Petrol prices driving California strangers to carpool

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - High petrol prices are driving strangers into each others’ cars in San Francisco.

Car-pooling is a suspect term in most of the United States for anyone beyond grade school, but in the San Francisco Bay Area commuters for years have used “casual carpools,” where drivers eager to avoid tolls and cut travel time pick up strangers waiting in lines on corners.

With gasoline nearing $5 (2.5 pounds) a gallon in California, a lot more people are giving the system a try.

Four or five would-be passengers used to stand in line at 9 a.m., when Maruf Khan, 48, arrived for a ride at the corner near his house, but now the number can be as high as 20, he said.

“When I first started riding, the line of cars would go around the corner,” said agreed Jon Jackson, 54, who has ridden in casual carpools for about eight years. “Now, it seems like the riders are the ones having the long lines,” he said.

Traffic is lighter, riders and drivers say, even accounting for the typical summer slowdown, and they blame fuel prices.

The Washington, D.C. area has a similar system, in which riders are known as “slugs,” but the idea of car-pooling draws blank stares in other parts of the country.

Rider Linda Carrillo remembers telling her sister in Richmond, Virginia about it. “She just thinks it is the most bizarre thing in the world. That it would never go over in Richmond -- people would never get in the car with strangers.”

Nevertheless, at a dozen designated street corners in Oakland and Berkeley, both across San Francisco Bay from San Francisco, it happens every morning.


When the driver pulls up -- whether at the wheel of a Jaguar or a jalopy, the line’s first two people enter the car, often without a word: they share a silent understanding that the driver will take them across the seven-mile (11-km) Bay Bridge and drop them at a corner in the financial district within walking distance of most of downtown.

Because riders come from a wide area, the system doesn’t work well in reverse, and most have to find another way home.

Carpools avoid bridge tolls and can use special fast lanes. The trip is often twice as fast as taking a train, never mind sitting in the crush of single-occupant cars at the bridge.

There is an established etiquette: no conversation unless the driver initiates one, and no eating, drinking, smoking, or exchanging money.

These days some rules are bending. It used to be that cars would take only two passengers to ensure there were enough riders to go around. But recently, waiting passengers have started asking drivers to take three people.

Car-poolers and public transportation experts attribute the changing dynamics to a rise in fuel costs.

In late April, gas prices broke $4 a gallon in San Francisco, according to statistics kept by the American Automobile Association.

About the same time, the number of carpools on the Bay Bridge increased: volume was up 5.2 percent from July 2007 through March 2008, said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which governs the bridge.

“As the average price of gas creeps up and people are squeezed more and more, they start looking to relief -- and right now, that is in the form of affordable transit,” said Linton Johnson, spokesman for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, which runs trains throughout the Bay Area.

The agency reported a 7.2 percent increase in average weekday ridership in April 2008 over the previous year.

Casual car-poolers said they don’t mind the increase, so long as newcomers follow the rules -- although even some veteran riders say one has to mind one’s manners.

“It’s just like visiting your relatives,” Carrillo said.