New Rule For Casual Carpoolers: Pony Up a Buck

Categories: Transportation
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At the corner of Howard and Fremont this morning -- the first day of the $2.50 Bay Bridge carpool toll -- the casual carpoolers disembarked out of virtual strangers' vehicles just the same as they did yesterday and every other morning in past decades. Yet some were a dollar poorer.

The age-old Bay Area tradition of the "casual carpool" has honed its own culture of rules: Commuters to Financial District jobs line up at certain corners around the East Bay. Drivers looking for passengers in order to bypass the bridge toll stop alongside the curb. Passengers hop into the car, and only the driver is allowed to initiate conversation. No smoking. No cell phones. The driver saves money, the passengers get a free ride, and Mother Nature smiles. Yet this morning, many of the commuters said there was a new protocol: offering up a buck to the driver.

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Dropping off as always...

Whether the driver accepted the money was a different matter.

"I got in the car and gave her a dollar," says Jan Newberry, food critic at San Francisco Magazine after she jumped out of a car downtown at around 9 a.m. She says she was worried that adding the specter of money -- the root of all evil, they say -- into what had been a free system would create tension. Yet it didn't today. "She was lovely. She was like 'no, no, no.'" Newberry says she left the benevolent driver a dollar anyways as she got out.

Louise Weiler says the commuters in line outside the North Berkeley BART station had been discussing whether to offer up $1 or $1.25. Weiler offered her driver a buck, yet he didn't take it. "He said if he took it, it would stop being fun."

Cristina Arriola, an executive secretary who commutes over two bridges from Vallejo four days a week, says on the carpool home last night, her driver was already prepared for today's change. She had posted a laminated, printed-out sign on the dash that read: "As of July 1, I expect you to pay $1.25 to help me pay the costs."

"I was intimidated," Arriola joked. "And I'm like, 'The reason you're getting a discount is because I'm sitting in your car.'" Still, to defray driver-passenger tension, Arriola figured she better comply this morning, and offered up five quarters to her driver. "I felt obligated because I didn't want to be kicked out of the car." The driver seemed surprised, but accepted her change. "I think it's gonna be an individual thing."

No passengers said they were thinking of ditching the tradition because of the cost. Even the savings for a driver who's stiffed  -- $3 compared to $6 for non-carpoolers -- would still seem to make it worth it. (Last year, we wrote a story in which some commuters thought if the savings were too little, the carpool culture would die.) "To me, giving a dollar is not a big deal. But if it reduces the number of carpoolers it would be a shame," Newberry says. "It's still nicer than BART."  

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