Driving with the Stranger

A wide, flat, steely, blue, old convertible rolls up to the curb. The top is rolled down and the tanned, burly driver is smiling thickly through his shades. The woman in the passenger seat pushes the enormous door with some effort. She bounces out, holding the door open for a willing passenger to enter the gray-white vastness of the back seat. She looks at the aging Asian businessman, who is considering this scenario. His suit and tie are as immaculate as his neatly brushed strands of white hair.

He holds his briefcase in front of his generous but solid middle with both hands, a mildly fearful pose. It is a sunny day. It is such a large car. I am next in line. The pretty young woman is waiting for me, her sundress fluttering above her knees. An awkward moment passes as he gazes blank-faced at his fate. He gets in. As the car starts up again, his round head is all that is visible of his body after the expanse of the massive trunk. The woman nestles into the front, closing the door with that satisfying ’lthwok’ that only the heavy metal of old cars’ doors can make. They are off towards the freeway, this mismatched trio, without a word, the breeze blowing through their hair. Random groupings of perfect strangers like this share their commute over bridges and through tunnels in the daily weekday haj from their East Bay homes to the Mecca of downtown San Francisco. Often, barely a word is spoken beyond the customary "Good Morning" at the pick-up and "Thank You" at the drop-off. Drivers let passengers invade the private temple of their cars, while passengers willingly forego the one-of-the-crowd anonymity of the bus or Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). This is casual carpool, as it is known in the Bay Area, one of a few examples around the country of spontaneous carpooling with strangers. Passengers and drivers meet at understood locations (typically at bus and BART stations or near freeway entrances) for the big "win-win" of the morning commute: drivers bypass Bay Bridge traffic and tolls by meeting the requirements for the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, and passengers enjoy freedom from the fares and schedules of BART and the bus.

Casual carpool is flawless, sensible. In fact it is so flawless and sensible that it could never have been planned by any city planner or transportation wonk. This phenomenon is essentially an unorganized grassroots effort, organically emerging from the need to avoid the ever-more congested trip across the bridge. The official origins are disputed, though one cabbie claims to have invented it back in the 1970’s when she would go "fishing" at bus stations for extra passengers to speed up her San Francisco round trips. This cabbie was one of several interviewees for my documentary film on casual carpool. Mid-way through the project, an article came out in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled "The Weird Side of Casual Carpooling" (Rubenstein, Steve. San Francisco Chronicle, 27 November 2000: The author described several notoriously strange drivers-the UFO Guy, the Psychic ("who insists he can provide intimate details about his passengers. The details are not often correct, although they are intimate"), the woman who likes to talk about stealing body parts and selling them on the black market, and the Dear Diarist who asks every passenger to sign the book and write comments. Granted, commuting with these folks at the helm would no doubt be memorable and even article-worthy. But the article sensationalized the wrong part of casual carpool. It isn’t weird because you could get trapped with one of a few truly strange strangers, but it is weird because it is 2001 and 10,000 people every weekday trust each other not to be the reason they end up as a missing person on a milk carton.

The un-plannable ingredient of trust-the "fuel" of casual carpool-is the most baffling and fascinating aspect of this phenomenon. It defies logic and common sense at a time when it seems that the powers that be are working overtime to instill an increasing sense of fear and paranoia in all Americans. Thanks to mother’s advice (never to talk to strangers, much less get in to their cars) - distrust typically reigns supreme when it comes to riding with strangers-just look at the general fear and disdain of hitchhiking or the implementation of bullet-proof taxi cages. But every day thousands of people leave this fear miraculously in the sink with the morning’s breakfast dishes when it comes time to carpool casually in the Bay Area.

In no other place except for tightly knit communities and political movements do you see such acceptance and faith in other people. There are Bay Area ride boards and internet sites dedicated to finding carpools in one’s own neighborhood, and yet, thousands of people would rather take a chance with the unknown, than to waste time and money on the roads.

From where does the dazzling display of trust emerge? Here are some theories, gleaned from my interviews:

The Lefty Love Fest. This theory posits that trusting strangers to get you to downtown San Francisco in one piece is another bleeding heart display of how-Berkeley-can-you-be. It is as though hopping in to cars with strangers becomes a natural extension of "why can’t we all just get along." Particularly in my interviews at the North Berkeley BART pick up spot, typical motivations for taking casual carpool were extremely politically correct-ranging from saving the environment to carpooling with Tibetans. This theory may hold true for some former radicals who now have money to cover their sky-high North Berkeley mortgages. However, it loses steam not only because there were self-proclaimed Republicans and Howard Stern listeners at this stop, but also because it exists elsewhere in places like Pittsburgh, not exactly the nation’s group hug capital. In fact, it exists in Virginia as well, where passengers are called "slugs" and drivers are called "body-snatchers"-hardly the sensitive New Age way to engender a sense of trust.

