New Commute: What Is the Fastest and Cheapest Possible?
January 17, 2007 2:18 PM   Subscribe

I live in Berkeley, CA and have a great job offer in...yeesh...Palo Alto, so a commute is in my future. I need help in reducing that commute as much as possible. Some ideas: * If I get a hybrid, are those carpool lane stickers still available? It will help on time and money. * What GPS units will realistically help my commute based on traffic conditions? * What else can you think of? More details in the extended explanation...

I have a new job offer and am doing some calculations. Since my wife and I only have one car (I used to walk to and from BART), a new car will have to be purchased for my Berkeley to Palo Alto commute.

For the car, I have settled on a small car, late model (I want as much repair-free longevity as possible). I like the Prius because it is a hybrid (lower carbon footprint) and is a 4D hatchback. Given all my other factors, it is a little more expensive, but not by too much given the tax credit and possible savings on tolls. The other reason I want it is to save on commute time by using the carpool lanes (I would hit two on my I-880 to 92 to I-280 regular route). I have seen that the CA legislature has added more carpool lane stickers. Have they run out on those yet? If they have, one impetus has been removed to buy the hybrid, as I would not save time and I would also be paying about $84 in tolls/month.

I have also decided on a new Prius instead of a used, as the used ones seem to be fetching higher than new MSRP. My understanding was that there was no waiting list for the 2007 Prius at this time. Am I wrong?

If you don't think a hybrid is worth it, what is? I like the 4D hatchback form factor, but I haven't found one that is both economical (in fuel and cost) and reliable long term. Most of my research is from Consumer Reports and Edmunds, but they offer no easy way of searching on those criteria. I prefer buying used, but late model (2005 on up). I have excluded the super mini cars due to safety concerns.

GPS: I want to save money by not getting the built-in factory GPS (about $2000 on its own! This includes all the Toyotas and Hondas I was looking at) and get one with traffic conditions built in. This way, if my main route is super clogged, I want something that will relatively accurately calculate the shortest route time-wise. I already have a Palm Treo 650 so I was going to try out TomTom Nav 6 (only $150 for software--I already have a BT GPS). Does anyone have any other suggestions? Live traffic is my most important criterion. Cost is second.

Does anyone else have any suggestions for reducing my commute time? I am already working out if I can change my work hours to off-commute, but that is not guaranteed. Work from home is out at this point, too.

Thanks in advance, internet my friend.
posted by JLobster to Work & Money (19 answers total)
Best answer: Are you married to the 880/92/280 route?

I commute daily from San Francisco to Menlo Park; I have colleagues who drive from East Bay (Oakland, Berk,) to here. I take 101 S to 380 E to 280 S; my EBay colleagues take the Bay Bridge, and then follow my route. Water-cooler conversations have revealed that the Ebayers dislike the 880/92 etc. route because traffic seems to be worse. While crossing the Bay Bridge at morning rush hour (going west) is no fun, the rest of the drive is basically in reverse commute direction. On the rare occasion when I've taken 101 south to Palo Alto in order to get to work, the traffic makes me want to cry. And 280 is way prettier.

As far as I know, there are still hybrid/carpool lane stickers available. I drive a 2001 Prius, and don't cross any bridges or drive on roads with carpool lanes, so the stickers aren't doing me any good, but I have them. At 7:30 am, commute time from the 101S/280 split takes about 30 minutes. I'm getting about 48 mpg.
posted by rtha at 2:40 PM on January 17, 2007

If you really dont want to drive let me also suggest:

BART - from Berkeley to Millbrae: approx 1 hr.
CalTrain - bullet from Millbrae to Palo Alto: approx 20 min.
posted by vacapinta at 2:43 PM on January 17, 2007

I used to live in Berkeley/work in Menlo Park and that commute isn't great. I think it was generally faster to take the Dumbarton rather than cross over to 280, but I didn't try 280 that often. If you can work at 10 it is amazing how much the freeways clear up at 9. (They clear up even more at 10, but that is getting kind of late.)
posted by aspo at 2:43 PM on January 17, 2007

How long of a commute are you willing to do? The 511 transit planner claims that Berkeley BART to Palo Alto Caltrain is 1 hour 35 minutes. At $9.75 oneway with transfers it's expensive and involved, but probably cheaper than buying another car. The driving time is 42 minutes right now before the commute rush .. I imagine a typical rush hour drive is at least an hour.

