DETOUR Getting beyond the off-ramp

I HAD TO GET MYSELF caught in traffic.

The radio sounded the 6 a.m. alarm, knocking me out of my dream state. The KCBS-AM traffic bugle call every 10 minutes helped me grope for consciousness. I finally shuffled into the shower at 6:38 a.m. and heard a traffic dame say that westbound traffic to the Bay Bridge was still moving. Too bad.

When I stepped out at 6:48 a.m., I heard the familiar mantra: Metering lights on, sluggish traffic, cars backed up to the Maze.

At last. Now I could get on the road.

What was I, an accident waiting to happen? Too smug with my own high-speed ways, getting from doormat to cubicle in 30 minutes flat?

That might be, but I had my reasons. See, that summer vacation racket’s about over now. That means gridlock’s back in town. Bumper to bumper, you can hear people grinding their gears and their teeth.

But me, I figure, why be such a chump, smoking someone else’s carbon monoxide pipes? Forget the Dramamine breakfast. As soon as those brake lights start blinking like bloodshot eyes caught in the fluorescent glare of a Denny’s restroom at 3 a.m., head for the off-ramp. Let the other suckers scrape up their paint jobs while you hang out in a cafe or hit golf balls.

Figure it this way: Bay Area drivers wasted $841,000 every day in 1996 stuck in car jams. You’re not helping your personal economy, so cut your losses and wait it out. You don’t pull this every time just when the commute’s dead in the water. Maybe you have a little flex time, or can pull the dependable laptop out of its holster. Or you’re the boss who can run command central from the cell phone. (Just don’t get loud and obnoxious about it. You know who you are. If you don’t, ask the person at the next table or taking the golf swing.)

So here I was, getting ready to find out which off-ramps had the goods at the two nastiest commutes in the Bay Area. That’s when I bumped into my roommate, a South Bay commuter with a grudge.

“I can’t believe you’re looking for traffic, ” he growled. “I hate you. You’re just doing it today. I have to do this every day.”

I could have slugged him, but I let it pass. Not everyone can appreciate what I do. Besides, he pays half the rent.

Westbound Bay Bridge

A shroud of fog hung over the Caldecott Tunnel and discouraged any sunshine from crossing Alameda County lines. A copper on two wheels tailed me. What a waste; there’s never a lane-changing jerk around when you need one.

I was heading west to what Caltrans calls the distribution structure, but the agency isn’t fooling anyone. It’s the Maze, a tangled concrete crisscross where Interstates 80, 580, 980 and 880 meet. These numbers just don’t add up, but people can’t keep away, especially those one in nine Contra Costans who make their daily bread in San Francisco.

The 80 stretch from Appian Way in Pinole all the way to the cantilever bridge holds tight to the No. 1 spot on Caltrans’ 10 worst congestions list.

Sure, I ducked out of that route. My job was checking out the off-ramps as close as possible to the bridge; besides, there’s more roadside diversions off I-80. From the Caldecott on Highway 24, getting to the attractions takes more twists and turns.

The second exit right out of the bore calls itself Highway 13, otherwise known as Ashby Avenue. Westbound never backs up this bad, but about a mile down, at the Domingo Avenue intersection one block before Claremont Avenue, is Peet’s Coffee and Tea (2916 Domingo Ave., Berkeley, 510-843-1434, 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday). It serves coffee so strong, it can peel the enamel off your teeth. Me, I don’t touch the hard stuff. That’s liable to get your hands shaking and little old ladies all riled up when they get a steaming lapful.

Left on Claremont brings you closer to manna from heaven at Semifreddi’s Bakery (3084 Claremont Ave., Berkeley, 510-596-9942, 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily). Keep going east for the 24 on-ramp. Keep on Ashby’s straight and narrow, though, and Espresso Roma turns up at the College Avenue intersection (2960 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-644-3773, 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6:30 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday). It meets with the stiff Berkeley coffee standards, has great food, lots of seats and outlets for laptop juice. Going down Ashby brings you right up close to the bridge, but it isn’t a pretty or fast commute.

I skipped Berkeley and kept right on for the Maze. I had my antenna tuned to KCBS, and sure enough, the bad news had a way of coming every 10 minutes. A big rig had stalled in the right lane on Treasure Island. Slow and agonizing, just the way I wanted it.

