Column: I drive Hwy 24 so I can complain about the traffic
- Published Friday, September 2, 2005, in the Contra Contra Times
It's Highway 24, as in 24 mph in rush hour
By Mike Zampa
The U.S. census bureau says Contra Costa County has the 10th worse
average commute time in the country. How they can figure that out by
asking me every 10 years how many toilets I have, I'll never know.
Nevertheless, it's sobering to hear our government say that we're in
the top 10 for stinky rush hours. Sobering, but not surprising --
especially if you drive to work every day on Highway 24.
When it comes to rush hour, Highway 24 is the rectal thermometer of
commutes. It eventually does the job, but on the whole you'd be more
comfortable with a low-grade fever and infection.
Highway 24 is the eight-lane (except when it's six or nine or 10
lanes) highway linking Oakland to Orinda and Lafayette. It has a
clever little tunnel in the middle that can bind things up better than
a pizza with refried beans.
Every morning for the past nine months I've commuted on this
state-funded taffy pull of a road to my new job in Oakland. And every
night I use it to head back home.
Some times, I make it. Other times I pull off to the side and hope
that aliens will abduct me.
Highway 24 has no official beginning or end that you could point to on
a sign, though it seems to materialize somewhere around Walnut Creek
and vanish into quicksand near the Bay Bridge. Instead, it mostly has
this big, bloated middle in desperate need of an enema.
How bad is the commute?
If you got on Highway 24 in downtown Oakland on a Sunday morning, you
could reach my house in Lafayette in 20 minutes. If you did it during
the evening rush hour, it could take 45 minutes.
It's a good thing that the rate of inflation doesn't jump as
dramatically as Highway 24 commute drive times, or we'd be paying $3 a
gallon for gasoline. Wait, bad example. But you get the idea.
They're talking about expanding the Caldecott Tunnel, the big hole in
the head -- I mean, hole in the ground -- that constricts Highway 24
at Orinda. But that won't help. There'd still be too many cars and
too few lanes, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission
study that looked at three "strategies" for fixing the tunnel but
omitted the obvious one: nuclear destruction.
So we're stuck with an evening ride home that goes something like
this: 1) enter freeway, 2) stop, 3) wait, 4) grow old, and 5) die. As
my friend Whiff would say: "Come on, move it up there. My clothes are
going out of style." There's a rhythm and pattern to the evening
Highway 24 commute. Veterans migrate to the left lane in downtown
Oakland to avoid merging with traffic escaping San Francisco. They
drift right at Rockridge, anticipating thinner traffic up ahead as
motorists peel off to Highway 13. After that comes the Caldecott
Much of this driving is done in first and second gear. You could push
your car and still keep up. The pace quickens once commuters reach
Contra Costa, but then there's the problem of exiting Highway 24.
The worst exit is at Orinda. It's a long curving downhill with a
stoplight at the bottom. Often the line of cars stretches all the way
back to the highway. If you can figure out why all those people are
going to Orinda, I hope you'll tell me. I'd love to visit some time.
My favorite part of the Highway 24 commute is coming to a complete
standstill next to Oakland's MacArthur BART station. Only a fence
separates the platform and highway.
Me: Say, I see you're reading Harry Potter there.
BART passenger in line: Shouldn't you be driving instead of talking to
Me: Do you see anyone driving on this road?
BART passenger: Why don't you take BART?
Me: Can't sleep on BART.
As the preceding conversation indicates, there are alternatives to
Highway 24. One could drive through the Berkeley hills to Orinda.
One could drive through the Oakland hills to Moraga. One could also
go to correspondence school and get a job at home selling llamas on
Not for me. My way is the highway.
After all, I'm in no rush. I like to stop and smell the flowers. On
Highway 24 I can take the time to plant them, too.
Mike Zampa lives in Lafayette. He can be reached at michaelzampa@...