Posts Tagged ‘ cars

Why Do You Drive?

As I strolled down Götgatan one last time, I soaked it all in. It was a warmer day than the rest of my week in Stockholm, but it looked the same as the others. People driving cars, slowly making their way down Götgatan, going perhaps 30 km/h, sharing the road with people biking in a bike lane that deftly shifted between the sidewalk and the road, well separated from them. Lots of people walking, but respecting the bike lanes because they had ample space of their own to amble.Parked bikes up and down the streets on numerous bike racks. Everywhere. Even as the temperature stayed near or below freezing the entire trip. Perhaps you’ve been to Stockholm, or another European city with a strong cycling culture, but this was a first for me. It was just so beautiful to see so many people cycling like it was a perfectly normal everyday thing. When I got back on my bike yesterday, I was immediately reminded of the difference in the United States again. Bike racks hidden, off to the side of buildings, if they are anywhere at all, and mostly empty. Several dudes on their fancy bikes in their spandex talking about the latest mountain they climbed, but not many folks who looked like they were just going to enjoy a cup of coffee or running errands. People driving on 30 mi/h at speeds that felt faster, buzzing me in my bike lane if I had one, cutting me off at intersections for no good reason other than their false sense of road ownership. It was a frustrating 10 miles yesterday.

We make the decisions about what we set up as normal even if we don’t realize it. It’s accepting that it’s always been there, that it will always be this way, that it couldn’t possibly be any other way. It’s in how we talk about it. When I talk about being a bike commuter in San Francisco, the responses are a mix of admiration (“I could never do that”), fear (“isn’t it dangerous?”), and curiousity (“how long does it take to get to…”). People never ask why I ride a bike, but that’s always the underlying question. I can list all sorts of positive elements to riding a bike in the city. It takes less time than riding transit for sure, and I can’t imagine driving in this city is any quicker, especially factoring in parking (though I cannot truly speak to that since I’ve never been a driver here). It’s a good way to burn a few calories. I can still do all the things I did before, I just have to do them a bit differently, a couple smaller trips to the store instead of one big one, for example. Bikes still require maintenance, but they cost a lot less to maintain than cars, and I spend a lot less getting around on one without dealing with aspects like parking and gas. If anything, the only real detractor to riding bikes in this city is the infrastructure for it is terrible. But consider turning the question around: why do you drive a car?

In the United States we have created a car culture. It did not always existed. It is a mistake to view it as such. The automobile as a consumer product is barely more than a century old. Even San Francisco is older than that, as are many American cities. Roads have existed for far longer than that; it’s how we’ve used those roads that’s changed. As I sat in a 5 that was held up, like usual, along Market due to the overabundance of traffic, I was quickly reminded of that. It’s a space that is ostensibly for all, with wide sidewalks, four lanes for transit and other vehicle traffic, and occasionally a bike lane. Transit could use better right-of-way in that stretch. But cyclists in that stretch get short shrift, both by those driving and the actual design. A sharrow is not a bike lane, and while it may serve as a heads up bikes may be there, there’s a big difference between creating a space for those who bike and simply saying this space for those who drive may also be used by bikes. That’s mostly what we have here in San Francisco and throughout the US. There’s very little space that is dedicated to bikes. Even in those areas where it exists, there’s a lot of other traffic to contend with. Sure, it’s great there’s a contraflow by City Hall for two blocks that’s a protected bike lane, but I rarely go through there, and I never see anyone there when I do. But stretches I do see lots of people biking that would benefit from greater and/or respected space for bikes, like Valencia or the Panhandle don’t have anything nearly as nice as that Polk contraflow. As a culture, we largely refuse to create space explicitly for those who bike; when we do, we rarely police it in such a way that it’s free and open for those who bike to enjoy it.

