Every time Lindsey Turrentine drives to her job in San Francisco, she looks to a spot on the sidewalk outside the North Berkeley BART station, hoping this will be the day she sees fellow commuters waiting there for a ride over the Bay Bridge.
A few miles away in Rockridge, Jessica Walitt used to do the same as she passed the corner of Claremont Avenue and Hudson Street near Highway 24.
Until March of 2020, legions of commuters on foot and in cars would line up at each of those locations on workday mornings to take part in the decades-old Bay Area tradition of casual carpool. It was “organized hitchhiking, basically,” Walitt said: Riders in the East Bay looking for a lift to downtown San Francisco would wait at designated pickup points at rush hour, then climb into the cars of total strangers who needed two passengers to gain access to carpool lanes bypassing much of the Bay Bridge toll plaza’s traffic.
More than two and a half years after shelter in place orders cleared out casual carpool stops and left freeways eerily empty, traffic has long since returned to the bridge. BART and other transit systems have seen commuters come back, albeit in smaller numbers. Gas prices have soared.
Casual carpool stops, however, are still deserted.
“Not once since I went [back] to the office has someone been waiting in line,” Turrentine said, leaving her with a “twinge of regret” as she drives past the North Berkeley pickup point.
She and Walitt are among those hoping casual carpool can return to the Bay Area’s commuting landscape. But the revival effort is struggling to get off the ground, in part because of casual carpool’s inherently unorganized nature — it was an organic phenomenon, not the product of any transit agency, government entity or tech company. Long part of its charm, that also means no one is responsible now for organizing its return.
“It seems like in this day and age of technology it should be easier than it was 30-plus years ago” to get casual carpool going again, Walitt said, “but somehow it’s not.”
A quirky piece of Bay Area commuting culture
While it’s impossible to say precisely how many people commuted by casual carpool, a 1990 study estimated there were 8,000 total riders and drivers throughout the Bay Area each day. Another estimate put the number of daily participants at 6,000 in 2011, after bridge officials instituted a toll for carpools, according to a review of research compiled by UC Berkeley professor Susan Shaheen for another study.
There were more than 20 pickup points, many in Berkeley and Oakland, though commuters also caught rides in farther-flung suburbs such as Orinda, Vallejo and Fairfield.
Once they reached San Francisco passengers were typically dropped off at the corner of Fremont and Howard streets downtown; you could get a ride back across the bridge after work, but most participants only took part in the mornings and used public transportation to get home.
Devotees recall getting weird looks when they told friends outside the Bay Area that their daily commute involved hopping into a stranger’s car, or inviting random people into theirs. Perhaps to compensate, practitioners developed a code of etiquette over the years: Rides happened in silence unless the driver initiated conversation; stereos played something agreeable, often National Public Radio; riders were expected to have $1 to help cover the bridge toll, but many drivers didn’t bother asking for it.
“It was always so funny to me how comfortable we would get with it — I would get in a stranger’s car and go to sleep,” said a former Oakland rider, who started an anonymous Twitter account to chronicle casual carpool culture and declined to share her name.
Then again, she said, “Everyone has a really funny casual carpool story.”
Some drivers were passive aggressive about the toll donation or talking in the car, others terrified their riders as they sped through traffic. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a San Francisco Chronicle column in 2007 profiled a married couple who met when they shared a casual carpool ride.
Turrentine, who participated as a rider or driver for two decades before the pandemic, recalled the commute when she rode in a car that ran out of gas on the bridge, and the time she sat in the passenger seat of an old Honda and realized that if she looked down past the decaying car’s gearshift she could see the pavement passing beneath her. But she said those kinds of experiences were rare.
“Most of the time it was pleasantly boring,” Turrentine said.
Tradition came from unclear origins
For all of its popularity, casual carpool’s origins — which might offer clues as to how fans could revive it these days — are opaque.
“No one seems to know precisely how the casual car pool started,” the Oakland Tribune reported in a 1985 front-page story on the tradition, which by then was firmly established. “Most practitioners say they heard about it ‘from friends at the office,’ or ‘through the grapevine.’ Some speculate that drivers simply began pulling up to people waiting at bus stops and offering free rides.”
That theory seems plausible — many of the pickup points are close to bus stops and the Tribune claimed the “casual carpool” name was coined by annoyed AC Transit staff, who have long complained the pickups siphon away riders.
The Chicago Tribune offered a different origin story in a 1986 feature that ran in newspapers across the country, which dubbed casual carpool “commuting — California style.”
