Posts Tagged ‘ mass transit

It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

I am watching some much-needed rain fall. It’s put a bit of a damper on my plans to get around the city a bit more on bike or run some errands as I have nothing against being wet, but it’s no way to spend the whole day and I don’t want what I buy getting wet. I realize now I have never adequately processed rain in San Francisco, that I am ill-prepared for it, though I did at least have the foresight to keep the fenders on the bike. It wasn’t so bad last night, as a capstone to the evening, zipping through The Wiggle at 1:30 am when no one else was out as it poured. My jeans and shoes were even dry this morning (though not my poor hoodie). As an end of evening affair, it was appreciated. It also hadn’t rained all day even though they kept saying it would. As anyone else has probably (oft) uttered, it seemed like a good idea at the time. This morning, as a way of starting the day? Well, it fits my mood. But no, I’ll probably just hang my bike up for the day and let it dry out. And I suppose it gives me a chance to use those Uber credits I received from Noise Pop.

I doubt I’ll ever be a regular user of such a service. It’s just not where I would choose to spend my money. $2 bus ride (though, really, prepaid monthly pretax work benefit) versus a $12 Uber fare versus me getting my ass on my bike and riding for 20 minutes to the Mission? These days, the bike is winning, which is probably best. I am happy to be reasserting my lost identity as a cyclist. I still haven’t embraced the concept of riding to work here (you go ride in the Financial District at 9 am and tell me how you feel about it), and biking still isn’t gonna get me to the airport most of the time (though, again, I’d love to try that one time), so transit is still important to me, but it’s good to find something that I lost for a while. Even as it’s intermittently rained this week, it’s been great to be out. Besides, the rain will be gone soon enough.

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons to not care about something like Uber all that much. Personally, I don’t exactly like getting in the back of a stranger’s car and being called sir. It’s a challenge to my whole idea of challenging others, of putting the burden of their misgendering back on them. Because how comfortable would you feel doing that in the back of a stranger’s car like that? I’ve settled for something of a middle ground, asserting their incorrectness while trying to not putting it in the form of a question. It’s a reminder that there are a lot of scenarios that I didn’t anticipate, that I have a long way to go before I can really coolly and calmly deflect back what I am receiving. This is my personal issue, of course, though I am sure lots of people experience lots of uncomfortable moments in the back of those cars for a variety of reasons who can empathize. To paraphrase a friend, cab drivers aren’t exactly on the forefront of openmindedness.

None of this is touching on many of the higher level concerns of disruption and the sharing economy and all those other tech buzzwords, of who these services truly benefit and serve, of the disparate impact created by people hiring out their cars and homes for the right price. So far I have had two good experiences with Airbnb and several mediocre experiences with Uber, Lyft, and their ilk. I am by no means a power user; but what happens the first time I’m turned away from a room or a ride because I am trans? Can I prove that? What is my recourse if something like that occurs with this new sharing economy? Considering how little recourse there is in a lot of places with the much better regulated businesses of the world, there’s a part of me that’s terrified about these kinds of business models. If everything just took care of itself, then we would need desperately needed anti-discrimination laws.

I do believe it’s a fact that we can make better uses of our resources as a society. One needs to do little more than look at miles and miles of paved over suburbs for little more than parking that is rarely anywhere close to full. And I don’t believe the people who start companies like this are evil and malicious. They are trying to find a different way of doing things, and that’s a noble impulse. But who do these new businesses truly serve, and who is still left behind? What happens when the actual impact of the business is wildly off the mark, when it’s disparately impacting so many in negative ways? I am sure someone may have uttered it seemed like a good idea at the time. Not that ceasing to be is a good option. I am not going to argue that every Uber rider is suddenly going to get on Muni or start riding if that’s not there. Some would taxi, or drive, or walk, etc. Everyone who stays in Airbnb isn’t necessarily going to spill into the nearest hotel instead. There aren’t neat causal relationships like that. But these kinds of services are having affects on the cities and communities they operate in, and it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. There are a lot of concerns regarding the impact services like these have on the real cost of living. Of course the drivers and hosts are making money too. But again, who’s really making the money? It’s not like Airbnb is known for their penchant for paying taxes, either. These services are here and do not seem to be going away; how are we living with them and making them better?

