Posts Tagged ‘ public transit

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.

On The Road

As I’ve documented in recent entries, I’ve gone carless. In my home life at least. But in the last week and a half, I spent some time behind the wheel of a couple different vehicles while traveling. I suppose I didn’t absolutely need a vehicle in Minnesota. Though I don’t know how else I would have gotten a couple other places, the majority of the places I visited would have been just as accessible via public transit. It’ll only get easier when the Light Rail finally opens (2014 is almost here?). But for this trip, I went through a nice little off-airport company that hooked me up with a car made in the same decade I was driving it (a rarity for me). It was, on the whole, a pretty nice experience. In Virginia? Well, if I’m only trying to get around Arlington and DC, sure, I don’t need anything, but otherwise, I don’t know how I would have done a wedding reception in Lorton without a vehicle. My parents, as per usual, let me use a car, which I always appreciate. First, it’s good to periodically brush up on my manual vehicle skills (don’t worry, I’ve still got it, just don’t ask the clutch for an opinion). Second, between staying with them and being able to borrow a vehicle, it really makes any trip to Virginia much more tenable (both in cost and access to things). Now I’m heading back to my personally carless life in San Francisco. And I’m happy about that. Here’s some things I’ve learned with a bit of perspective. Some I’ve mentioned before; some I’ve subtly realized over the past 11 days; some just hit me right over the head:

1) Even when gas is only $3.09/gallon (like it was at several places in Minnesota), I’m glad I’m not paying for that anymore. Even if it was only twice a month, that adds up pretty quickly. That’s $100 pretty quickly. Not that I’d be driving all that much. But I’ll take all the found money I can in San Francisco. Not that it was found money, per se. I still pay for transit in San Francisco, but the majority of it is a flat monthly fee of $76, pre-tax (thanks Wells!) that lets me take most modes of transit in the city. I don’t think I ever appropriately appreciated how much I spent on gas, even when I did a better job at budgeting. Even when I was biking fairly consistently, carpooling to shows, and using MetroTransit occasionally, I still managed to rack up a decent monthly bill. Even as the cost has gone up, it’s still just an expected expense to most of us. Now I think about it a little differently.

2) I definitely did a couple careless things in the first few days in the car. It wasn’t because I was texting or trying to eat while I was driving or anything like it. It’s just because I forgot how taxing driving is. It really demands your attention. I don’t miss that at all. I don’t miss nearly hitting people that you swore weren’t there before, because even when all of us pay attention, things like that happen. It only takes a second for those sorts of situations to become something much worse. I don’t miss vehicles that probably didn’t come out of anywhere even though in my mind they sort of felt that way. I’d rather save my energy for other endeavors, thank you very much.

3) I found my relationship with parking changed a little bit. Obviously it wasn’t an issue everywhere, but it’s sometimes it’s just a tedious waste of time trying to find a space or a lot. Of course, the same argument could be made of waiting for MUNI or BART. But at least when I am doing that I can just relax and wait for the vehicle, or check my phone, or just stand there. Sometimes I spent more time trying to park than I did at places I went. And I also embraced pay parking a lot more since I don’t do it all that much anymore. Logically, in my city-dwelling mind, I know that free parking is a myth. We (as a society) pay for that one way or the other. That’s a resource that the city is deploying, whether it’s on street parking that could be used in other ways that benefit the area (wider sidewalks for better walking and outdoor seating for businesses or bike lanes come to mind as alternatives) or surface lots begging to be turned into just about anything more useful like apartments or businesses. But I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up going to malls and shopping centers that had endless miles of parking lots in my mind. Free, endless blacktop was sort of an expectation. So I still feel like I should be able to find parking anywhere I go, just a little. Even if I know it’s ridiculous. Perhaps some time away from a car as an everyday item will help me finally get away from that attitude. I had much less trouble pulling into garages and feeding meters on this trip.

