Casual escape

Last week’s remnants of Ida brought strong wind and rain enough to keep us from the joys of tandem commuting. Each day we watched the clouds hunker over our office buildings, and in the evenings we listened to the thunderous rush of water rapidly rising over the dam here in Saxapahaw. We could hear the turbines running wide open, electrifying North Carolina as in the heyday of the TVA. We left our windows open to let the whoosh of water put us to sleep. The water rose all week, and we started to bite our nails as the water crept up the banks and poured over the dam:

Haw running wild.

Instead of waiting around to watch the water threaten to carry away our house – my reasoning, which doesn’t hold water, was that what we weren’t watching couldn’t be happening – we headed for the hills. The Oakland hills, to be exact. Thus the silence from this corner of blogland. We were in the Bay Area – the land of trolley cars, progressive politics, and fashionable hats.

Though the literal and spiritual home of Critical Mass, I have to admit that cycling in San Francisco didn’t look too appealing. Busy, one-way, three-lane streets. Speeding cars. Trolley tracks. Mad Hills. And still the cool kids are riding fixies. After a couple days of transit, late night dinners, and yes, fashionable hat shopping in San Francisco, we hopped over the Bay Bridge for Oakland. What we found over there was not what you usually hear about Oakland. When I picture Oakland, from the tales in the media, I see gangs and urban blight.

My experience of Oakland, however, was of 1) a great food scene: Burma Superstar was one of the best dinners I’ve ever had (samusa soup is unreal), and Camino one of the best brunch places:

Take your pick. I choose doughnuts...

2. Great biking and hiking. I was treated to a bike tour of Oakland with a Bay-area transportation planner. After 10 minutes of cycling through city streets striped with bike lanes, we were up in serious hills giving way to breathtaking views of the bay, bridges and Marin headlands (alas no pictures, since I was sadly not on the tandem with my stoker to document the ride), and towered over by magical red wood trees. This all within the city limits of Oakland. It takes just as long to bike out of little Carrboro to be in the rolling hills and cow pastures of the countryside here.

3. Seals. My honey got to kayak on the bay. With seals.

Our host transportation planner also told us of a fascinating “user-generated” solution to commuting on certain highways in the Bay area. I’ll call it “car-commuting 2.0.” My friend calls it glorified hitch-hiking. The official name of this unofficial practice is “Casual Carpool.” There’s even a website (probably a few) – Whatever you call it, the grassroots social practice grew up on its own as a response to the traffic planning measures adopted by the cities. To get across the Bay Bridge from Oakland into San Francisco, you either need to pay a $4 toll and wait in a backed-up line (30-45 minutes at times) just to get through the toll booth. Or, you can cross the bridge for free in an HOV lane for 3+ occupants and not wait at all (as you pass through the entrance, a photo snaps a picture of your car – the fine is hefty if there’s less than 3 in the car). The way casual carpooling works is that a few strategic locations have been identified by a community of commuters where people who drive can pick up people on foot waiting for a ride: the driver gets a free quick ride over the bridge, as do the people getting picked up. The practice has developed its own standards of etiquette (passengers shouldn’t strike up conversations or eat; you can refuse dicey situations), and the fact that a driver is picking up more than one passenger likely makes it safer than regular hitchhiking. Thus between official congestion-planning and -pricing, and unofficial community response, a dent is taken out of the blight of single-occupancy vehicles. It takes that sort of hurdle set up officially to make carpooling – generally an onerous and short-lived endeavor – into an effective and appealing tool. That’s about as harmonious as car commuting can be.


4 Responses to “Casual escape”

  1. 1 Terry Morse November 19, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    The Oakland Hills are a great place to cycle. Quiet roads, great vistas. What’s not to love?

    The hills of the East Bay, from Oakland to Sunol, are a bicyclist’s playground. Sadly, I don’t get over there very often. But when I do, it’s a treat.


  2. 2 Paul November 22, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Casual carpooling is similar to the ‘slug-lines’ in Northern Virginia/Washington DC. We classify these as ‘informal flexible carpooling’ and propose to implement a more formalised version as part of the regular transport system. We think they work because there is no need for pre-arrangement, compared with other carpooling systems where all trips are pre-arranged and so can go wrong.

    We are promoting introduction of the more formalised version in any city where there is a desire to reduce the traffic, or to provide people with a better alternative.

    We think that by enabling a transaction between the riders and drivers we can create a benefit similar to avoiding the toll.

    Check us out at

    • 3 pomocomo November 23, 2009 at 8:38 pm

      “Slug lines” is also a much more fun name!

      Maybe once they build and open the proposed toll-controlled bypass in Raleigh, flexible carpooling will have a reason to catch on around here. It seems to me that the key to the success of these informal carpools is a density of employment destinations and/or convenient transit options at the destination site of the car trip.

  1. 1 Tandem gems from Raleigh « Honking In Traffic Trackback on November 23, 2009 at 8:32 pm

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