans desperately need another automotive surface upon which they can affix American and/or NASCAR flags.

C) Awesome! I'll be so focused on my alma mater's insignia, I won't even care that I'm wasting 75 hours a year in traffic.

7) In an effort to cut down on traffic into San Francisco, local lawmakers have explored an idea pioneered in London, England, where drivers have to pay a special tax to enter the downtown area during heavy-traffic times. Would you pay a fee to be able to drive into downtown San Francisco?

A) On a yacht, maybe.

B) Absolutely not. I'd much rather spend the same amount of money on gas while I sit in traffic, convincing myself I'm beating the system.

C) That depends. Who's dancing at Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre?

How to score:

Score zero points for every "A" answer, one point for every "B," and two points for every "C."

0-6 points: Yes, the Bay Area's traffic is terrible, but the new Third Street Light Rail line should clear all of that right up.

7-10 points: Don't know how to feel about the Bay Area's traffic troubles? Here's a hint: It would all be better if we drove oversized sports-utility vehicles.

11-14 points: Congratulations! You're a true apologist for the Bay Area's transportation woes. But I'm sorry to inform you that your flight back to Los Angeles has been delayed — fog, you know.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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