4) I hate traffic. I really really hate it. I certainly still get stuck in it, on the bus, riding with other people. It’s a big problem that plenty of people have spent a lot of energy on, and will continue to spend energy on. I sincerely hope there’s anyone out there who enjoys it. It’s nice to not feeling the frustration of sitting in a car inching along a city street or a major interstate more often in my life. The bus does it all the time and it’s still a problem. My commute could still take a lot less time if there were some magical solution to congestion (though there are definitely good ideas, like congestion pricing). But I’m pretty nonchalant about it on the bus. When I’m sitting in the car? It’s a whole different issue.

5) Driving can really makes me angry and apoplectic. I have more colorful invectives for a guy who squeezes into the space I’m keeping between me and the car in front of me than I do for a lot of other things in life (and some of them probably deserve those invectives a bit more). I wonder why that is. It’s like driving fills all of us with the same amount of vituperation this guy had for the person who made his poor burrito. Is it because it’s a safe space to be angry at someone like that? I mean, the other driver is definitely not hearing whatever it is I’m saying. I pound steering wheels like the best of ‘em. Why do we do that? I am not the only one. I’ve been a passenger many a time and seen other people who are normally pretty staid individuals string together curses that make me blush when someone doesn’t signal. I am certain I’ve done the same.

6) Despite all of that, I really miss nice, open road driving. The kind where you just go. Dropping gears when going around a corner on a winding road on Virginia that no one else is on? It’s like a birthright. I miss popping on the right song or record and just going when you get the chance. I miss the illusory feeling that I can go anywhere. I had places to be most of the time when I was driving and it wasn’t like I just got in the car and drove west or anything crazy like that. But it always feels like, even if it’s just for a moment, you always have that potential with a car. It’s still that expression of freedom. Other vehicles require more planning, but the car? It’s the biggest embodiment of that feeing. Most of us will never get in a car and just do that. But haven’t you thought that, just for a second behind the wheel?

7) It’s nice to not worry about the kind of responsibility that driving entails. Think about it terms of alcohol. It’s no secret I enjoy a good beer or cocktail when I get the chance. With a good meal or at a show, it’s just a nice compliment. Some nights, I have a couple more. I’m still thinking about the cost, or whether I even want to have a beer. But as we say in the business, by not using an automobile as my primary transportation, it’s just mitigating the risk. I am still mindful of how much I drink in the sense that it’s my job to take care of myself. As I should be. I still stay completely sober the majority of the time I go out in San Francisco. In Minnesota, I had to exercise that extra layer of discretion for the first time in a while as I was drinking and had access to a vehicle. I have no problem exercising that discretion. There’s plenty of awareness around that and I am not an idiot. It’s not a little thing one just forgets about driving. I am still trying to be responsible because that’s on me. But if I’m being honest about one of the benefits of being carless, that’s an honest thing to consider. Not an excuse to get wasted by any means, but still a true aspect.

I don’t think I ever appropriately appreciated the cost of driving. I doubt many of us spend our time thinking about it. Or at least appropriately understand it. I still am only scratching the surface on these kinds of thoughts. It’s obviously a great thing to be able to do. I love driving at times. There are places I never would have been, things I never would have done without the cars I’ve owned. I will at least continue to rent cars or borrow them on occasion and I think it’s a worthwhile skill to have even if I’m not using it all that much. Some day in the future I may own one again. But there are obviously a lot of costs associated with it that I never really paid much mind to, because they are subsidized by society in one way or another. It makes me realize there are probably a lot of things I do that I don’t really question my relationship with. I’ve begin to challenge those things a bit more as I’ve gotten older. Where I live in relation to where I work, the true cost of the things I use in my life, what I eat (or don’t eat), how I get around, those are all help make up who I am. It’s good to challenge those ideas. It’s also good to revisit them. I am sure my relationship with the automobile will continue to evolve. This is a reminder to continue to think about even those things that have been integral to our lives. Because those things can change. Quicker than you might believe. I’m not saying you should go out and get rid of your car tomorrow. But spend a couple minutes thinking about it. I assure you, it’s a curious exercise.

Identity Crisis

Though I suffered a bit of a hiccup in the last couple months before moving, I managed to carve out at least a decently earned reputation as someone who spent the past two years biking to work (at least when I medically could). And it was most certainly earned when I spent enough time to accrue roughly 4,000 miles on my bike, though, in fairness, a lot of that was because of trips to Stillwater or Prescott or wherever else you’d be amazed you can actually reach on a bike with a strange minimum of road riding. I spent a lot of time on my bike, going to work, going to shows, even going to a Thanksgiving one year (good way to work off what you eat). But the biggest part of that identity was that I was a bike commuter, whether I really was that much or not.

