Mitchell Falber wasn’t looking to be fixed up with a stranger. He’s lived in East Brunswick, New Jersey, for the past fifteen years and has commuted by car – alone – to his job as general counsel for ABC Carpet & Home in the Flatiron district. “I really enjoy that ritual,” he says. “You can listen to your CDs. When you’re stopped in traffic at the Holland Tunnel, you can read your paper.” But since one-passenger cars are not allowed into the city during the morning rush hour anymore – so as to ease checkpoint bottlenecks – solo riders like Falber have a choice: mass transit or make a new friend. At agencies like New Jersey DOT and CommuterLink, which have encouraged carpooling for years, phones are ringing off the hook. “We usually get four to five calls a day,” says John Galgano of CommuterLink. “This week, we’re averaging 120.”
So Falber is now half of one of the city’s oddest new couples – carpool mates. Would-be partners fill out forms that ask where you live and work but leave off critical questions like: Howard Stern or NPR? Chatty or contemplative? And do you eat onion bagels with the windows rolled up?
Before attempting a joint ride, Falber met his match – another lawyer – for coffee to make sure “he didn’t have a swastika carved into his arm.” The two turned out to be more or less simpatico. “Frankly,” Falber says, “he happens to be a very fine man. But I did tell him, if you want to sleep in my car, please, go ahead.”
At first, Indravadan Patel – who drives a Chevy Lumina and lives in Jersey City – thought he wouldn’t need to go through a service. “I would go past the bus stop and offer people rides. But a lot of people said no. So I decided to get fixed up by the DOT. I can’t stand the rejection.” Patel found a Spanish speaker, and now they cruise the bus stops together, using their multilingual skills to pick up commuters and save some money. If they have three passengers or more, their toll is reduced from $6 to $1. “I tell people, ‘Come in my car, it will be free. It is like I bought you breakfast.’ “
It’s unclear when the rule will be lifted and, if it is, whether people will revert to old habits. “No offense,” says Falber, “but I miss my routine.” But Eric Baker, a graphic designer from Montclair who now leaves his Beetle at home, thinks “this should be kept even after whatever emergency is over. It’ll keep the traffic down, and besides, 99 percent of those people are morons and can’t drive anyway.”