It quoted a Caltrans spokesman named Bob Halligan who claimed credit for kindling the idea, saying he put out a press release encouraging casual carpools after a fire in BART’s Transbay Tube knocked out rail service between Oakland and San Francisco for several months in 1979. But the tradition predated the BART fire — buried deep in the legal notices of a November 1978 edition of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is an item about an attempt to start a “casual carpool matching program” for North Bay commuters.
“Maybe each of these [events] are contributing factors,” said John Goodwin, a longtime spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Bay Area Toll Authority.
Goodwin noted the 1970s — the decade when many believe the phenomenon started — also saw the introduction of carpool lanes leading to the bridge, as well as an oil crisis and burgeoning environmental movement that made commuters more inclined to share rides and save gas.
Whatever its genesis, once casual carpooling was established it didn’t need a smartphone app, marketing budget or management of any sort.
All it required to sustain itself for generations of commuters was what Goodwin described as an “unbeatable value proposition.”
Rather than jostling for space in BART trains that were packed at rush hour, riders were guaranteed a seat — and often a nice one, as users reported luxury cars were a common sight in the pickup line — at little or no cost. Drivers saved time by avoiding traffic and got half off their toll.
“There’s just something so beautiful and collaborative about casual carpool,” Turrentine said. “It is sort of the best of humanity, I guess — people coming together to help each other out in a way that is very friendly, and trusting.”
Who will lead the casual carpool revival?
On a recent weekday morning outside the North Berkeley BART station, signs directing casual carpoolers where to stand for a ride were some of the only traces of the tradition. The signs are new, installed last year along with a dedicated loading lane at the pickup point along Sacramento Street.
Turrentine was one of two drivers who turned into the lane looking for riders that morning, lured by the sight of a Berkeleyside reporter and photographer at the curb. No actual commuters showed up all through rush hour, though.
The scene was the same in Rockridge in Oakland, where commuters walked past a forlorn pickup point on their way to catch an AC Transit bus to San Francisco.
It’s possible the demographics of casual carpoolers mean they’re less likely to need it these days — when Shaheen, the UC Berkeley professor, surveyed riders and drivers for her 2016 study she found they skewed wealthier than the rest of the Bay Area. White-collar workers, many of whom embraced their home offices in 2020, are generally commuting less often now than they did before the pandemic to job hubs like downtown San Francisco.
Turrentine wonders if lingering worries about COVID-19 and sharing space with others could also make people less inclined to take casual carpools in the future.
Walitt worries reliability is the most important barrier to reviving the tradition — and the hardest to overcome.
For casual carpool to function at all requires a certain critical mass: Riders have to know they can count on a steady stream of drivers to pick them up, and drivers need a reliable supply of riders, since waiting 20 minutes at the curb for passengers would negate the time savings.
“It sort of has to happen all at once,” Walitt said.
More organized forms of transportation have been strategizing since the pandemic’s early days over how to win commuters back — Bay Area transit agencies have launched ad campaigns and fare discounts to entice riders, while ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft can use promotions and push notifications to do the same.
With no such infrastructure to reach casual carpoolers, Walitt has been scouring Twitter and Nextdoor hoping to find others who are interested in a renaissance.
She thought it had begun one morning in September, when she spotted a woman near the Rockridge pickup point as she made her way toward Highway 24. It was a fellow former casual carpooler, looking for a ride.
The two of them had to wait around for another passenger, but a man eventually showed up — he hopped into Walitt’s car, and they all set off for their first casual carpool trip since early 2020.
“I don’t know that I saved time, but I did not sit in that godawful traffic,” Walitt said. “It just seemed like a little taste of what could come back.”
It didn’t stick. When Walitt returned to the pickup point, the woman she’d driven with wasn’t there; the man was, but they never found another passenger and eventually gave up. It was the worst of both worlds: Between the time they spent waiting around for a rider and especially rough traffic on the bridge, she said, that day’s commute took more than two hours.
Commenters on Nextdoor have suggested she try pulling up to bus stops to see if anyone wants to share a ride — recreating casual carpool’s origins, if that telling of the story is accurate. Walitt wasn’t comfortable with that idea, though, and didn’t trust it would be reliable.
“I think I’ve given up on casual carpool for the time being,” she said.
Pictured top: Lindsey Turrentine driving her car. Turrentine used to do casual carpool regularly and would like to see it revived. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight