I wrote this a while ago, and then forgot to post it. Although I’ve since switched to commuting by train, I do occasionally carpool when I have errands I need to run. And meanwhile, the situation on the Bay’s busiest freeway remains the same…
I never get tired of watching the rush-hour drivers toiling in 3 lanes of traffic on 101.
Every day there is a sea of perplexedness, frustration and boredom stretching 40 miles, endless hands dangling out of their car windows or fingers drumming on the steering wheel.
I’ll admit, I’m a little smug, but then I’m habitually sitting on a bus or driving with a passenger and I’m in the relatively supersonic carpool lane. At least until I hit Redwood City.
One thing puzzles me about these drivers, more than almost any other puzzle of human behaviour I’ve ever encountered. Why the hell are they all there?
Commuting in the Bay Area is, let’s leave no doubt, a thoroughly dismal and distressing experience, and one which is necessary to a large number of people because of the very nature of the locale.
At the mouth of the Bay you have “the City”, San Francisco. This is where the majority of the fun is to be had. It’s where the best restaurants are, where the fun music venues and bars and clubs nestle happily in a network of streets which it’s actually possible to navigate on foot.
Most of the better jobs here, however, are in the South Bay towns, where space is cheaper; corporate taxes more lenient.
So whilst a lot of people do indeed live in the surrounding sprawl of Bay Area towns, a particular demographic (my demographic as it happens) is faced with a stark dilemma. You can live in the city and endure the commute, or you can live in the South Bay and die of boredom.
But with gas prices spiralling, and the 40 mile commute taking a lone car driver more than 2 hours on a bad day, why in hell do people travel alone?
I know that I’m fortunate – I work for one of the few companies large enough to lay on complimetary buses for their employees. I’m hugely grateful for that – it gives me a chance to relax, to catch up on work, or to write screeds like this in time that would otherwise be wasted.
But it’s not like there aren’t other commute alternatives. Caltrain runs through the entire South Bay; BART serves most of the East. And even if public transport doesn’t serve you well, how many people are honestly, hand-on-heart, in a situation where they are commuting on a route which isn’t largely (or wholly) shared by at least one neighbour?
I’m going to peg the answer at “a damn sight fewer than the poor miserable saps who are currently stuck at a standstill to my immediate right.”
It’s not that every single lone driver is in the wrong here. For various reasons, a small percentage of people will have occasional or regular reasons for needing to drive alone. But if we could convince the majority to double up in cars, to petition their employer for buses, to somehow forego the solo drive… how much better would life be? How much cleaner the air? How much faster the commute? How much less stressed the average commuter? “Quite a bit”, I’d guess.
So how can we convince these people to find a carpool buddy, or a bus, or a twice-weekly telecommute, or something?
Here’s where I piss off a lot of fellow commuters.
See, if we really want Bay Area commutes to improve we need to rethink freeways like 101. First off, extend carpool lanes for the entire length of the Bay Area. Then, remove the time restrictions – carpool is carpool 24/7. Finally, make the right-hand lane for buses and taxis only, and the lane next to that a “carpool”, leaving 2 lanes for sole drivers.
“But, but, that would make my commute impossible!”, you cry.
See, the interesting thing about “impossible” is that people generally find that, when forced, there are ways to make things “less impossible”. Ways like public transit or carpooling…