I basically have the same problem as you: long (average 1 hour) commute, only one car in the household and transit options are a bit longer and expensive. But, I haven't bought a second car yet, but I can work at home and only use the car 2-3 days a week (if I need to go in another day, I use transit).
posted by R343L at 2:47 PM on January 17, 2007

should have previewed ... what vacapinta said.
posted by R343L at 2:48 PM on January 17, 2007

I'll leave the navigation to the Californians, but another car option might be a VW Golf TDI (diesel). Mileage is good, it's a hatchback that comes in a 4-door, and it costs quite a bit less than a hybrid. Diesel engines are as reliable as they come.

I don't think the new Rabbits are sold as diesels here, you'd need to find a late model used Golf.

Not as clean as a hybrid, but still less money in Big Oil's pocket instead of yours.
posted by altcountryman at 3:15 PM on January 17, 2007

If you haven't owned a car before, be sure to consider the scattered costs of ownership when comparing against public transportation that seems expensive. Insurance, oil changes, parking, new batteries when those in your prius go bad, repairs, tickets for parking and traffic, accident deductibles. It all happens eventually. Also, it's difficult and expensive to change your mind after you've bought a new car. What if the job doesn't work out? Or you find one in a city where you can both live and work?

Sorry for the nagging, I'm just thinking of the money (about $10,000) I dumped on cars in the one year I lived in Jersey before moving into the city. Without cars you can pay insanely high rent and still come out ahead.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 3:16 PM on January 17, 2007

Regarding the Clean Air Vehicle stickers, you should read this information from the California DMV regarding sticker availability and corresponding legislation. Also, see this regarding the phase out of tax credits related to the purchase of hybrid vehicles, it ain't as good as it used to be. Good luck!
posted by Asherah at 3:37 PM on January 17, 2007

I used to live in the East Bay (Concord), and I currently live near LA (Pasadena). I am not exaggerating when I say I would go insane without my trusty '04 Civic Hybrid and its HOV stickers. I'm not sure whether HOV lanes are more prevalent here than there (I recall them being on the 680 and the 24), but it's really nice to be able to bypass gridlock 75% of the time. I read on the link Asherah provided that CA issued another 10K HOV stickers as of Jan. 1, so you should be able to snag one provided you don't wait too long.

As for the GPS thing, Google Maps Mobile does live traffic info (and I just saw they posted a Treo version). However, this doesn't give you the re-routing you wanted, so it may not be useful to you.
posted by Shecky at 4:06 PM on January 17, 2007

Best answer: i believe the stickers have probably run out. they authorized 10,000 more on jan 1 2007, but supposedly there was already a backlog in nov 2006, so its possible those 10,000 are already gone. check, there might be a thread there covering the topic.

i live in oakland and work in santa clara, so i just do 880-237. you might try 880-84-101.

i have the tomtom software and a treo650. it works great, except when my treo decided the SD card (with the map data) doesnt exist anymore. its done that to me twice in 2 years now, and the last time when i was actually driving and using the GPS!

i think bart is probably a lose. in light traffic i can make my 42mi commute in about 50 minutes. but i work flextime and leave my house about 9:30am. evenings are harder - even with the carpool lane the area between 237 and mission on 880N is a mess and then the whole freeway slows down (including the carpool lane) near 92 again. it takes me about 1h10m to get home.

in contrast, bart was taking me 45+ minutes just to get from rockridge to fremont, and then driving from fremont to santa clara (i left a beater overnight at the fremont bart station) took another 35min, and that's in the morning.