I am not a fan of boycotts. I am not saying I am never going to use any of these services ever again. But I do have a responsibility to think about how I ethically interact with the world around me. That comes in the simplest forms: how I make my money and how I spend it. Some might question the company I work for, for example, or not feel comfortable doing business with them, or wonder why the hell I’d work there. For me, I don’t feel like I have been involved in anything that’s been terrible. And I really feel like they honor the T when they say LGBT, which feels so, so rare. Very few entities that utter that acronym (or its variants) truly deserve to say it. Or at least truly want to represent all of it. But my perspective is invariably different, and influenced, because of the fact that I have been there seven years. I am not saying people have an obligation to learn about every little aspect of the world they interact with, because that sounds paralyzing to be honest. But I do myself a disservice if I ignore what I’ve read, the experiences I’ve had with the services I use. It’s worth looking past the veneer of convenience and cost to find out why those elements exist. And it’s ultimately worth questioning, once again, who is truly served by these services? Even if Muni sucks, I am glad to pay in. They need all the help they can get to be better, and I feel like (hopefully some day) having effective mass transit is a lot better than paying into a private car service. I am glad to be a statistic and a voice for the next biking survey here in San Francisco, to count toward ridership for future projects or help address why I don’t bike to work right now. I feel like money for better transit and biking projects benefits a lot of people. I feel like paying into those aspects of my society is just a great benefit. A crippling rent for your place is hard enough without car payments and paid parking on top. People deserve other options. Some people don’t have any other options. They didn’t choose to be carless; they just can’t afford to own one. And the people who need those services? They probably aren’t zipping around 7×7 in ZipCar or taking Uber to a show tonight. I am not saying people shouldn’t have those options. I am just asking you to once again consider the following: who has those options?

Infrastructure

When Nextbus says that the 31BX is 5 or 6 minutes away, that’s when I should be out the door. When it says it’s 4 minutes, I have to hustle, but I can still make it if I leg it. Otherwise, I may as well plan an alternate or wait for the next bus. Yesterday, I left when it said 4 minutes, made it down to the bus stop, and proceeded to wait another 14 minutes for the bus. By the time it came, there was another 31BX immediately behind it. At least my ride wasn’t overfull as I got on the second one and waited to get to the Financial District. After 9 am instead of before like usual. It’s not like I’ve got anyone watching the clock telling me I have to be there at a certain time (though some people do), so it doesn’t matter which of the morning buses I hit in that regard. And yeah, I have my phone, so I can see what everyone’s been saying all morning on Twitter instead of just standing around. While it’s not how I plan to use 14 minutes, as a now-everyday rider, I know I am going to get lots of chances to use small bits of time like that. For me, the challenge has been deciding what to do with those small spaces. Mostly, I’ve decided to use them to read and write since I have the time and technology to do that.

There aren’t many other buses that I always try to catch at the same time, so it’s less pronounced. But at least once a week, I spend 10 minutes longer at 6th and Balboa than I had any intention to. I understand that is currently part of being a bus rider. What I also understand is if, as a society, we truly want people to embrace the use of mass transit, that needs to change. It seems to be a paradoxical situation, with ridership being hard to come by if one can’t count on the bus and transit systems and tax payers not necessarily excited about pouring more money into a system that people aren’t taking advantage of. That certainly felt like an issue in the Twin Cities with the buses unless you had the fortune of taking the right route. I rode them on occasion, mostly after I lived in Saint Paul and lived, but I never depended on them like I currently do in my carless state. Technology has made it easier, for sure, as I can actually check on the times, but it just seemed like a lot of the buses I wanted in the Twin Cities were every 30 or 60 minutes. And while there inclement weather could make a frustrating ride even worse, here in San Francisco, we don’t have that excuse. So what do we have?

While I was dealing with my normal morning commute, some Google employees in the Mission were getting ready for theirs. In San Francisco, that means quite likely getting on one of the large charter buses that ferry people from San Francisco where they have more of a desire to live down the Peninsula to towns like Mountain View and Sunnyvale where many of the tech companies you’ve actually heard of are, some 35 to 40 miles away. Except, at least at 24th and Valencia yesterday, they were held up by protesters. Protesting what? I am still not entirely sure what the overall effect of the gentrification protest was given the false umbrage that some entity tried to generate with the too-perfect, not real Google employee-protester spat that they just happened to catch on camera. I believe the overall point, though, was to protest the sharplyr raising costs of living and to intimate that these Google employees (and by synechdoche, all techies and tech culture) are destroying the real San Francisco and its spirit, etc as if they somehow single-handedly also influence zoning laws in addition to making money.

Now I have some problems with this because false umbrage is certainly not the way to deal with it. I’m hard pressed ot think of situations where misdirection helps. As annoying as my bus ride is at times, I know I am going to be at work in 35-40 minutes most mornings and I have several different routes I can take if one experiences an issue, all paralleling each other by 2 blocks. I could hop on my bike and be there in 25-30 minutes. Hell, I could even walk to work in a little over an hour if I hustled. Not saying I am about to. Just that I can. I both have the fortune and the desire to live fairly close to where I work, and it still takes a ton of time.

When I was looking at places, I had in mind what I wanted. I like a walkable neighborhood, with amenities and bus stops nearby. BART would have been nicer, because it tends to be a bit more regular, but that’s not a lot of the city when you get down to it. Civic Center, Mission, Glen Park, Balboa Park are the locations I could affordably see finding something near, and any closer in and I am walking distance anyway. I’d previously lived in a moderately walkable area downtown Saint Paul (you need grocers) and a highly walkable area in Uptown in Minneapolis (you I didn’t quite appreciate until the end). I know I like it.