The Adventure. This asserts that it is the curiosity that trumps trust. The risk is secondary to the "go west, young commuter" sense of adventure and the voyeuristic thrill of a free and acceptable opportunity to eavesdrop on your fellow neighbors. In addition to the famed Dear Diarist, I have discovered two people so far who document their carpool experiences daily. One interviewee delighted in participating in what he called a "social experiment" every day. He explained, "I feel like I’m getting away with something-it is too good to be true." The Third Man. Since the driver is usually solo, the passengers include another random stranger in addition to oneself. Many mentioned the accountability of this third person as a major factor contributing to their sense of safety. In the same vein, there are passengers who refuse to get into two-seaters or be the "third" in a car that already has two people when it pulls up to the passenger line. In theory, these strategies diminish the chances of passenger abduction and driver hijacking.

The Deal. Perhaps it the all-American quest for a bargain that makes these people into all-trusting commuters. Risk my life with strangers or save two bucks? Risk my life with strangers or save two bucks? Save two bucks.

So Far So Good. When I posed the "what makes you think it’s safe" question to my interviewees, most people simply shrugged, said they felt strange the first few times they tried it, but since they’d never heard of any incidents, and never had any problems themselves, they trusted it.

A Volvo and a Gentleman. Only a few people pointed to demographics as a factor of trust in casual carpool: it is, as one interviewee described it, "gentleman’s hitchhiking." At its extreme, well-dressed drivers in nice cars from the hills who can afford to park in the City pick up people in the flats. People wear office-ready clothing and typically listen to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (and the scattered Howard Stern listeners reportedly obtain permission first so as not to offend). There is a civility required in the understood etiquette between driver and passenger. No-nos include food, drinks, smoking, perfume, cell phone calls, backseat driving (unless they’ve missed their exit), stopping for gas or running errands with passengers. Moreover, like good children, passengers typically speak only when spoken to by the driver. Taking it one step further, one passenger posited that it may not ever be appropriate for the backseat passenger to talk, even when addressed-so, there are even stirrings of an ignored backseat passenger revolution in the civil society that is casual carpool.

Even the Chronicle article touched on the issue of demographics. One interviewee quoted in the article said, while apparently tugging on his beret, "This is not hitchhiking, but an arrangement of mutual convenience between people of similar class, background and outlook." The female cabbie’s story concurs; she said people trusted her because she was a petite friendly woman (the male drivers, envious of her speedy city trips, tried her technique to much less success because of their "unpolished" appearance). According to my interviews, the worst that had ever happened in a car consisted of a bumpy ride, political disagreements, and body odor. Benign though these are, I couldn’t help but wonder if the widespread trust would be shattered if there were a major "incident," e.g. a mugging, abduction, hijacking, hold-up, etc. I feared my documentary process would make people reconsider their lemming-like behavior. I feared the transit authorities would get wind of my documentary and maliciously plan to thwart casual carpool by staging an incident, so that they could "drive" customers back to their businesses. I think, however, that even if a casual carpool incident or two made it in the Bay Area news, the overriding convenience and benefits of this kinder, gentler, and stranger commute would jump-start it again after a brief lull.

I remain in awe of the unusual demonstration of trust, and the blasé attitude towards this weekday morning life-or-death gamble. While most of the motivations were primarily self-serving and capitalistic, could it be that underneath all of the trust and cooperation are the seeds of socialism? That is, while its users do gain personally from the exchange, it could be argued that casual carpool is inherently anti-capitalist because no one actually profits and, furthermore, the conservation of resources by the voluntary acts of individuals serve to benefit the common good (fewer fossil fuels, reduced road rage). Or perhaps it is just an unwitting appropriation of socialist behavior to propel capitalistic tendencies (save toll and gas money, get to work faster to work longer and make more money). It is amusing that this convenient use of socialism-helps transport people to their desks in San Francisco’s Financial district-the very heart of capitalism in the symbol of individual freedom: the car.