the peninsula bart route might work better, i dont know. but there's enough time wasted waiting for trains, etc. that it was just always better to drive. and with the prius, i'm burning maybe 2gal/day, so that's about $5 roundtrip.
posted by joeblough at 5:11 PM on January 17, 2007

Response by poster: To clarify based on a few comments: I have ruled out public transportation because of the extra time it takes at this point. The difference of even 1/2 hour is significant, based on when my son goes to bed. I want to spend as much time with him as possible. I am at a point in my career where spending more money on a car is worth it to me. I just don't want to go overboard.

Also, I currently have a car and have also previously owned a diesel. The search for the diesel gas station was not always fun. I have factored in the cost of the loan, gas, tolls and insurance. The batteries now come with 10yr warranty, so I am not worried about that repair cost.

Also, I have found out more info on the HOV stickers. This site was down (SQL errors) when I initially wrote the question, but has since come back up: PriusChat Forums: "The Department of Motor Vehicles has sent out 5,945 stickers since Jan. 1 with an additional 1,962 being processed. That leaves nearly 2,100 still available." It looks like that might be the biggest gamble of all.

Does anyone have any info on the GPS traffic side of things? None of my Googling has turned up anything that substantively reviews the traffic aspect.
posted by JLobster at 5:18 PM on January 17, 2007

Response by poster: (Above follow up posted before I read joeblough's reply)
posted by JLobster at 5:21 PM on January 17, 2007

i forgot to mention that tomtom does have realtime traffic; it comes with a free temporary subscription, and i tried it, but i never really used it. i just sit in the traffic jam...

that's good news about the stickers, maybe i'll get another prius! run, do not walk, to your friendly toyota dealer!
posted by joeblough at 5:50 PM on January 17, 2007

You should also know that there are no carpool/HOV lanes between SF and Menlo Park (they start south of Menlo) so there's no added benefit there.
posted by judith at 5:56 PM on January 17, 2007

(on 101, I mean)
posted by judith at 5:56 PM on January 17, 2007

HOV doesn't gain you on the 92 bridge .. I drive that 2-3 days a week in varying times between 8-10am and 5-8pm. Getting onto 92 (or onto 880 from 92) is a pain and involves everyone squeezed down to one or two lanes (no HOV). The toll plaza is rarely stuffed up -- and it's only the regular pay lines that gets slow (and not even enough to slow up the fastraq/hov).
posted by R343L at 6:16 PM on January 17, 2007

So, I talked to one of my EBay colleagues. She lives in Berk, and works in Menlo Park (the 280 side of MP); she picks up casual commuters at an Ebay BART station so as to take advantage of the carpool lanes; she drops them off in downtown SF, hops back on 101, and Bob's your uncle. Another coworker lives in Oakland and usually takes 880/92 etc - but she doesn't usually get in until about 10:30, so as to miss (some) traffic. From what she says, I gather that 880 just has lots of traffic, both ways, at rush hour - I guess lots of people live in Oakland and work in Hayward/Fremont - but I've never had to drive it, so I can't comment directly.
posted by rtha at 7:49 PM on January 17, 2007

interesting. at the entrance to 24/980 at claremont there's always a bunch of people parked, picking up random people to carpool to SF, i suppose.

also, on 880 the carpool lanes don't start until the 580 interchange, about 12 miles from 880/980. however, unless there is an accident or caltrans is sweeping the road (WHY do they do this on weekday mornings!?) traffic moves pretty quickly down to that carpool lane.

then things get messed up down at 880 at mission since they are building a new flyover for the connection to 680. but that's improved a bit lately.
posted by joeblough at 8:58 PM on January 17, 2007

Keep an eye on Mr. Roadshow - the HOV sticker questions come up a lot.
posted by drstein at 9:14 PM on January 17, 2007

« Older Help me turn Irish Breakfast Tea into Irish...   |   Recommendations for house inspection companies Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.