OFF-RAMP ADVENTURES, PART DEUX Fearless commuter, inhaling exhaust, explores the options along the jammed traffic corridors of the southern East Bay

THERE’S GOING TO BE more than 7 million people in the Bay Area in the next century. Where are they all going to go?”

I may not have heard the numbers correctly, but I got the message. When the radio announcer starts waxing philosophic during traffic reports, you know the commute is going to be bad.

Can’t say I blame the guy for getting jumpy, mixing population projections with traffic. It was turning into another picture-perfect day to find congestion of the vehicular kind. The reports buzzing in every 10 minutes on KCBS-AM had been giving me an earful: North Bay head-on collision. Bay Bridge back-up. Dumbarton Bridge accident and really bad back-up. Plankton was crossing the Bay faster.

That last trouble meant everyone and their maiden aunt would be pointing their fenders toward the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, and I’d be right in the middle. Anyhow, Interstate 880 is one commuter feeding frenzy. The morning piranhas really chomp hard from Fremont’s Mowry Avenue to Dixon Landing Road; it’s No. 3 on Caltran’s 1996 countdown of worst congestions.

I had already done my time on the 24/80 approach to the Bay Bridge and Sunol Grade the roughest commutes, according to Caltrans accounting books. Now set to find some I-880 off-ramp diversions, I thought I’d poke around in neighborhoods just before hitting Caltrans’ worst spots. Some days, I-880 traffic does its little stop-and-go rhumba routine as early as San Lorenzo. Drivers end up wedged in tight and inhaling more fumes than jolly ol’ St. Nick in a chimney come Christmas Eve.

So what’s my gig? That KCBS guy hit it right on the mark. While everyone should be lining up at ferry docks, car-pool lines and in front of buses and BART, Bay Area drivers stubbornly stick to driving solo. Not only will there be more than 7 million of us scrabbling for land, space and air, we’ll be buying more cars. It used to be back in the old days (called the ’60s), only 3.3 percent of households owned three or more cars. About 30 years later, says the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, one in five households has decided it just can’t do without its 12 wheels.

The hold-outs, the households that don’t want to fill out any vehicle-registration forms, they’re a dying breed. That same 30-year span saw their kind drop from 19.7 percent to 10.5 percent of households. Apparently, we’re richer and more suburbanized, with bigger households, and we’re going to live the American dream until we choke our byways and highways.

So in the meantime, why waste time playing bumper tag and scraping up parental stickers claiming his or her kid is an honor student? Instead of arguing about nature vs. nurture with the parental guardian, go for the nearest off-ramp and wait out the metal parade. Provided, of course, the boss understands, you brought your work with you, or you bring the glazed bribes with lemon jelly filling.

Hayward

The roadside here looks mighty industrial, and fast food joints crop up like so many dandelion weeds. Unless you’re sincere about exploring every cul-de-sac in the layout, which I sadly didn’t have the time to do, morning diversions will be mostly drive-throughs and 24-hour grocery stores.

East off the A Street ramp, the nearest open business I could find was Costco (22330 Hathaway Ave., Hayward, 510-259-6600, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday). Card-carrying members can gladden the hearts of administrative assistants with some thoughtful paperclip purchases, plus a few dozen chocolate bars.

Heading in a westerly direction, A Street intersects Hesperian Boulevard. The boulevard bypasses the clogged I-880 artery, but it’s a route commuters know by heart. The traffic can overflow here, too, but most of the time at least you’re moving.

If you go the opposite way, taking a right from A Street onto the boulevard, then the first left-hand turn onto Golf Course Road past John F. Kennedy Park, you can join the athletes at Skywest Public Golf Course (1401 Golf Course Road, Hayward, 510-278-6188, open daily a half-hour before daylight to sunset). The 18-hole slots can be held eight days in advance, but people can check for openings. Nine holes is first come, first served. At the Skywest Bar and Grill on-site (510-276-1533, 6 a.m.-6:30 p.m., bar 10 a.m.-10 p.m., open daily), the grill heats up by 6 a.m. for breakfast.

Either continuing on Hesperian Boulevard southbound or exiting I-880 at Winton Avenue, you can break your fast around 8 a.m. at the Southland Mall fast-food burger joints. A real rib-sticker of a restaurant, Hesperian House (24297 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward, 510-785-6741, 6 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday), sits right across from the mall. Top of the food chain, ma, with ham and eggs, T-bone, chicken-fried steak, biscuits and gravy, Mexican burritos and too much more.

