Photo by Guisel Contreras.

The line of cars waiting for a passenger on Friday morning wrapped around the block on Virginia Street at the North Berkeley casual carpool lane, but with a 15-car to one-person-in-line ratio the cars moved as slowly as any freeway jam.

The BART strike had clearly put more commuters in their cars, but it also had some venturing out into the line.

Lila Cohen, a 35-year-old architect who works in San Francisco, was using the carpool lane for the first time and said she was nervous about not knowing what to expect.

“How do I know if someone has bizarre intentions?” said Cohen.

She had diligently read the rules about the carpool online including the one that said women can decline getting into a car with a male driver. When Emily White drove up, Cohen had a good feeling and jumped in. Her instincts were right.

White, she discovered, is the regional director for the Red Cross. She spends her workdays making sure people in her community feel safe and prepared for any potential disaster.

White said there is strength in numbers so she always makes sure she has two passengers. She’s driven the casual carpool lane a dozen times and said she has never had any issues. In fact, few do.

Crime in casual carpool lines is rare, according to news reports. When robbers targeted a casual carpool line near the Rockridge BART in September, one commuter told the S.F. Chronicle that she had been using the casual carpool for five years without any incidents.

“It’s funny, there’s never been someone who set my radar off. It’s your neighborhood folks. I haven’t had that concern ever, but then again, my husband is usually with me,” White said, as she drove toward San Francisco.

But he wasn’t today, and it was still smooth sailing. Within 35 minutes and no traffic on the Bay Bridge, the two women and I made it into the city. White’s cheery demeanor and conversation put Cohen at ease. They talked about their professions and then there was laughter along the way.

“This is the best carpool ever! So easy, so fast,” said Cohen from the backseat. “We’re having a great time.”

White found the carpool convenient and it might lead to her Clipper card getting less use.

“It’s actually made me reconsider taking BART everyday. I might do more casual carpools in the future,” she said.

At the end of our trip, White pulled over and gave Cohen and I her phone number, offering to give us a ride home at the end of the day.

“That’s the one downfall with casual carpool, it gets you into the city, but there isn’t an easy, organized system for getting you back home.” White said.

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Guisel Contreras credits her keen sense of smell for her love of food. Her super-sniffer led her off the street and into Dandelion Chocolate, where the “Madagascar” won her heart. “I’m excited to go beyond the typical [restaurant] review.” Follow her nose on Mission Local.

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