Paying It Forward at the Toll Booth

My fiancée just told me that Bay Area bridge tolls will be increasing in 2019. That reminded me of a unique experience I had in 2014 while crossing the Dumbarton bridge, going back to Palo Alto after a trip to the East Bay.

I remember stopping at the toll booth, rolling down my window, greeting the operator, and attempting to hand her cash to pay the fee. Except she wouldn’t take it!

“He paid for you,” she said, pointing to the car in front of me, which was quickly speeding away.

I was completely dumbfounded. Not sure what to say or do, I kind of paused for a moment, then shrugged and mumbled, “okay, I guess.” I put the cash down, rolled up my window, and kept driving.

I have no idea who the person in front of me was, or why they paid for me. It could have been a mistake. Perhaps they didn’t bother to collect their change, or couldn’t hear the toll operator. There is no way to know for sure.

But as I kept driving that day, I chose to believe it was a deliberate act. A small gesture. A way to spread a tiny bit of joy. To make someone’s day, without even meeting them or, really, interacting with them in any way.

And then I got a bit flustered. Why didn’t I pay it forward? I mean, I had the cash literally in my hand. All I had to say was, “I’d like to pay for the car behind me.” But I didn’t. I was so shocked by the unexpected interaction with the operator, the thought to repeat the gesture literally couldn’t form in my brain.

Some days, I am just slow.

But tolls are not going anywhere. So I got many more chances to pay it forward in the years since. Every time I stopped at a toll booth, I paid for the car behind me, hoping it helped make someone’s day in a tiny way. Just like that stranger did for me all these years back.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that in the last year I have gotten fewer and fewer opportunities to pay it forward. Partially, that’s because I just drive less.

But a more worrisome reason is technology – FasTrak in particular. It’s a nifty little box that allows you to zoom past the toll booth, charging you automatically. I actually never bought one, but my fiancée did years ago when she was commuting to work in the East Bay.

FasTrak is faster (no need to stop) and more available than cash (it’s always in the glove compartment). And that’s all great. But I am quite bummed that paying it forward is getting harder as cash is becoming more sparse and gets replaced by technology.

And the toll booth is just one example. The other day, I was stopped at a street light. It was a cold and rainy day. A homeless man was wrapped in a blanket, shivering and looking quite miserable. I looked in my wallet and fortunately had a bit of cash that day.  But most days that wouldn’t be the case. I barely use cash and so often don’t carry any. And I don’t think homeless people have Venmo or PayPal accounts.

I remain hopeful that technology will keep evolving, and, eventually, offer a way to pay it forward. We already have amazing innovations such as Patreon and Kickstarter. I look forward to seeing what entrepreneurs come up with in the future. (If you are working on something interesting, please reach out – I’d love to help.)

In the mean time, I am on the lookout for other ways to pay it forward. Any ideas are welcome!

Posted on at