Much as I like bacon, Powerbooks can’t run on grease. On the northeast side of the Winton Avenue exit, Mezzo/Mezzo (217 West Winton Ave., 510-732-6020, espresso bar 6:30 a.m.-5 p.m., restaurant 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday) has pancakes or build-your-own omelets and a couple of electrical outlets for the Macintosh. Barflies can get complimentary refills on coffee or tea, but they’ll have to pay for each glass of mimosa or champagne. Mezzo/Mezzo is across the street from the Alameda County Office Building and the Kenneth Birchfield Memorial Park, where the morning newspaper and a park bench can co-exist nicely on a warm morning.

Back on Hesperian Boulevard, neighbors Cafe Vasiliki (25202 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward, 510-785-0184, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday) and Lyon’s (25010 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward, 510-783-7273, open 24 hours daily) allow more early-morning grubbing opportunities.

The boulevard and I-880 cross paths with the Route 92 bridge to the peninsula. San Mateo commuters probably have figured out that the Industrial Boulevard exit looks, sounds and smells like its name, with trucks rattling in and out of warehouses. Searching for hidden delis while ducking big wheelers didn’t make my to-do list, much as some of these culinary hideaways may serve up some palate pleasers.

Nothing burns off road rage better than a jaunt around Hayward Regional Shoreline, a refuge for birds and urban dwellers, at Breakwater Avenue off the Clawiter Road exit. Seven miles there and seven miles back, the trail goes deep into mudflat territory, salt marshes and grasslands. The spare sweatshirt in the trunk warms the flesh while the walk or jog warms the blood.

Fremont-Newark

With the San Mateo-Hayward bridge behind me, the road opens up again. It isn’t luck; with me poking my car nose in the off-ramp, the clock already reads past commute time. I don’t start checking out the exits again until Mowry Avenue.

Mowry serves up mostly chain restaurants. On the Newark side is Lyon’s (5989 Mowry Ave., Newark, 510-790-6201, open 24 hours daily), while on the Fremont side is Denny’s Restaurant (5280 Mowry Ave., Fremont, 510-796-1818, open 24 hours daily).

If either of those don’t appeal to you, try Country Way (5325 Mowry Ave., Fremont, 510-797-3188, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. open daily), which has been slinging hash, pancakes, eggs and other American standards for about 20 years.

Off the Stevenson Boulevard exit, strip mall stores don’t flip over the signs to open until 9:30 or 10 a.m. But you can make pay telephone calls in peace and quiet in the Newark-Fremont Hilton lobby (39900 Balentine Drive, Newark, 510-490-8390). Balentine Street becomes Albrae Street, with its mess of shopping complexes. Office Depot (40547 Albrae St., Fremont, 510-770-8800, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday) slides its doors early. I decided against any impetuous fancy pen buys and rode Albrae until it ended at Christy Street, where I made a left to intersect Automobile Parkway. With an exit like Automobile Parkway, it makes weird sense that something called a business “park” would sprout up a Garden Cafe (3014 Christy St., Fremont 510-651-1737, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday), but a respite is a respite.

Deja vu hit me when I made it to the Mission Boulevard/262 link >to Interstate 680. I had made it to Warm Springs Road intersection last time, where 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) pumps espresso or fruit freezes to the car window.

By now, I knew I was getting tired, because similes were coming slower than a drunken sloth sliding up a sap-covered tree limb. So was the traffic up ahead, and I looked for a shortcut. I somehow wrapped myself around the 262/880 loops and ended up going south on a side road parallel to the freeway.

I had to backtrack on paper later to figure out what I did, and according to the Thomas Guide map, 262 has a Warren Avenue exit, which slides you either to Kato Road or, further down, onto Warm Springs Road. The first intersects the second where it becomes Milpitas Road. I remember making a right from Kato Road to Milmont Drive, making a four-point landing on the notorious Dixon Landing Road.

The sun beat down hot and bright when I did my turnaround. I could knock off now, but I knew it wasn’t over. Plenty of nasty commutes out there and, as far as anyone can see, no end in sight as long as Bay Area drivers were willing to slug it out inch by inch every day. The thought made me feel like a rat in a maze, except the maze didn’t have corners, just a straight-away where I would go back and forth.

I shook my head. As soon as I could, I’d pull off and have a drink. Peppermint tea, hold the ice.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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