Reputations have a habit of sticking with you once you develop them. We all know that. So even when I was barely riding the past couple months due to, well, the chaos of trying to plan a cross-country move that I didn’t necessarily think was realistically going to occur when I applied for the job, I still got a lot of questions about whether I biked that day, where to park a bike at the WFHM campus, and such. Not that these were unwelcome, mind you. I’d rather have the reputation of a bike commuter than a lot of other things, even if I didn’t feel like I was earning it all that well recently.

And now that I’m here in San Francisco, I’m barely earning it at all. Sure, I have biked to work, but it takes almost the same amount of time it took me to go 11 miles in the Twin Cities just to go slightly over 5. Bike infrastructure here could, uh, how do I say this politely…use some work? Rolling down Valencia is all fine and well, and depending on the time of day, Market’s okay, but it can also feel like a death trap as you dodge myriad other bikes in various states of attention, pedestrians, runners, buses, cars, taxis, and whatever other deathtraps MUNI can throw at you. It’s really taxing to ride here. And that’s not even getting into the hills.

Of course, some of the greater length is also just simple geography. I knew it was hilly here. But where I’m currently staying? Let’s just say the view is nice, and the climb is possible, but not the most thrilling in the world. Plus, there’s a stop sign or light every couple blocks, and short of the bike lane on Valencia being timed, I haven’t had a whole lot of luck hitting any of that stuff at a time where it’s nearly as quick as rolling down Summit was most mornings. But hey, at least there’s bike parking in the garage under my building…just don’t leave the bike overnight or you might not see it again. Not because of theft, but because of the garage rules. I’m not sure I want to test that one out, either.

But the final problem is just that BART is so easy. And it lets me do things I haven’t been doing nearly enough of recently, like read! It’s actually kind of nice to just stand on the train for 20 minutes a day and flip through a book. Of course, I’m not getting exercise other than the incessant walking that this city inspires all of us to do. But the real kicker of taking BART is that it’s really easy, not all that expensive, and not time-consuming. Or at least not any more time consuming than any other way I’d get to work, and as opposed to wondering who might hit me, I just hop on, hop off, and roll down Montgomery. I want to keep being a bike commuter in the one sense that it’s cheaper and easier. But there’s something to be said for the ease of good public transit.

Some of it may change. I may ultimately decide no matter what the troubles that bike commuting is still just a nice way to go. Probably not quite the same level of exercise it was before just by simple virtue that it’s a shorter ride, but still something that’s better for me. Because if I’m not doing it then, I’m gonna have to remember to carve out time to exercise. The converse is I’m going to have to carve out time again to keep reading if I want to keep that up.

Perhaps, though, I’ve just reached a point where I’m no longer much of a bike commuter to work. We all look at things as immutable in the sense that we believe we are going to do our regular activities at some unchanging pace. You think because you do something every Thursday that you will keep doing it every Thursday. And then you don’t. And then it’s like it never happened. Things fill in the other spaces in our lives so quickly. It doesn’t mean I won’t miss being a bike commuter if I suddenly find that I’m really never doing it to anything anymore. I will. But there will also be justifiable reasons, and I will fill things in around it. I’ll figure something else to do to get the endorphin rush, whether that’s as simple as running more or making time for longer evening and weekend bike rides once again. Perhaps, though, after a little more getting used to the city, I’ll realize that is how I want to get around, because I’ll be wanting to hit things up that aren’t easily done on the BART and it’ll give me greater flexibility. I shall see. For now, though, I hang up my mantle as a bike commuter and hope to pick it up again one of these days. It joins a collection of a lot of other things still hanging in that same place that I thought I might pick up again some day. Might be time to go through those again, see which still fit, and whether it’s time to pull any of them out again. Like any wardrobe, some pieces are done after a short while, but some, you just need to put away for a bit to appreciate.

 
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