But car culture doesn’t just succeed because of path dependency and how we’ve constructed our communities, though both those things help its continued dominance. Car culture succeeds because we don’t even think to walk or bike or take transit. While design obviously influences that, even when it’s an option, it’s just not even a consideration to most people. For many, the alternative to not driving is to take an Uber, but it’s a manifestation of the same point. It’s still taking a small occupancy motor vehicle from point a to point b. We’re changing is who’s driving it. And certainly, there are advantages to that, ostensibly better usage of vehicles that largely sit unused, avoidance of drunk driving, and so on. I just say this to illustrate that even when we don’t personally drive, we still see driving as the solution to our transportation needs in many cases. We don’t worry about whether a new building has good access to transit in our laws, but we legislate how many parking spaces are required in building codes. We call auto crashes accidents, as if they occur by chance, even though almost 34,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2013 according to the CDC. And even then we call them accidents or unintentional injury deaths. Driving is dangerous, even if the numbers have been trending downward. But even if you opt out of driving, you still face the danger of being hit by those who drive. Irrelevant of how we navigate our cities, we all share in interest in lowering this trend, in creating safer streets for all to enjoy.

If you start biking around San Francisco, I think you’d see a different city. Not just because the bike routes tend to take you different ways. Because you are freed up to see more. It’s a more leisurely way of getting around; my stress is mostly trying to avoid the danger of motor vehicle, and even that pales in comparison to the stress of operating one of those motor vehicles on these streets. If you start biking around San Francisco, I think you’d realize the hills aren’t that bad. If you start biking around San Francisco, I think you’d realize biking is a pretty good way to get where you are going. You’d also realize that we can do a much better job of creating better systems for that. The Wiggle is a terrible bike route. Its only redeeming value is its flatness. But the problem with The Wiggle isn’t where it is but that we refuse to truly dedicate a space to those who bike. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Cities like Stockholm didn’t just magically create an effective multimodal system. That’s years of hard work and planning. That’s having effective mass transit as a backbone. That’s my problem with saying we have to drive here. We’ve created a system where we have to, but that’s a different issue. We have to make better decisions for those who come after us. Some of that would be making people pay more of the true costs of driving. Whether it’s the cost of gas in this country or how enamored we are with the concept of free parking, we most definitely do not pay the true costs. Some of that involves creating cities where driving is less necessary because people have more and better options than driving, are able to live closer to where they work, etc. But I still think the biggest part of that is a question I asked early. Why do you drive? It’s a thorny question to untangle, I am aware, but it’s a series of decisions and systems we build that lead us to that point. If you say you have to drive, well then, what forces created a system where you have to? And why is that what we judge as what should be normal or expected? Normal shouldn’t be thousands of people dying every year in preventable crashes. Normal shouldn’t be having to drive because we have failed to create other effective options. Driving is not an equitable activity. It’s expensive, and it shuts out many who cannot afford it from a lot of opportunities because we’ve constructed a society that largely views it as necessary. If you don’t want to think about why we set those sorts of ideas up as normal, ask yourself why not.


One of the things I resolved to do once I moved out here is get rid of my car. I had a deadline built in since my tags were due to expire at the end of August, so it gave me something to aim for. And though I had it for the first couple months, I didn’t end up using it all that much. Then one of my brakes went and disintegrated (really, probably the best term for it). It really saved me any hemming and hawing about the issue. There was no way I was paying for an entirely new brake and tire along with the hassle of getting it registered here. Not that I was planning to keep it at that point, but it really forced the issue (a few days sooner than I would have liked). I got lucky in that I found my place prior to that, because moving without a vehicle would have been…a curious challenge considering I did the cross-town move piecemeal. So I’ve effectively been carless for two months. How’s it going?

Perhaps it’s a function of the city I live in, perhaps it’s a bit of wishful thinking, but honestly, I think it’s going really well. When I walk down 6th to the bus stop, I see a lot of cars that never really move. They must. The city has bouts of “street cleaning” on all the streets here, and even in the more residential parts of the city, it’s at least every two weeks. I walk down the streets a lot. They don’t look all that clean to me. That mattress I took a picture of six days ago? Still there if you want to see it in person. It replaced a mattress that had been there for approximately two weeks. That’s actually a fairly common thing here (way more common than in the Twin Cities). Ignoring the larger detritus left by previous apartment owners, there’s plenty of random bits of trash that gather in the city. And while I’m sure they actually do bring something through to clean the streets, any policy like that ostensibly also serves the purpose of keeping your lemon from cluttering up the street. Because there might be mattresses everywhere, but there aren’t those shitty cars that never move. Anyway, the point is, short of a private space, those cars have to go somewhere. And I really don’t envy anyone that.