I saw a bunch of cars exit Telegraph Avenue. A left turn at Telegraph brings you to the Temescal Square and two choices: Jenny’s Coffeehouse (4905 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-652-5366, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday) and Temescal Cafe (4920 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-595-4102, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday). I miscalculated and stuck it out, and ended up crawling behind a Cadillac as gray as the morning sky.

After the Highway 24-Interstate 580 merge, the next off-ramp is Market and 36th streets. It splits into two lanes, then merges with another two. I stayed in the right lane, crossed San Pablo Avenue and turned right on Emery Street. That’s the back way to one of the shopping conglomerates that now characterize this former industrial mud flat called Emeryville.

A left turn bumps into Seattle transplant Starbucks (3839 Emery St., Emeryville, 510-547-8849, 5:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Friday, 5:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Sunday). To the right, Pak’N’Save (3889 San Pablo Ave., 510-450-1200, open 24 hours) had a dehydrated soup lunch with my name on it and a dozen doughnuts with my co-workers’ names: A sugar-coated offering when you’re late doesn’t hurt to allay the boss’s ire (or bagel bribes for the dieting or the diabetic). Beware of scarce register lines and 2-year-olds keening for candy bars.

Back on Emery Street, a right turn onto 40th Street took me over a sweet bridge and Powell Street Plaza. Turn left for Burger King (5701 Christie Ave., Emeryville, 510-420-1295, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-midnight Saturday and Sunday), but the left-turn lanes for Powell Street can back up. I passed Christie and turned left just before the Emery Bay Public Market (5800 Shellmound Ave., Emeryville, 510-652-9300, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, 510-652-5852), although pastries and coffee can be had at places such as Figaro’s and Hannah’s Cookies in the market.

Then it’s another quick left (watch out, it’s not a three-way stop) and a right onto Powell Street. Should your stomach turn that way, Denny’s never closes (1776 Powell St., Emeryville, 510-658-7950, open 24 hours). My stomach voted no, so I got in that second right lane, which curved me toward the Bay Bridge. The digital clock, after all my detours, read about 8:38 a.m.

“The Bay Bridge is having a bad day, ” the chipper traffic dame said from my FM dial. I may or may not have saved some time, but I was left holding a bag of doughnuts and inching pretty close to the toll booths.

Of course, if I wanted karma points, I should have hitched my fortunes with car-pooling. The RIDES folks (see accompanying story) are always looking to match people up and make the roads a better place. Trouble is, Bay Area natives can be stubborn loners. About 71 percent drive solo to work, up from 64.3 percent two years back.

As far as buses and BART, sure, it’s no New York subway or Boston trolley, but it’s the best we’ve got. One day a week, or at least days when we’re trying to spare the air, is not too much to ask to share the air with your fellow man.

Anyway, West Grand Avenue the last Oakland exit is coming up and I make my getaway. I still have to get to work.

Sunol Grade

I don’t believe in putting myself before the sun. That’s just human arrogance, trying to rush the day. Look what happened when Icarus flew too close to the sun: His homemade wings melted off and he did a vertical dive into the ocean.

Sunol Grade commuters apparently don’t put too much stock in Greek mythology. Early risers, packed in about 110,000 cars, clog that I-680 southbound passage from Bernal Avenue in Pleasanton to Mission Boulevard-Route 262 in Fremont between 5 and 6 a.m. that’s one to two hours earlier than other Bay Area freeways. During that same hour, about 1,300 cars pour in from Highway 84, while another 2,000 come by way of the Mission Boulevard exit.

I figured plenty of excitement would be left after 7 a.m. It wasn’t for nothing that the Sunol Grade sped up to the No. 2 position on Caltrans’ list of worst congestion spots. The rap sheet looks pretty bad: 10-mile backups, speeds below 20 mph for more than three hours, commuters wasting a combined 6,600 hours every day.

Good old KCBS had the buzz at 6:48 a.m.: sluggish commute. By the time I hit Danville at 7:28 a.m., the reports were coming in slow and furious: A line of cars, accident, backed up to Vallecitos Road. I didn’t join the conga line of cars until I rounded that curve one mile from the Sunol exit. Right past the Highway 84 exit, it was slam-bam, thank you, Trans-Am (actually, it was a white Toyota Corolla that cut me off), and brakes were on.

