Guest Blogger Wednesday: Going Car-Free In San Francisco

When I originally came to the Bay Area from the land of parking garages and four-lane residential streets known as Southern California, I brought with me my green, 1998 Honda Accord and my understanding of cities built-upon comprehensible grids. Living here would challenge both of these and change my entire concept of transportation.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area taught me to rely on my car. It was both my golden calf promising future prosperity and my fleshy calf providing sustenance in the meantime. The city I learned to drive in had a handful of bus lines, each covering only a few blocks of the main streets with their peculiar urine smells and two hour intervals. In an environment like that, driving a car was encouraged and expected, and the cities were planned accordingly with parking lots and SUVs in mind.
I used to assume this was the norm throughout California until my poorly researched and quickly implimented move to San Francisco. What once had been my tool for prosperity and sustenance now felt like concrete shoes. Compared to Los Angeles, parking in The City was rare or prohibitively expensive. Once one wandered off the main streets, the roads seem to disappear and reappear without good cause and at least a few trips were made assuming that 19th Ave and 19th St were the same thing. At some point, the choice was made to remain in my apartment for periods of several days or escape to cities that were friendlier to cars down south.

In August, a few weeks before my year anniversary of living in the Bay Area, fate decided it was time I gave up my calf. My car was stolen, ironically from the Daly City BART parking lot. As I chased after it like Dafoe did that helicopter, I realized my life had fundamentally changed. Carbon footprint diminished and BART police report filed, I boarded the 28 Inbound and held tight the railing of my new wheels.
Months after the incident I’ve become an unofficial cheerleader for public transit and MUNI. No longer hindered by cement shoes, I’ve explored San Francisco in every direction. I’ve developed a strong enough knowledge of the city to help tourists find their way around the town and I send concerned letters to my Supervisor.
Beyond the democratic impact that I feel decent public transit brings, there’s something inherently San Francisco about MUNI that you can’t experience until you actually rely on the system. When I visit Southern California for holidays, I find myself pontificating to my friends and family about the glories of no longer owning a car and how wonderful MUNI is. And when the 28 skips my stop or I spend 40 minutes at West Portal Station waiting for the M, I try to remind myself of how miserable I was just a over a year ago with my car that didn’t take me to any of these places.
Michael Harper is a twenty something writer/activist/geek based out of San Francisco. He likes reading books, writing about obscene, practical & practically obscene things, and listening to the rudest of musics. He dislikes fascism and dairy products. He aspires to one day live in a gutter with a bottle of whiskey or his best friends.

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12 Responses to Guest Blogger Wednesday: Going Car-Free In San Francisco

  1. @makfan says:

    How odd. My car was stolen last year, and I didn’t bother to replace it, although I had pretty much given up driving for a while before that happened.
    The problem I’m having with relying on MUNI is when I don’t have 40 minutes to wait for a specific bus or train. I’m worried that when they cut frequencies that the overcrowding will mean more times letting the bus go by because it is too packed.
    Hope you post again.

  2. Eric says:

    To me, waiting for Muni is a lot less aggravating than trying to find a parking spot in this city, let alone risking your life with the INSANE taxi drivers. Waiting in the cold sucks, but do does circling the block for 45 minutes waiting for a car to pull out.
    I can’t say my car was stolen, but it might as well have been after the $2000 or so worth of parking tickets I racked up.
    Sold my car a while ago. Was definitely the right decision.

  3. jp says:

    I sold my car within a month of moving here. Before that, I’d lived in Texas and Michigan, and I drove constantly everywhere for more than a decade. Six years later, I haven’t missed the car even once. MUNI’s not the greatest transit system I’ve ever used (but then, what really compares to Tokyo?), yet even with its flaws and budget shortfalls it’s still pretty great.

  4. snuh says:

    There’s one other element that makes living car-free in San Francisco more than just tolerable: not actually going completely car-free. By which I mean CityCarShare or ZipCar. I walk or use public transit everywhere. Except grocery shopping. Or IKEA/Home Depot/Etc. Or occasional trips to Point Reyes, wine country, etc.

  5. Seven says:

    Going carless is all well and good if your job is in San Francisco and your boss willing to be flexible if say, the N-Judah melts down and you’re an hour late coming in from the Sunset.
    But if your job is outside the City, there’s a good chance you’ll need a car. Recent job for 2 years in Burlingame: 1 hour daily by car (round trip) or over 3 hours public transit. Thank god I didn’t get rid of my car.

