Bay Area Commuting Hacks (Part I of II: Driving Hacks)
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
As a Bay Area relocation expert, I escort newcomers around the region and give tours of communities, rental home options, and schools. So, driving is an integral part of my job. Given a choice, most of us would avoid driving in traffic and take ferries, public transit, or BART to work, but some intrepid souls must brave the highways and make their way through the infamous Bay Area traffic maze. The following tips, or “hacks”, come from years of personal experience as a daily commuter scheming to save time and money. They will hopefully add to your quality of life if you must (sigh) commute each day. Some hacks will save you time, some will save you money, and some are emotional adjustments that I have personally found effective in eliminating “road rage”.
Hack 1 - Offset the Costs of Driving
Ask about commuter benefits programs at your company to help pay for your parking fees. Commuter benefits vary but can provide parking stipends, reduce taxes, or give you a monthly flexible stipend to offset your commute expenses. There are many options to choose from for commuter benefits programs but check out this example below.
Hack 2 - Make Commuting Social (and Offset the Costs of Driving!)
Carpool. Arrange a carpool with neighbors, coworkers, and friends, or pick up two or three carpool passengers at convenient locations near BART train stations or on your way to work. Drop them off in Downtown San Francisco. Carpooling allows you to enter the express lane on certain highways and the carpool (HOV) lane over bridges, reducing your drive time by 30-40 minutes each way. You also get a discount on the bridge toll. If you don’t know anyone going your way, learn more about “Casual Carpool” pickup locations, etiquette, and how it works at http://sfcasualcarpool.com/routes.
Find out more info on the benefits of carpooling in the Bay Area at http://rideshare.511.org/.
Note: To use the carpool lane, you need to pay for your bridge toll or express lane toll with a FasTrak account (a commute payment system linked to your credit card) and install a toll tag in your car. You can purchase a toll tag at Costco, Safeway, or Walgreens, or you order one online here:
Hack 3 (Related to Hack 2) - Make Some Money While You Commute
Drive for a local carpool app and makeup to 10 bucks per trip to work as well as getting carpool lane access! Apps like Lyft operate in the South Bay and set up carpools for you on your work route, and there are plans to expand into other Bay Area communities. If you are in the East Bay, check out Carzac: http://www.carzac.com.
Find out more about various carpool apps at http://rideshare.511.org/carpool/carpooling-apps.aspx.
Hack 4 - Go Faster While Going Green
Buy an electric or hybrid-electric plug-in vehicle (new or pre-owned) and apply for HOV stickers. This may seem like an unnecessarily heavy financial commitment at first, but consider the long-term payoff if you drive a lot for work, especially if you’re already in the market for a new car. With myriad payoffs, this is my favorite hack of all.
If you must buy a car, know this!! The State of California has incentivized the purchase of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles by allowing owners of these cars to use the coveted carpool (HOV) lane by-right - that is they can use the carpool lanes with only one person in the car during all hours. This hack can shave hours off your commute depending on how many HOV lanes exist on your route and how far you drive to work and will save you dollars on your toll each day. Map your commute, run the numbers, and see if the purchase price of an electric or hybrid electric vehicle is justified by the benefits.
There are two kinds of cars that qualify to use the HOV (carpool) lane as of today (June 2016): electric cars and plug-in hybrid electric cars. Find out more about qualifying makes and models, car cost comparisons, and read an explanation of the green and white carpool stickers here:
If you want to buy a hybrid electric plug-in, be sure to check with the DMV to see if they are still issuing green HOV lane stickers because there is a limit to how many the DMV plans to issue each year.
Purely electric cars are eligible for a white HOV lane sticker. Be sure to consider the range you need your car to have before purchase (Tesla Model X has a 250-mile range and the Nissan Leaf has 95-mile range approximately.)
Hacks within a hack… here are some other benefits of owning electric or hybrid electric vehicles in California:
1) A California State rebate of up to 6,500 dollars and a Federal Tax Credit of up to 7,500 dollars when you purchase a qualifying electric or hybrid electric car. See which vehicles qualify and for rebate/credit amounts below.
2) Better parking spots in parking lots, movie theaters, and Whole Foods (free EV charge stations!) are reserved for electric and hybrid electric plug-in vehicles with Chargepoint and nrg EVgo cards while charging their vehicles. Set up a Chargepoint and nrg EVgo account here:
3) Reduced gas costs and environmental preservation. Owning a vehicle with lower emissions has always been important to me as a commuter and, as a side benefit, this philosophy creates camaraderie with other electric vehicle owners charging their cars alongside me in parking lots (they really are friendly!)
Hack 5 - Be a Bay Bridge Traffic Ninja
When commuting eastbound from San Francisco, get on the Bay Bridge as late as possible, which is at the base! Don’t be tempted to use Van Ness or even 5th Street! The Bryant Street entrance is my favorite carpool entrance and is even worth a detour through South Beach if I am in the Mission. If you don’t have a carpool or HOV sticker, use the Harrison or Folsom Street bridge entrance.
Hack 6 - The Right Lane is the Fast Lane
Use the right lane. Savvy Bay Area natives know this, and now I pass it on to you. During peak commute hours, the right lane on highways (aside from the carpool lane) is the fastest lane 90 percent of the time. My theory is that everybody drives on the left lanes during commute times to try to beat traffic, leaving the right lane right open. Some may disagree but, for me, this has been true.
Hack 7 - Take the Backroads
Don’t be afraid to take the scenic route. Traffic got you down on highway 80? Get off and use the parallel Frontage Road that runs all the way from Albany to Emeryville. This is usually true for most Bay Area highways. San Rafael has a frontage road I use sometimes to skirt North Bay traffic. To avoid Caldecott Tunnel (Highway 24) traffic, you can take Grizzly Peak and Fish Ranch Road and over the Berkeley Hills back to Walnut Creek or Lamorinda.
Hack 8 - Plan Ahead
Use Waze (www.waze.com) or Google Maps apps to check your commute before you leave and find an alternate route if there is an accident or backup. If you are really savvy, check both.
Hack 9 - Drive When Others Aren't
If you can, stagger your working hours so you commute before or after peak traffic hours. Generally, peak traffic time in the Bay Area is from 8-9:30 AM and 4-6:30 PM, although some will argue peak traffic hours are extending later into the night. Also, some companies will allow employees with long commutes to work from home one to two days per week, so inquire about this as an option if it seems acceptable in your workplace.
Hack 10 - Driving Zen
“Driving Zen” is my second favorite hack, just behind buying a hybrid plug-in vehicle. Adopting a positive attitude toward the necessary evil of driving in the Bay Area has made a huge impact on my life. Instead of spending time in traffic wishing hellfire on other drivers and silently raging, I now listen to my 90’s R&B station on Pandora and sing at the top of my lungs. Everyone has bad days where traffic-avoiding tricks and strategies don’t seem to work. It helps to think of your commute as some much-needed “me time” and listen to the latest best-seller on Audible, find an addictive new podcast (ie. Serial), learn a new language, or rock out to your Pandora station of choice. You too can sing along loudly. Zen driving time is your “me time” and you might as well enjoy it.
There you have it. Favorite driving tips from a daily commuter and Bay Area native. Honk if you see me in the trenches of the carpool lane or the frontage road in my Plugin Prius, rocking out.