Bringing Casual Carpooling to the North Bay

Casual carpooling could be viable in the North Bay, but it will take coordination from citizens and government to make it really take off.

When examining the modes of commuting, typically absent from the conversation is carpooling. Either it happens or it doesn’t, but governments and citizens will fixate on accommodating more traditional modes of transportation: single-occupant vehicles (SOVs, i.e., cars), buses and trains, rather than actively trying to encourage carpooling.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I suspect a big one is that there is no ribbon to cut, no new lane or train to inaugurate. Another big one is the perception that carpooling only rests on social networks outside the reach of government intervention, where coworkers discover by happenstance that they live near enough to one another that carpooling becomes an option. Besides, interfering in carpooling takes attention away from the big capital projects that make headlines.

In spite of apathy from officialdom, the phenomenon of casual carpooling does arise in certain locales. Known in the Washington, DC, region as “slugging," casual carpooling entails passengers forming lines at pickup areas, usually commuter lots or bus stops. A driver will approach the line, shout their destination (“Pentagon!” “Civic Center!”) and those bound for the area will hop in. It works both ways, and situating near bus stops gives passengers the option of a commuter bus if they’d prefer.

Casual carpooling gives drivers and passengers certain advantages over SOV driving. It allows them to use HOV lanes, saving time, and it allows passengers to save on driving costs such as gas and maintenance. For those who aren’t in a carpool, carpooling means there’s more for them: every passenger is one less car on the road and one less parking space taken. It’s a win for everyone. So why does it pop up in some locations but not others?

East Coastin’

The Washington, DC, region makes an interesting test case. Straddling as it does three states (DC, Maryland, and Virginia), we can see how different policies effect the outcome. Virginia has an active and large slugging community dating back to the 1970s, while Maryland’s community is relatively small. The principal difference, according to David LeBlanc, author of Slugging: The Commuting Alternative For Washington DC, is that Maryland uses HOV-2 lanes, where having only one passenger qualifies, while Virginia uses HOV-3 lanes, where two passengers are necessary to use the lane. He argues that HOV-3 lanes give passengers a sense of safety when getting into a car with a stranger, and spurs drivers to more actively pursuit warm bodies to fill their vehicles.

Dampers on casual carpooling include high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, as Virginia will soon discover when its primary HOV corridor into DC is partially converted to HOT. If a driver can simply pay a toll to qualify, they will be less likely to detour to a slug line for passengers and clog the lanes with SOVs. The lack of HOV lanes, of course, will remove the incentive for the driver to pick up passengers as well.

North Bay Slugs

In other words, the North Bay, with its HOV-2 lanes that stop after Sausalito, is not ideally suited to casual carpooling. While Northern Virginia has an entire reversible highway dedicated to HOV-3 that extend all the way from suburbs to job centers in Arlington and the District, complete with their own exits and with limited access, the North Bay has only a single HOV lane in either direction that requires drivers to slow from top speed to the speed of traffic in order to merge over to the exit, which stops before reaching either the East Bay or San Francisco.

Although it’s conceivable that a small, Maryland-style community could spring up in the North Bay with the right tools – an app, say, allowing potential carpoolers to mark off their home and destination – true casual carpooling will require a bit more intervention at the governmental level. As with everything, there are cheap and expensive solutions.

On the cheap side, just switching our HOV lanes to HOV-3 would be a boon, giving drivers a greater incentive to pick people up. Following up the switch with congestion pricing on both bridges applicable only to SOVs would prove a high-profile shot in the arm for any casual carpooling system. Given the hubbub over the last attempt to institute congestion pricing on the Golden Gate Bridge, the press would be wonderful. Instituting a peak-only HOV lane on the southbound side of the bridge would be another major reward for carpoolers: no more waiting in line at the toll plaza. Instituting congestion pricing at the Sonoma/Marin border or just north of Marinwood* would stimulate casual carpooling among Sonomans coming to Marin – our largest in-commuting population – and would raise millions for transit projects between the two counties.

On the expensive side, CalTrans might consider combining Highway 101’s two carpool lanes into a single, reversible HOV freeway, complete with limited access and dedicated on/off ramps. This would make carpooling significantly safer and faster, and would have the added bonus of improving bus access along the freeway. The cost, however, would likely be upwards of $1 billion given the technical challenges of HOV exits and the cost so far just to extend regular HOV lanes.

It has been suggested that the app described above would help drive a casual carpooling renaissance, but the truth is that these networks typically form in response to everyday commute pressures – heavy traffic, centralized job centers – that ultimately come from structures either put in place by government or arising out of commuting physics.

That’s not to say technology does not have a role to play – casual carpool networks often have websites to guide potential participants and there are a number of apps already in existence – but a truly robust system will be one that arises organically. Drivers will only take the time to pick up passengers when they can clearly see that it is worth their time or money to do so.

Casual carpooling in Virginia has been described as another transit system by the Virginia Department of Transportation, complementary to the existing Metrorail and bus systems. It certainly has a place in the highway-centered transportation systems of the US, but it will take work to implement in the North Bay.