The thing is, I am not alone in that. A lot of people here in San Francisco want similar amenities out of where they live. Not everyone here has the fortune of having a job that’s also located in the city. A lot of those jobs are across the Bay, down the Peninsula, miles away. Now I am a big proponent of living close to work. It’s something I’ve always angled for in my jobs. So I get the argument that people could just live in those cities that dot the Peninsula. But that means giving up a lot of the gains here in terms of walkability and proximity to events and random things that happen because this is San Francisco, dammit. Plus, at least out here, it’s not any cheaper to rent or buy in Mountain View than it is here in the city, which is one of those arguments that exists for suburbs (that I don’t really agree with).

But what about the cost of transit? Short of Caltrain, there’s not a lot of great options for getting south. And I don’t know how that would be for a commute versus a leisurely ride which is what I was in for the last time (and first time) I rode it. Certainly driving down to Silicon Valley isn’t a great option. I know people who do it. But that’s a lot of gas. And a lot of miles sitting in a car, alone, getting stressed as I imagine just about any driver gets. I know I do, and I know I have seen most people I have ridden with in my life have a moment or two, especially in rush hour traffic. So while I get that there are still issues to navigate in terms of where those corporate shuttles pick people up, and whether Muni sees some money back for use of their space (though isn’t that an allotment of civic space?), the actual idea behind the shuttles isn’t really what bothers me.

What bothers me is that those shuttles are the best option for Google or Genetech or whatever other companies use them in a lot of cases. They have a lot of employees who might take a public mass transit option if it were a bit easier, a bit more timely, had less transfers, etc. They are already taking mass transit. Is the umbrage that these companies are doing something to help make it more possible for their employees to live where they want to because our infrastructure, designed for cars, most of them single passenger rides, has let them down? The problem isn’t that Google thought to get a coach. The problem is our society has failed us in the promise of delivering options of getting around almost any way than by car in most of our major cities and greater urban areas in the US.

I know the bus is going to be late some days. Because it’s at the whims of traffic. And I know there’s not really a great dedicated bike route for me. Those are my two realistic options currently. But why aren’t the roads designed to better serve those modes of transit as well? Roads existed well before cars. People still had vehicles to park, though the vehicles were different. They were not invented for cars, though they have certainly been geared toward them in the last century. It does us all a disservice to continue to view them as such. A roadway for cars is a way of getting people from on point to another. So is a train line. So is a bike lane. So is a sidewalk. What seems unique is that when we talk about changing those paths in our cities, it seems to be about what the car has to give up, like it just earned those parking spaces or extra lanes or direct routes. It didn’t. As a society, we allocated that. I, for one, would love to see society allocate a bit differently.

People don’t like buses because they are crowded and late. People don’t like biking because it’s not safe in a lot of places. People don’t like trains and rail cars because it seems unless you live in the right spot they aren’t useful or they’re too infrequent, though they certainly seem to prefer them to buses. People don’t like walking because there’s nowhere to walk to. People don’t like all of those because they take too long. Driving can be faster. Driving can be more direct. Driving can be the best option because there’s nothing else in between. Driving also offers comforting illusions of control. I can try another route. I can leave whenever I want. I don’t have to wait for anything. I get all of those thoughts, I’ve thought all those thoughts. And I like driving when it’s not bumper-to-bumper traffic and non-stop stress. There’s nothing quite like rolling down the open highway, stereo blazing as you head toward wherever. I don’t think there’s a big problem with roads.

But there’s a discussion to be had about how we use our space, especially in denser urban areas where the default assumptions are toward cars and driving and have only recently started to shift back toward other uses. I don’t think corporate buses are an end-all solution to that by any means. Driving is the best way to get from point A to point B if we keep making decisions at a municipal level to support that over other means of transit. Buses might get someplace faster if they had dedicated lanes. Biking would be easier with direct protected bike lanes and might be a more alluring option. As cities, we have options about how we approach that. Personally, I’d like to see some different ideas on the table other than adding a lane to a highway because it’s congested. Why are people on those highways in the first place? What are some options to ameliorate that? Those are more complicated issues that touch not only on road use, but zoning and land use. If more people want to turn toward more urban environments that are more compact and provide the kind of amenities that cities do provide, how can we help create that?

I get that’s not what everyone wants. I personally don’t see myself ever moving back to a suburb. I just don’t see the point for me. I fail to see how they provide the things that I appreciate most out of where I live. If the calculus were skewed such that my job were out in the suburbs, I would still try to live in a city. I’m an urban girl. I know I’m not representative of the whole, though. But it does seem there are a lot of aspects to life in the US that are geared toward a certain way to live. Suburbs haven’t been around forever any more than the roads that wend their ways through them. They were a product of the times. Times have changed. I hope we are changing with them. It’d be nice to live in a city where the buses are on time.

31BX

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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