Being Taken for a Ride : The Push to Help Commuters Steer Clear of Solo Driving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Tony Graziano deftly maneuvers his 1989 Dodge van through the morning crush on Interstate 5 south, his 14 passengers talk, read, listen to the radio, sleep or get a jump on their work. They are oblivious to the mass of frustrated motorists inching along outside the sanctuary of their van-pool.

Graziano considers it a personal compliment when his passengers pursue the activities they couldn't if they were driving alone in their own cars. He beams proudly when someone falls asleep on the ride to work or home.

"It means that they put all their trust into me," said the Carlsbad resident, who's been navigating this van-pool from Oceanside to Sorrento Valley since February. "No matter what, with all the things that go wrong, the speeding up, the slowing down, they can sleep through all that, and that gives me a good feeling," he said.

Graziano, a hardware engineer for Calma, a software and systems design firm, volunteered to be a van-pool driver after the North City Transportation Management Assn. surveyed his company and found it to be an ideal candidate for a ride-share program.

Besides the benefits of helping alleviate freeway congestion and air pollution, Graziano liked the idea of getting a free ride to and from work and saving wear and tear on his personal vehicle.

Graziano makes three stops along the I-5 corridor, picking up employees of neighboring Sorrento Valley businesses and depositing them at their work site by 7:30 a.m. He reverses the process at 4 p.m. Because of his efforts, there are 14 fewer cars on the freeway during rush-hour traffic.

This is the kind of ride-sharing that organizations like Caltrans, Commuter Computer, transportation management associations and environmental groups are working to make happen.

Next week, transportation groups in North County and around the state hope to enlighten the public about the benefits of ride-sharing and the alternatives to driving alone. Rideshare Week '90 sponsors include the North City Transportation Management Assn. and the North County Transportation Management Assn.

The groups hope to encourage people to car-pool, van-pool, jog, walk, bike, bus or skate to work, thereby lessening traffic on the freeways.

To heighten interest, several community activities have been planned and prizes will be awarded to companies with the most ride-sharers during the first week in October.

Getting into the spirit, Mayor Lee Thibadeau of San Marcos has challenged the other mayors along the Highway 78 corridor to see who can get the highest percentage of city employees to ride-share during the week. The mayors of Escondido, Oceanside, Vista and Carlsbad have all accepted the challenge and the North County Transportation Management Assn. will tally up the winners.

Rideshare Week sponsors are quick to point out that it will take more than five days of community effort to solve the problems of traffic congestion.

Statewide, traffic has increased by 55% since 1980, but the miles of new road construction have increased less than 2% in the same period. Two-thirds of the existing roads are in "fair to very poor condition," and the cost of improving them is estimated at $8.6 billion, according to Californians for Better Transportation.

Other statistics about commuting and polluting from the North County Transportation Management Assn.:

* Each California driver wastes about 43 gallons of fuel each year in traffic jams.

* In 1988, California drivers spent about 1.19 billion hours stuck in traffic.

* Cars generate 85% of air pollution.

Why does more than 80% of the commuting population choose to drive alone, despite soaring gas prices and miles-long traffic jams?

Fred Mrak, executive director of the North County Transportation Assn., which covers the Highway 78 corridor, says ride-sharing requires a change in people's lifestyles, something not many Southern Californians are willing to do.

"If you go into the East or Midwest, you always hear people say, 'People in Southern California are in love with their cars.' We are not in love with our cars, we are in love with our lifestyle," he said.

"People in Southern California think nothing of driving 50 miles to see a friend. They would never do that back East. If we (Southern California) could provide good mass transit, where we could walk out the front door, get on a bus that is on time, safe and something we could have confidence in, we would get out of our cars as readily as anyone else," Mrak said.

Experts and commuters agree that it can be more time consuming to ride-share than to drive alone. There are additional stops for other passengers and schedules must be adjusted to precisely match that of fellow commuters. Fear that they will lose time has kept a number of people from trying ride-sharing, according to Commuter Computer, a driver/passenger matching program connected with the California Department of Transportation.

But, as fast-moving car-pool lanes become more common, the time advantage they give ride-sharers is expected to make up for the extra time spent picking up and dropping off passengers, according to Manuel Demetre of Commuter Computer.

The state plans to expand the high occupancy vehicle network on I-5 and to eventually extend to Escondido the diamond lane on Interstate 15, Demetre said. Additionally, there will be metering on most on-ramps, which gives car-pools the first go-ahead to get on the freeway.

Inconvenience and loss of freedom is another concern of potential ride-sharers, said Ann Dash, executive director of the North City Transportation Management Assn. The association covers the Golden Triangle, North City, Torrey Pines and the La Jolla Village Drive corridor.

Some people worry that if they car- or van-pool, they will not be able to run errands on their breaks or be able to get somewhere fast in the event of an emergency, she said.

"One of biggest fears a car-pooler has is that they will get stranded. Driving is considered a personal freedom, and encouraging people to use some other mode of transportation without limiting their freedom at all is an uphill battle," Dash said.

Anticipating this mind-set, the North City Transportation Management Assn. has developed several programs to increase a ride-sharer's freedom. The Emergency Ride Home program is one such option.

"In the event of an emergency, our members can contact us and we will get a cab to them within 10 minutes and take that person either to the emergency, to the home or to where their vehicle is at no charge," Dash said. "We have a contract with La Jolla Cab Co. where we pick up the cost, so our members can get home and it's not going to cost them an arm and a leg."

The North City association is also planning a concierge service, providing dry-cleaning and cobbler service for people who van-pool.

Another barrier associated with car-pooling is fear of having contact with a stranger, said Demetre. Commuter Computer tries to alleviate that concern by providing interested car-poolers with lists of people who work in the same company or who live nearby and have similar work schedules.

The most obvious benefit of ride-sharing is financial savings, Demetre said. The single commuter has no one helping defray the expense of gasoline, vehicle maintenance, and parking. In North County, there are express bus lines that leave from park-and-ride lots in Oceanside, Escondido and Poway and go into downtown San Diego. A monthly pass for one of these 45-seater, coach-type buses is about $65--cheaper than it would be just to pay for a parking space downtown, Demetre said.

On Tony Graziano's van-pool, a monthly pass costs about $69. Participants can take advantage of tax credits provided by the state and write off 40% of that cost. Recently, the North City Transportation Management Assn. was approved for a van-pool acquisition grant, which will help defray the cost of leasing a van, and that savings will be passed along to the riders, Graziano said.

"Out-of-pocket expense will drop about $20 just because of the grant," he said. "Then, if a person takes advantage of the tax credit, they can really be riding for as low as $27 a month, and there is no way your can drive your own car for $27 anywhere in San Diego County."

Other benefits to ride-sharing: free flowing freeways, cleaner air to breathe, reduced stress.

Gregory Ragsdale, a junior programmer for HomeFed Bank, who lives in Rancho San Diego and commutes with a co-worker to Sorrento Valley, said in the past year he has cut his fuel bill by about one third, but his stress level has decreased even more.

"It's great. When you have that person to converse with, it's real therapeutic," Ragsdale said. "If I'm frustrated, we talk about it. I get a lot of help from him just from the car-pool time."

Fred Mrak says that ride-sharing is not a popular issue, but it has gained much more attention in the last few years. Like increased awareness of smoking and healthy eating habits, ride-sharing is becoming a social, environmental and health issue.

"Stress is the No. 1 killer," Mrak said. "That solo driver is not helping the high blood pressure or health of the general public."

"We (the Transportation Management Assn.) have no ax to grind," Mrak said. "We just want to make this a better place for our families and children."

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