*Most freeway traffic in Marin actually comes from Novato, not from Sonoma; although instituting congestion pricing there would be a political nonstarter, it would make the most sense from a practical standpoint.

For information on casual carpooling in the Bay Area, RideNow.org has a website dedicated to the local network. For information on ridesharing in the Bay Area, you might want to look into eRideshare.com. For information on how the slugging system works in Virginia, local NPR affiliate WAMU aired an hour-long segment on the subject, while local transit blog Greater Greater Washington has a number of posts on the subject.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Susan January 18, 2012 at 04:00 AM
David, Please site your source for the quote below. "Most freeway traffic in Marin actually comes from Novato, not from Sonoma;.."
David Edmondson January 18, 2012 at 01:14 PM
Highway 101 peak and overall load numbers from Caltrans. 80,000 cars per day enter at the Sonoma/Marin line, while 87,000 enter at the various Novato entrances, 79,000 of which continue south, as Ignacio is a net destination. In total, Novato and points north contribute a net of 159,000 cars on average per day. http://traffic-counts.dot.ca.gov/2010all/index.html
Susan January 18, 2012 at 01:49 PM
The lanes from Hwy 37 merge with South Novato Blvd to enter 101. How is the Hwy 37 traffic separated from the Novato numbers?
David Edmondson January 18, 2012 at 02:36 PM
Highway 37 is car-neutral; it takes just as many cars as it gives, and as far as I can read the data cars are just as likely to go north as south. Still, if you're looking at congestion pricing you want to target where the traffic is coming from regardless of principal source. Putting the congestion pricing zone between Marinwood and Hamilton would target Novato, Sonoma, and Hwy 37. Although more technically viable, I don't think it's a good idea for political or community reasons. A better way to phrase it would have been, "Most southbound freeway traffic comes from Novato on-ramps, including Highway 37."
Kevin Moore January 18, 2012 at 08:46 PM
Crossing into Marin - Daily - Average Daily Traffic. San Francisco 106,000 Sonoma 82,000 Richmond Bridge 67,000 Highway 37 34,000 It looks like about 27,000 of Highway 37 users go south, the rest go north. 101 picks up about 60,000 vehicles before reaching the Civic Center. 580 / 101 interchange 172,000 San Pedro Road - 180,000 cars passing daily. Marin/Sonoma County line 82,000 There are other CalTrans reports for each on/off ramp.
Mark Burnham January 18, 2012 at 09:32 PM
thanks for the information here. question. If most traffic on southbond 101 in marin during the am originates in novato (including the traffic coming over from 37), and assuming that a large percentage of this traffic ends up crossing the golden gate bridge (isn't that one of the big shortcomings that smart has had to combat?).. why are we not looking more seriously at port sonoma and developing a larkspur ferry type service that could run to east bay and san fran? wouldn't this cost far, far less than smart? wouldn't it generate more ridership? couldn't it be potentially profitable as opposedto a huge money loser? it could go to vallejo, sf,& oakland..where the location is easily accessible by lakeville highway (sonoma residents), novato (its in our backyard), and all of those aforementioned 37 travelers who merge on to 101 in ignacio. finally, there is sufficient land to accomodate this project. I do recall this being an option years back but I am not sure why this idea has been pushed to the side. Is a ridiculously expensive train half way to nowhere more preferable than centrally located ferry terminal to bring people to hubs (like the SF ferry building) where commuters can jump on a trolley, walk, bike, or take muni to their actual eventual destination??
Bob Ratto January 18, 2012 at 10:18 PM
Mark B I figured you knew the answer to this, but I cut and pasted and put in Caps for ease wouldn't this cost far, far less than smart? YES wouldn't it generate more ridership? YES couldn't it be potentially profitable as opposed to a huge money loser? YES it could go to vallejo, sf,& oakland..where the location is easily accessible by lakeville highway (sonoma residents), novato (its in our backyard), and all of those aforementioned 37 travelers who merge on to 101 in ignacio. finally, there is sufficient land to accomodate this project. ...which did get funding, and then got it yanked, but there was some discussion about it a while ago...it could easily be fed by feeder buses, and would be an ideal destination for carpoolers to get to...car ride, ferry, destination...with SMART you have a car ride, a train ride, then you hop a bus to Larkspur, so you can ride a ferry, destination. Not real practical, but then the new spin on SMART seems to be some job creation nonsense, since real commute trains don't run every half hour, and have scant ridership. Apple has Siri, we have a diesel train going from Santa Rosa to San Rafael (that is going to require massive subsidies forever)...I totally think the ferry is a great idea.
David Edmondson January 19, 2012 at 12:16 AM
At a later date I might end up tackling the old ferry plans from the 90s and the more modest ones from the last 10 years, but from what I recall the Port Sonoma plans were shelved because of environmental reasons (ferries mix their pollutants into the water) and because of lack of projected ridership, around 500. I disagree with Mike Arnold here, too, but at least our conclusion on this are the same: http://www.sfbayjv.org/news_summaries/2005/september/Port_Sonoma_ferry_is_a_waste_of_money.html
