The earliest rays of sunlight were just beginning to bring the distant suburban landscape into hazy focus when Allison Jasso and Melissa Stoops encountered the first bottleneck on their 40-mile commute into Pasadena.
Jasso, behind the wheel of her husband's crimson Chevy Blazer, spotted an opening and maneuvered her way around the long line of backed-up cars.
"We do this now and then," she told a visiting passenger. "The lane merges, so usually we go way up to the front and kind of cut in. We're sneaky drivers."
Welcome to life in the car-pool lane, where drivers can be just as cagey as their solo counterparts--but have company doing it.
"I don't think I could drive an hour and a half each way by myself," Stoops said. "Without anyone to talk to, it's boring. I find myself getting a lot more aggravated too."
Each workday morning, Jasso and Stoops--whose commute from Rancho Cucamonga includes a stop in Glendora to pick up co-worker Debbie Dysthe--buck the California commandment of one person, one car.
The co-workers, all clerks at Operating Engineers Trust Funds in Pasadena, don't ride together just for lofty goals such as cleaning up air pollution.
"We'll have smog anyway," Allison said. "To cut smog, you're going to have to do something about those big trucks."
They do it because it's more sociable--and less expensive.
Allison said she was coaxed out of her car earlier this year when her employer raised the price of parking for employees who drive alone from $25 to $30 a month. Car-poolers park free.
"There was a rumor going around our work before we moved into the new building that parking was going to be outrageous, like $100 per month. So everybody starting forming car pools so they wouldn't have to pay for parking," she said.
In addition, she said, her car, a 1985 Toyota Corolla, could use some time off.
"My car is 5 years old and I have 104,000 miles on it, so my first reason is wear and tear on my car," Jasso said. "And then paying for parking."
And then for companionship.
"Sometimes we get to work before we get done talking about what we want to talk about," Jasso said.
On this Tuesday, the talk turned to some of the women's favorite ride-sharing pastimes, such as:
* Checking out cars. "Oooh, that one's really ugly," Stoops said, pointing to an American make with a boxy design.
* Gawking at guys in other vehicles. "Allison's in love with this older man," Stoops said.
"He's an older man, but he's very attractive," Jasso clarified. "And we see him quite a bit."
* Complaining about freeway congestion. "Traffic's gotten a lot worse," Jasso said. "Usually, all we see are single drivers."
Los Angeles County has an estimated 4.3 million commuters, of whom 903,000--about 21%--participate in some form of ride-sharing, including taking the bus, said Peter Hidalgo, spokesman for Commuter Transportation Services, a publicly funded agency that promotes ride-sharing and mass transit regionally.
Fourteen percent--602,000--are in car pools.
"If every commuter left their car at home one day a week, we could reduce traffic congestion by 20%, and we would have free-flowing freeways," Hidalgo said. "It would make a dramatic difference."
Not least for Jasso, Stoops and Dysthe.
"Believe me, we're waiting for a car-pool lane. We're sick and tired of waiting in traffic. And all the cars you look at, they're single drivers," Jasso said.
On this Tuesday morning, traffic was stop-and-go during the first leg of the car-poolers' journey, a 20-mile scenic ride mostly along Base Line Road at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
At 7:40 a.m., Jasso and Stoops reached Glendora, where Dysthe--this week's designated driver for the ride into Pasadena--waited behind the wheel of her new candy apple-red Ford Thunderbird, engine idling and defroster blasting.
Jasso and Stoops piled into the spacious jet-black leather interior of Dysthe's ultimate car-pool machine and sped away.
Soon, their office building--the sleek new Community Bank--was in sight. And at exactly 8:29 a.m., according to Dysthe's digital car clock, they pulled into their designated parking space inside the underground parking structure--more or less on time and definitely free of charge.