  6. gdewar says:

    @seven: you have identified one of the biggest problems in the bay area- terrible linkups between systems. I have done the SF-Burlingame ride and there have been times when it took less time to go from Inner Sunset to Millbrae than it did to go from Millbrae BART to my final destination in Burlingame off of El Camino as an example.
    I used to do a commute from Inner Sunset to Lafayette (where I had to be at the job site at 730am every morning). If I missed the particular N I needed, it hosed my commute. Then when I got off BART at Lafayette, I had to walk a little over a mile to the office as Lafayette has no mass transit. But on a positive note, I always got my exercise and Lafayette’s a nice place. Still, as you say, if you’re looking at a 3 hour commute, that sucks!
    When I first moved back to SF, I had a job in South City not served by any transit (this was pre-BART) aside from Caltrain, which was on the other side of the freeway. That plus the fact I often worked very long hours (until 11pm at some times) made it impossible to do anything but a car so I ponied up the cash for gas and a ton of tickets. Ugh.
    One caveat I put out to people is that if you’re on the west side going to the Peninsula, you’re often better off taking either a 44 to Glen Park or any of the 19th Avenue buses to Daly City instead of heading downtown to catch BART. But even then, that’s not always do-able – if you’re headed to say, Santa Clara or Palo Alto, then you have to go all the way out to Caltrain.

  7. anonymouse says:

    If you’re headed to Santa Clara or Palo Alto, you’re probably still best off going to Daly City or Glen Park to catch the BART to Millbrae. And in general, the reverse commute is kind of almost doable, especially if you have a bike to cover the mile or two from Caltrain/BART to wherever it is you work. The real weakness is in transit to various weekend destinations outside SF: you can’t go to Monterey, Santa Cruz is quite a trek via all-stops Caltrain and a connection to a bus, Golden Gate transit doesn’t serve the Marin coast and is painfully slow elsewhere, and I’m not even sure it’s possible to get to Napa. And if you’re thinking of going further afield, to Yosemite or Tahoe or something, you can expect a slow and complicated journey with really bad connections on the far end.

  8. @makfan says:

    Caltrain can be great if you are going between the right two stations. But if you are using one of the less-used stations, like South SF or Santa Clara, you probably only have one or two trains per hour that work. If MUNI is late getting you to the station, you are hosed.
    I know lots of people would time the connection very close, but for the three years I commuted to Los Gatos (Caltrain to Mountain View, car the last 15 miles to the office), I used to get there at least 10-15 minutes before the train I wanted. Sometimes I even grabbed an earlier train, although I liked to take the newer cars with power outlets when possible.

  9. Jim says:

    I had a car I bonded with when I first moved here from DC a few years ago; bonding’s what happens when you fill one of your life’s desires, to drive across the country. Six months later, a woman with a wrong-color front bumper totals my car. I haven’t replaced it since. It doesn’t hurt that my employer picks up my Caltrain bill, or that I can use pretax dollars for a Fast Pass. Still, my pocketbook doesn’t mind being carless, but there are definitely times I wish I had my car. Especially on days when I realize that walking from 4th & King to the lower haight is only 10-15 minutes longer than taking the N. Oh well. Yay for exercise and public transit in the morning!

  10. Bob Davis says:

    When I visit MuniLand, I either come by Amtrak (and Ambus) and stay downtown, or if I drive, stay at the motel at the end of the “N” and let my car take a few days off. Now that I’m an old coot, my first “N” ride is to Powell St., where I buy a Senior pass to take care of Muni travel. Drive in SF? Not quite as bad as driving in Boston, but still something to be avoided.

  11. Joseph H says:

    I’ve been essentially car-free in SF for over two years, commuting from the Outer Sunset to a job in Palo Alto near I-280.
    4 hours of transit annoyances every workday for two years, that’s cool. Then it’s stupid.
    Among numerous other things, I’m suck of putting up with N operators who take it upon themselves to decide when I will get to work and when I will get home.
    So I am giving up the car-free life as of tomorrow.
    And the very first thing, I will probably go to Target.

  12. Joseph H says:

    “Among numerous other things, I’m suck of putting up with N operators who take it upon themselves to decide when I will get to work and when I will get home.”
    And the $347 transit citation I got on Caltrain when I dropped my brand new 10-ride ticket while boarding the train? At least when I get a speeding ticket that expensive I’ve gotten to go fast for a little while.
    I love the people watching, but I’m sick of being treated with less respect than UPS gives a brown cardboard box.

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