Ups and downs of the car-free life

I’ve had a post draft sitting in my WordPress box for a while about the ups and downs of bike commuting, because I wasn’t convinced I had anything substantive and new to say about that subject. Today I had an experience that integrates what I was trying to say into a larger context.

When I moved here three years ago, I went up to San Francisco one weekend in December to submit some applications to work at bookstores up there. One was in Union Square (Borders), and one was in Fisherman’s Wharf (Barnes & Noble). That B&N is quite near where my dad lives now, but at the time I had never been to that area.

I took Caltrain to Millbrae and transferred to BART, then got off at Powell and walked up to the Borders. When I came out, I tried to get on the cable car, because the cable car goes pretty much directly down to the B&N. However, I did not know that however directly it may go, it is (1) expensive, (2) slow, and (3) during the holiday season, impossible to board except at its origin point outside the BART station, because there are so many tourists in San Francisco trying to ride it. (1) turned out to be irrelevant since I couldn’t get on. I tried to figure out another way to get there, but this was before 311 and before I had a web-enabled phone, so it was really a bit hopeless. Finally, after a lot of waiting, walking, and confusion, I managed to get on the F Market somewhere around Embarcadero, got to the place, figured out how to get the F Market back, got on BART, and got home. I forget if I missed my connection in Millbrae too (which would have meant waiting an extra hour), but I wouldn’t be surprised. It was that kind of day.

In short, it was a transit hassle from beginning to end; it took eight hours and I accomplished two things which took about 1 hour, total.

Today wasn’t nearly as bad. I went to San Carlos for lunch on the 12:34 train, ate lunch with my friends, chatted at their house for a while, and headed out to REI about 4:45 to do some Christmas shopping. I know REI is a decent walk from their house (it’s about a mile). And I knew it was going to be raining on and off. So that part was okay, although I’d forgotten what a car-oriented nightmare the El Camino/Old County/Brittan/Industrial corridor is, lacking sidewalks on one side of Brittan and having eternally long light cycles with very limited pedestrian crossing times. But, whatever. I walked there in the rain and the gathering dark, got what I needed, and then realized, oh, bother, I don’t have a bag to carry this stuff. REI was not able to provide me with a plastic bag, even though it was raining. I guess it doesn’t occur to them that maybe some of their customers would like to, you know, walk home with their goods. In the rain. He offered to staple the bag shut; I accepted.

Then I realized on my way back that the train had just come, so if I walked back to the train station, it would be forty minutes (after the walk) until one came again. I had thought about taking the bus anyway, since the stop is closer. I crossed the street, reached the bus stop, and wend under the awning to check bus times (which are of course not posted on the stop — what do you think this is, San Francisco?!). Just as I got my phone out, I saw the bus coming and ran back to the stop, waving. The bus went right by, not even bothering to slow down and look to see if someone might be waiting.

Some colorful remarks about the bus driver, the transit agency, and the Silicon Valley transit system in general followed. I ended up back at the train station, entertaining myself with mobile internet until the train came.

REI makes good paper bags and everything stayed dry inside (the bag is however quite destroyed). I got home still dry, if chilly and hungry. And all is well.

In the process of experiencing the frustration of missing the bus, it occurred to me that it’s been a while since I had an experience like that. I really do pretty well most of the time, and I could have done better here — checked bus times in advance, kept an eye on the train schedule vs. my walking time, brought a bag.

A lot of the downsides of transit (and cycling too) come from not knowing the system fully. You really have to know what the buses are and where to get them, and which streets are good for riding. It’s not the default option, and so it requires a bit of extra effort. And in some cases, I think people who are encouraging others to become car-free forget to mention this. They play up the positive aspects of it: it’s relaxing, it’s good for the earth, it’s good for your health, it’s fun.

In truth, all the options have ups and downs; all of them have different tradeoffs. You just need to pick your favorite.

If you cycle, you may get tired, sweaty, and dirty. You might get a flat or have a mechanical issue. You have to pay attention to traffic. If you take transit, you might miss your train or bus, or it might be late or break down; you might have to walk a long way (again getting tired, sweaty, and dirty). Someone else on your train or bus might be smelly or loud. It might take a long time. If you drive, you might get stuck in traffic, and you have to pay attention to traffic. Your car might break down.

If you cycle, you stay in good shape and relieve stress through exercise; you can avoid the worst of the traffic. If you take transit, you don’t have to worry about paying attention (it might take a while longer but you can work or read); you usually stay clean; you get some exercise by walking. If you drive, you get to stay warm and dry, choose your own schedule, and get where you’re going pretty quickly. You can bring stuff with you easily, and quickly run errands (as long as you can find parking).

What you decide to do depends on which downsides you don’t mind, and which upsides you like most, as well as whether the area you live in is more friendly to cars (big streets, lots of parking lots) or transit (narrow streets, density, limited parking). And how good you are at mitigating the downsides. With transit and cycling, if you devote some time to learning and planning your routes, and figure out systems for staying or getting clean and dry carrying cargo, you’re pretty set. You can combine the two for a better commute, if that works. It takes time to work out the kinks, and sometimes you have days where it just doesn’t work, whether it’s your own fault or the system’s. And it’s very frustrating.

In the end, it’s kind of like those bulk bins of candy at the supermarket: pick your favorite mix.

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