David Edmondson January 19, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Really! I tried to find that - link?
Craig Knowlton January 19, 2012 at 07:01 AM
Congestion charge and changing the HOV lane to 3 minimum to force me to pick up strangers? All to make a tiny dent in the commute times? What about those that can't afford this additional tax? Seems like a better idea would be to encourage businesses and workers to move out of SF and into Marin/Sonoma. Or how about getting rid of HOV lanes and have a constant number of lanes between SF and Santa Rosa. The funnel effect causes far more congestion than simply the number of vehicles on the road.
Jack R. Flynn January 19, 2012 at 01:24 PM
i go to San Francisco three days a week at 4.30 Am and return about 11 Am.
Mark Burnham January 19, 2012 at 04:11 PM
david and bob. back to the port sonoma discussion. david provided a mark arnold article link from 2005 which states that ferry service from port sonoma to sf would be a waste of money. arnold cites ridership of only 500. he doesnt't address costs but in looking at other articles it seems to be in the range of $12-20 million for 2 ferrys to run 3 trips in the am and then 3 back in the afternoon evening. it seems the actual ridership is closer to 500 in to the city and 500 back. that is 1,000 for $20 million.. according to the study below. smart ridership studies state 2900 people will ride the abbreviated version (can't find anything that states arnold is refuting that so we will stick with that) and will cost almost $700 million. smart will never go to sf. port of sonoma ferry would go to sf ferry building from day one. $700 million vs $20 million, 2900 daily riders vs 1000 daily riders? considering the fact that the state has no money, the average citizen is struggling, the counties of sonoma and marin are about to face up to the nightmare that are underfunded pension liabilities.. AND the fact that his train requires a boat trip to sf anyway (larkspur ferry).. i just don't get it. are we really arguing that the size of a wake this ferry creates and that high speed ferry emmsions are worth putting us in to a huge hold. again for a train that doesn't and won't ever go to san francisco? http://ntl.bts.gov/DOCS/RF
Christian Kallen January 19, 2012 at 05:46 PM
When I lived in El Cerrito and worked in San Francisco I regularly used casual carpooling, both as passenger and driver. Very useful and even interesting, never had a bad experience and it was great to be able to use the HOV lanes. Regardless of the numbers/costs/alternatives it worked for those who used it. Remember the Bay Area has BART (which I also used) - it's another tool in the kit of sensible urban transportation, not an either/or.
Kevin Moore January 21, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Here are the ramp volumes http://traffic-counts.dot.ca.gov/districtbreakdown.htm Marin starts on page 60 http://traffic-counts.dot.ca.gov/10ramps/RampBookDist4.pdf
David Edmondson January 21, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Thanks, Kevin. Bookmarked.
Bob Ratto January 22, 2012 at 01:35 AM
Mark Sorry late in getting back on this Port Sonoma business. Mike Arnold wrote a piece in the PD several years ago, stating it was a waste of money, which may well be the case, but if you even take the projected ridership at 500 each way/day-the cost per passenger is obviously far below that of SMART-just think 20/1 vs ???/3-and we know ??? is more than $60MM. I found another piece that stated it would pollute too much (which appeared to be an abject lie, and then something about a clapper rail, and then of course, the focus was to be on "SMART"...so basically this was undone by a group that was closely affiliated with SMART...http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/news?ContentRecord_id=3de4a488-802a-23ad-4a42-c24ed809fdcc&ContentType_id=abb8889a-5962-4adb-abe8-617da340ab8e&Group_id=2b5f5ef9-5929-4863-9c07-277074394357&MonthDisplay=4&YearDisplay=2008 (I think the read is shorter than the link!)
Bob Ratto January 22, 2012 at 01:41 AM
Christian Totally agree with you...a very good friend of mine lives in Walnut Creek and he used it all the time picking up passengers in Oakland, saved a ton of time, and saved bridge toll as well. Now, the toll benefit has been largely removed in the almighty grind for a few more dollars for MTC, so it can be doled out as is seen fit...so we have a group that ostensibly proposes "smart" modes of travel, but then abandons this effort for other reasons....they do have a new building to remodel! Think how much easier the carpooling would be with a Smartphone!
Valerie Taylor February 21, 2014 at 01:00 PM
The Transportation Authority of Marin is currently engaged in a pilot project of smart phone-based casual carpool app. The app is Carma, and can be downloaded from http://car.ma/sfbay . As an incentive, people sharing their first ride receive a $10 Amazon gift card. The City of San Rafael is holding a Downtown San Rafael Rideshare Mixer on Wednesday, February 26. Have lunch, meet your neighbors, find a vanpool or carpool, win prizes (!). For all commuters working in downtown San Rafael. 11:30 am - 1:30 pm (drop by anytime). Renaissance Marin, 115 Third Street, San Rafael. RSVP to SMcDonald@tam.ca.gov or 226-0826. Information on Carma will be presented, as well as other opportunities to carpool, vanpool, and rideshare to San Rafael.


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