Monday, October 01, 2007

Urban life: why I still drive a car

SF Mike has a great post concluding:

It's hard to change people's behavior, but living without cars as much as possible creates communities, improves everyone's health, and is a blueprint for some kind of future without oil wars.

I couldn't agree more. In the last few years, I've begun to use the car much less. But I still do drive fairly often. Let's unpack this, recognizing that my behavior is individual and a little quirky. Isn't everyone's?

Many days, I never move the car (it's usually parked on the block) except perhaps to avoid street sweeping tickets. Currently I'm working at home. I walk to buy fresh food. I've gotten a gym membership a convenient distance away on foot. I can and usually do walk to church.

I'll take BART, the San Francisco Bay Area's '70s vintage subway system that stops a block from my home, whenever it goes within about a mile of where I want to go. That covers a fair amount of ground, including San Francisco Airport, downtown San Francisco, and much of Oakland and Berkeley. I can even get to Oakland Airport on BART, using the connector bus.

Somewhat to my shame, I don't use Muni, the San Francisco bus system. Because both Muni and BART are fundamentally spoke systems, designed above all to get workers in and out of downtown, the same places I could reach on one bus are mostly the same as the downtown areas I reach on BART -- and BART is faster and more reliable. Sometime back I simply stopped taking Muni if the ride required a transfer, because the system felt rickety, unpredictable.

Although San Francisco is a small city, I don't cycle for transportation. The traffic and the hostility of drivers scare me. I envy the brave souls I see on bikes, but I think I'd get killed. And I don't trust that I could lock a bike outside and not find it vandalized or stolen when I returned. Apparently, despite all the good work of bicycle advocates, these fears commonly limit city cycling.

So what gets me into the car? Visits to friends who live far from BART. Errands that require visiting multiple destinations on a tight schedule. Shopping for staples in quantity. Transporting disabled friends. Leaving the city. And most frequently, at least three trips a week to the margins of the city -- the beach, Golden Gate Park, the bay or further -- so that I can run without traffic!

When I go out to exercise, I need the car to serve as a portable locker room. I can't imagine a viable substitute for having this place to park clothes, fluids, etc. while I go tromping around. This was also true in the past when I worked in offices away from home; I would drive to work in order to have the portable locker room available before or after. So long as I run, I'll frequently drive. That seems madly contradictory, but it has been true for a long time.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear from other city people why they drive, so that together we can practice envisioning what it would take to get us out of cars. Cities that provide more solutions for the times we need cars have to be part of our future.

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