Beyond that, there’s the whole act of actually driving in this city. Not that driving exists solely to be fun (though it certainly can be). I certainly never experienced that here. If you don’t believe me, go take your car down Market sometime (or better yet, don’t). I experienced times where it was less painful than others. But even a traffic-free drive usually just leads to the whole issue of parking in this city (see above). Now as much as I might extol my desire to see less parking as a rule in my enlightened urban adulthood, my suburban upbringing can be hard to shake sometimes. I just always expect there to be somewhat convenient parking that doesn’t cost that much. Even in Minneapolis, it wasn’t that hard to find free or cheap parking if you knew where to look. Saint Paul was even easier. I learned to get over the desire for miles of parking lots. But it’s taken some work, and it still irks me to pay for parking (damn irrational thoughts) even if I understand the economics of it make more sense than subsidizing automobiles with free parking (here’s looking at you, Save Masonic. One of the biggest draws of the new City Target at Geary and Masonic is the relative abundance of parking. Parking just isn’t a common thing in this city, or at least, as common as I’d gotten used to. But even pay lots and garages can be a bit of an adventure to locate depending on where you are heading in the city. Suffice to say, that’s the other reason people don’t move those cars that much. They are best used for escaping the city, not getting around it.

Then there’s the whole money issue. I’m glad to be done with that. As my exploding tire/dissolving brake issue reminded me, cars can get really expensive really quick. But they are also insidiously expensive in the day-to-day. It’s not the summer of ’98 anymore, so there aren’t exactly full tanks of gas under $10 anymore. Was I spoiled to grow up in a time that was marked by the lowest inflation-adjusted gas prices in history? Definitely. These days, we’re obviously heading the other way. Even if you have no problems, you gotta keep gas in it, on top of oil changes, filters, and other relatively standard things. Then there’s the unexpected, which cars seem to specialize in. Cracked windshields, flat tires, dropped clutches, etc, etc, etc. And who can forget fun and unexpected things like tickets? Then there are other standard things, insurance, tags etc. And parking if you aren’t lucky enough to have it or just don’t want to keep your car on the street. I mean, that’s a lot of moving parts right there, and a lot of money. Even if I only drove 300 miles a month (about a tank with my old RAV-4), had my insurance, got free parking, and took care of the relatively standard sorts of maintenance I need to over the course of having a car, I’m looking at at least $100 a month, at a bare minimum. That’s supposing I don’t drive all that much and nothing goes wrong. One ticket or one broken window sends that up. I can get a pass for $76 pre-tax that lets me ride pretty much any mode of mass transit in San Francisco. That’s what I did. So how’s that working out?

It took a while, but I’m settling into being a mass transit rider. The buses in this town don’t suck. But we like to say so. I live on the 5, which runs from Ocean Beach to the Transbay Tube as they like to say, which means it’s a block from my place and the best way to get to Hayes Valley, which takes me to the Rickshaw Stop. It takes about 20 minutes as long as the times are actually right and the bus actually shows up on time (never a given). And the 5 has a bit of a reputation the city is trying to improve. But most of the time, unless there’s something like Hardly Strictly, it does the job. Getting home’s always a bit more of an adventure when I’m out until midnight, but I’ve rarely waited more than 10 minutes on the back end and the bus usually takes even less time at that time of night (especially on weeknights). So actual transit to and from the things I want to go to in the evenings (usually shows, sometimes just drinks, occasionally just a burrito) is usually fairly smooth. And the 5 has gotten less crowded recently, so whatever they are starting to do is working.

Getting to and from work is a little bit more tedious, just because the 31BX always seems to be fairly full. The timing is pretty decent, though, and I can get from door to door in about 35 minutes. Other than biking, I don’t know how else I’d get there anyway. And biking in this city is…not for the faint of heart. Parking is $30 a day in the garage at my building. That’s not even a real number if you ask me. The express buses do the trick, and since I ride at the same time, it even gives me the chance to make bus friends. Those are my two most frequent routes.

As for getting elsewhere in the city (other venues, other taquerias mostly), I’m slowly learning which routes make sense. The 44 takes me back to La Corneta if I need a fix. The 33 can get me to The Chapel or Tartine. The 31 and 38 both do the job for some of my other evening destinations in the Tenderloin. Even if it seemed like I’d never get it, I don’t have to think about where the stops are anymore for some of them. I just know where to go, and generally when to expect which buses to be where, or how crowded they might be.

