Today at Berkeley Lab

How Meeting Online Led to Naps in the Back Seat

From left to right: Jan McClellan, Paula Ashley, Jo Dee Widmayer, and Zaida McCunney

Four carpoolers collectively avoid nearly 45,000 miles a year of driving.
By Julie Chao

For 12 years Zaida McCunney (far right) had been driving 400 miles a week, commuting between her home in Livermore and her job as an administrator in the Computing Sciences directorate. She was on her second Saturn, after putting 300,000 miles on the first one.

Then last February the Lab introduced the Zimride program, an online service that matches people for carpooling. She signed up, and within a couple months, she met three other Lab employees from Livermore and formed a carpool. More than a year later, the carpool is still going strong and the participants could not be happier.

“I save $250 a month on gas,” McCunney said. “My husband loves it. And I think I can keep my second Saturn a little longer.”

Adds Jan McClellan: “Oil changes, tires, everything, it just brought it all down.”

McCunney and McClellan, along with Jo Dee Widmayer and Paula Ashley, say the rules and clear organization of the carpool contribute to its success. The women meet in the morning in the large parking lot of a Livermore strip mall. They will wait no more than five minutes if someone is running late. No additional stops are allowed. Each person drives one day a week and then the fifth day is rotated so that everyone drives fives times a month.

Once they reach the Lab, the driver drops each person off at their building, and at the end of the day, picks each person up. Thanks to a new Lab initiative, the driver can park in a privileged blue triangle spot. “It’s door-to-door service—that feels special,” said McCunney. Added McClellan: “It’s nice when it’s rainy.”

The carpoolers also are strict about safety, such as following traffic laws and being diligent about car maintenance. “We want to incorporate the Lab’s safety rules in our carpool because I feel the carpool is an extension of the Lab,” McCunney said.

McCunney had previously wanted to carpool but commuted alone for 12 years because there was no mechanism for meeting other people. Since Zimride was introduced last year nearly 700 Lab employees have signed up, though the Lab doesn’t have access to how many carpools have been formed as a result.

The women joke about the slight trepidation they had getting in the car the first day with a total stranger, making sure their husbands knew the names of their carpool-mates. But now they easily share laughs and have no desire to go back to the days of solo driving. Widmayer, an administrator in the IT Division, said that what used to be a 90-minute commute now takes less than an hour. “The carpool lane on 680 has opened so we aren’t held back later in the evenings,” she said

McClellan, who works as an emergency services specialist in the Emergency Services Office, noted that a common fear of joining a carpool, one that she shared, was losing the flexibility to leave early or stay late in case of family or work emergencies. But the Alameda County Guaranteed Ride Home program, which provides a free ride home in a taxi or rental car in case of unexpected circumstances, took care of that fear. “I don’t think a lot of people know the program exists,” she said. “We’ve all got vouchers.”

Besides saving money on gas and car maintenance, there are other previously unforeseen advantages of carpooling. McCunney says she saves on cellphone costs because she used her commute time to make social calls. “Sitting in that horrible traffic every day, it was almost an hour on my personal cell,” she said.

They say they have been forced to become more efficient at work. “Because we do need to leave on time, you have to stay on schedule,” Widmayer said. “You have so much time to get all your work done, so you’re more efficient during the day.”

Plus, of course, there’s the benefit to the environment. “We’re reducing our carbon footprint,” said Widmayer. “We have three extra cars off the highway every day, three cars on the hill not taking up parking places.”

The carpool has only one rule that occasionally leads to discord: the front seat passenger is not allowed to nap. “At the end of the day, everyone fights for the back seat,” McCunney said with a laugh.