Money Changes Everything: the Bay Bridge Carpool Toll

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On July 1, hefty toll increases went into effect for many Bay Area bridges. On the Bay Bridge, which connects the East Bay to San Francisco, in the carpool lane the toll increased from “free” to $2.50 per car. For non-carpoolers, the toll is now a whopping $6 during peak commuting hours. The carpool lane still requires (3) passengers per car, or (2) in a two-seater, only now it also requires a FasTrak device to automatically deduct the $2.50 toll from the driver’s account.

It’s been two and a half months, but there’s still a debate raging about how the $2.50 carpool lane fee should be handled between those who participate in the gloriously un-organized Casual Carpool system. I’d first written about Casual Carpool back in April – here’s my summary of what it is and why it works.

My biggest gripe about the toll is that it changed one of the best things about Casual Carpool: it was free to ride in the carpool lane. And now it’s not. Whether–and how– this cost should be shared between drivers and passengers is the issue. A dollar has become the amount of money in question. (Rounded up from .83 cents if all (3) parties in each car split the $2.50 toll.) But what used to be a silent and neutral ride is now marred by the need to discuss, of all things, money. And how each of us feels about potentially exchanging a dollar. Inevitably, people feel compelled to talk about it: why they’ll take the dollar, or why they won’t, or why they didn’t offer it up in the first place. There are strong feelings all around. And let me tell you, there’s nothing more polarizing than talking about money first thing in the morning.

As a driver, I’d decided before the toll went into effect that I didn’t want money from passengers. To me, it’s about getting into the city faster (the carpool lane saves about 15 minutes), and not paying the full $6 for the toll (saving $3.50 each morning). Both factors make it worth my while. I just didn’t like the idea of money being exchanged. I have to drive on certain days, and that’s all I want to do: drive into the city, and do so quickly and quietly.

Of course, many drivers feel differently. In fact, some feel that passengers who don’t offer to contribute are being incredibly rude and presumptuous: you expect a free ride from me? There’s been jokes about letting people off at Treasure Island if they don’t cough up a buck. One man, driving a sleek newer Mercedes I might add, said that the time saved was his primary motivator–but that passengers were just “freeloaders” if they didn’t contribute.

I’m more frequently a passenger. And as a passenger, I’m happy to pay $1. A dollar is a ridiculously cheap way to get into the city–and it’s super convenient for me. (The BART train is $3.50 one way, and takes me about 45 minutes to get to work. The carpool involves a short walk and then about 25 minutes in the back of a stranger’s car.) That said, the rare times I don’t have a dollar, I won’t run to the store before I get in line for the carpool. I’ll usually just let the driver know that I would like to contribute but don’t have change this morning, so will need to do it the next time I see them.

The social norms of this transaction are still evolving. When the new toll first went into effect, there was a paper sign taped up at the Claremont Ave stop which read: “Passengers should offer $1 to drivers.” But the next day, the sign was gone. In early July, some drivers even requested the money when people got into the car: “Can each of you contribute a dollar?” That was awkward, especially when someone didn’t have it, or only had a twenty.

“Should drivers carry change?” someone asked. “And by exchanging a dollar,” one particularly legalistic passenger opined, “Does that mean that you are our driver-for-hire? How does that affect your insurance?” Oof! Again: awkward!

The most elegant solution for drivers who wanted the passengers to contribute seemed to be a sign:

Toll Contributions Cheerfully Accepted
one driver's sign expressing his p.o.v.

The driver of that car put the dollar I handed him into a drawer in his dashboard without further ado. It was a pleasant, and thankfully wordless, exchange.

Throughout the month of July, and in early August too, the new standard seemed to be: Passengers should each offer the driver $1, preferably right when you get in the car, or just as you’re being dropped off.

Some drivers like myself didn’t accept the offered dollars: “I do it because it’s faster, and there were plenty of you in line,” one female driver said. “And I’m already saving money by picking you up.” But many did accept the money, and still do, gratefully.

And yet–as of this writing in mid September, it seems that not all passengers are offering it up. When I’ve asked others how often passengers are offering, people have said it’s been about 50/50. So the message may be going back to drivers: pick us up to save the $3.50, and the time, but don’t count on our cash.

Will there be fewer drivers if cash isn’t consistently offered? Or fewer passengers if the dollar is required? We’ll see how the increase affects the overall carpool spirit, and the Bay bridge traffic, in the long term. This added tension doesn’t look good for either.  A month after it went into effect, Bay Bridge traffic was actually down 30%. That’s good for the environment, but probably not generating the revenues they’d expected by slapping more fees onto all lanes of the Bay Bridge. To encourage more carpooling, which has worked in everyone’s favor for more than three decades, I think the carpool toll should be eliminated.

I yearn for the simpler days when we weren’t all talking about, and exchanging, money in the mutually beneficent system known as Casual Carpool.

I know, I know: fat chance. Money changes everything.

About Post Author

Margot

I wrote my first novel "Richland" in cafés in San Francisco’s Mission District, after working during the day as a producer at design firms. I graduated with honors from U.C. Berkeley, with a degree in Political Science, and lived in San Francisco for more than 14 years. The siren song of the East Bay lured us after our son Alejandro was born. We're now adjusting to life in the weirdly idyllic neighborhood of Rockridge, Oakland.
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2 thoughts on “Money Changes Everything: the Bay Bridge Carpool Toll

  1. I’d like to report that as of today, pretty much no one is offering or asking for a buck. We’re back to silence, and free-for-passengers, and I like both.

Whadya think?

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