What I haven’t really mastered yet is anything that takes a transfer. Even if it involves picking up BART (which is much more frequently on time than the buses), it’s a chore, but that’s at least doable. Those trips aren’t all that frequent, but whenever I want to go to Oakland or SFO, I’ve got to at least jump the BART. But if it involves another bus? Forget it. It’s just not worth it. That is honestly one of the reasons I haven’t made my way back over to Bottom of the Hill in a while. It’s just more of a challenge to get over there. It’s one of the reasons I need to get my bike repaired. Because it puts stuff like that back in range. Or at least makes it a bit simpler. I know it sounds dumb, but it’s just a practicality thing. It can be annoying enough trying to coordinate your timing with one fickle bus. Two? Forget it.

As for other things, it’s led to subtle changes in my behavior. It certainly keeps me from buying too much stuff when I go to the store. And I find myself much more dependent on how charged my phone is. After all, if I’m at a show, I know what general buses are going to get me home, but I like to know whether it’s worth my time to wait or try to grab another route, etc. Which means that I spend a little less time playing with my phone or keep it in airplane mode between bands. I know which venues have open outlets I can plug a charger into. And then there’s all that time. I mean, I’m not necessarily saving time by taking the bus everywhere. But I definitely get to use it differently. I can read on the way in, or fiddle with my phone as I do most mornings (even if SFMTA doesn’t want people to do that). Or I can just relax and think. What I don’t really have to do too much of is stress. The bus will get there when it gets there, and I’ll get on it. Usually it’s when they say it will be (at least on Nextbus), but sometimes even that’s wrong. And I can not worry about how far the cars behind me are, or missing someone in my blind spot, or making sure I’m keeping track of multiple modes of transportation sharing the road. And I think that’s a big thing. I love driving. When I get to hit the open road and really enjoy it, there’s not much better. But let’s face it, that’s not much of adult driving. It’s a grind. Even roadtrips don’t quite have the same feel they did when we were in high school or college. It was great to drive across the country on my way out here. I’m happy to have had that opportunity. I’d love to get back in a car and do some more exploring of the US. One of these days soon, I’m sure I will. For the time being though, it’ll be with a rented car. Or with someone else’s.

I’m not gonna say I’m never owning a car again. But it’s worth questioning what many are raised to think of as a birthright. Why is it that we live in a society where we need cars so badly? Or rather, we need individual cars so badly? Why is it that whenever there’s talk of improving trains or bike lanes or bus lanes, it’s always talk of what impact it will have on drivers and parking? I think it’s societal. Just another one of those fine things ingrained in the American psyche. Obviously the automobile has an important and iconic history in American culture, from the Model-T to the Tesla Model S. It’s a big country, and there’s no doubt there’s always going to be wide swathes of it that require cars to get to. The bus ain’t exactly getting you to Devil’s Tower after all. But the car is not the be all and end all that many people think of it as. The streets in many cities weren’t originally made for automobiles because they didn’t exist at the time a lot of cities were designed and built. It can be easy to forget that. Neighborhoods existed where those freeways are once upon a time. It was a luxury item once upon a time, hard as that may be to believe. It shares one similarity with another iconic American dream, the idea of home ownership. Both are relatively prized by culture, both are relatively subsidized by government through credits and policy, and both are not necessarily the best ideas for a lot of people. Cars, though not to the same degree as homes, are expensive. Unlike homes, though, cars can get you out of a place. But as more people begin to look inward to cities, more people need to reconsider their relationship with automobiles. It is, of course, your right to choose to divest resources into owning a car, even one you never drive. As it should be.

I choose to be carless and deal with the pleasures and hassles therein. But our society needs to consider that the easier we make it to not own a car, the more people will embrace not owning a car. That’s a combination of things. Not everyone’s gonna jump up and get on their bike, even with the right infrastructure. But mature infrastructures should accommodate multiple modes of transportation. The easier we make it to get from point A to point B without cars, the more people will realize that other options are viable. I happen to live in one of those places in the US where it is possible. Or perhaps it’s always been possible and I’m just finally embracing it. Remember, a lot of people don’t choose to be carless. They are because of circumstance. In a lot of cities, the transit can feel punitive because it’s so infrequent. It might cost less, but the people who can’t afford cars (or choose not to have them) pay with their time. Just think about who’s really paying for that free parking next time.

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