I had time to admire the scenery, which sure looked different from yesterday’s grays. Brown undulations rose up hot and dry on either side. Once a string of bucolic hamlets, the Pleasanton-to-Fremont corridor has been squeezed by sheet-rock homes and Silicon Valley jobs. Only about 2 percent of those driving to Santa Clara County come from Contra Costa, at least according to the Contra Costa Economic Partnership 1998 survey. The rest of the bottleneckers come from the Tri-Valley and Central Valley.

Not much in the way of distractions hereabouts, except for a green oasis off Andrade Road. While soulless commuters shamelessly exit to get on Mission Road and bypass about 16 miles of traffic, swingers can turn right to enjoy tee time at Sunol Valley Golf Course (6900 Mission Road, Sunol, 510-862-0414, 6 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily). Golfers usually reserve seven days in advance, but you can always check for open spots or cancellations, or have breakfast at the on-site cafe.

A left turn from the Andrade Road off-ramp takes you to Country Drives (3200 Andrade Road, Sunol, 510-862-0252, 7 a.m.-sunset daily), where up to 40 people can constantly whack the dimples off that little white ball.

I did end up following the shameless short-cutters on Mission Road, but here’s my two cents worth: Respect the speed limit, because bypasses also happen to be people’s neighborhoods. I don’t care what kind of BMW you’re driving.

Back on I-680, acceleration had picked up. I passed the Vargas Road and Mission Boulevard exits, then slowed down again. I could have taken the Mission Boulevard exit, which cuts through Fremont and rejoins I-680 after the worst of it.

If you take the Washington Boulevard exit and head west a mile, you’ll get to Bay Street Coffee Co. (4000 Bay St., Fremont, 510-353-9590, 6 a.m.-midnight daily) in the Irvington district. The red brick exterior makes it easy on the eyes, and the food and drink selection easy on the stomach.

Some folks like me get antsy if the engine idles too long. I went eastbound on Washington Boulevard to Paseo Padre Parkway. At the intersection, Coffee Break Cafe (Ohlone Village Center, 1596 Washington Blvd., Fremont, 510-651-7836, 5 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday) dishes up java, juice and sandwiches.

The parkway hugs closer to the freeway than Mission Boulevard, which it intersects right near the I-680 cloverleaf. There’s not much in the way of roadside stops, just residences and a view at Oak Ridge Road.

I passed up the exits of Automall Parkway (too industrial) and Grimmer Road (too residential), but all roads and traffic lead to Mission Boulevard anyway. Whether heading to the I-680 junction or getting off I-680 for refueling, the area has a crop of fast-food drive-throughs. Tiny Caffino (46685 Mission Blvd., Fremont, 510-661-0194, 5:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday) has the liquid breakfast of champions, straight from the espresso machine to the car window, and gets fancy with fruit or tea freezes.

If it’s after 9 a.m., you better up the ante on the boss bribery. The Asian grocery store Lion Super (46881 Warm Springs Blvd., 510-659-8899, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily), with locations in Milpitas and San Jose, lets you get exotic on the office snacks. This time, I’m getting the Japanese sweet rice cakes, mochi, one stuffed with coconut-peanut butter and the other with red bean. I throw in a Filipino bread with ube, sweet purple yam, for good measure. The register barely reaches the $4 mark, a small price to pay for labor relations.

I wave good-bye to the flatlands of Fremont. The worst commutes are over, but I don’t need a fortune cookie to tell me I still have a long journey ahead. Next week, the San Mateo Bridge.

A flatfoot’s job is never done.

RESOURCES

  • Caltrans statewide highway information: www.dot.ca.gov
  • Bay Area Transit Information: www.transitinfo.org
  • Contra Costa Times’ 24-hour traffic reports: www.hotcoco.com
  • KOIX traffic updates: www.kpix.com/traffic
  • Metropolitan Transportation Commission: www.mtc.ca.gov
  • RIDES for Bay Area Commuters Inc.: 800-755-7665, www.rides.org
  • TRAVINFO road and public transportation information: 817-1717, www.travinfo.org

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features

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