Thursday, February 11, 2010

Seven months and twelve days: wheels

We live in a city devoted to tell its citizens they don't need cars. They encourage us to "get out of our cars" by raising bridge tolls and proposing we eliminate parking spaces to promote sidewalk dining. They throw out fanciful ideas like "congestion tolls" (While it sounds like it might be a levee on allergy season, congestion tolls involve charging drivers who go downtown during rush hour.) and making sections of now-free highways into toll roads. If we make driving more unpleasant than it already is, the thinking goes, people will have no choice but to take the bus.

Unfortunately, the second piece of this equation -- improving local public transportation systems -- has been ignored. And as long as enough people write self-congratulatory letters to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, extolling the pleasures -- and environmental benefits -- of bike riding, our city government will continue to think our ultimate goal is to become a city of sweaty, disheveled, slow-moving commuters with incredibly high self-esteem.

None of these people drive across town to Temple Emanu-El once a week. I heard the complaining from the north siders for years. Their sentence: driving across town EVERY DAY to get their child to Brandeis Hillel Day School. I am in no way minimizing the impact of that drive on their psyches, because I know I couldn't have done it myself. Trying to get to 1 Lake Street once a week is damaging enough.

There is no easy way to get across San Francisco. Thanks to the "freeway revolt" of the 1950s, Highways 101 and 280 both stop before getting to the city core. Which means that not only does my wife always have a legitimate reason for us to not to move to Mill Valley (not to mention $12 a day in bridge tolls), it also means that getting from point A to point B can take several years off your life.

Had we joined Ner Tamid, the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of synagogues, our weekly drive would be five minutes long. Not that I think about this as I'm inching down Nineteenth Avenue, glancing at the dashboard clock every three minutes in hopes of slowing it down enough to allow us to get to temple on time.

As luck would have it, we are decent San Franciscans, though not good ones. Two years ago we got rid of our second car, the much-beloved Acura TSX. We did it purely to save ourselves to $600 a month a second car would cost. High insurance rates are another hidden "benefit" of city life.

It didn't suck to know that we were only polluting half as much, but that wasn't a primary cause for the move. We did it to pay for school. But it was nice to be able to run around telling people that while we may not have a Prius, and while we may not bike everywhere, at least we have only one car. And honestly, if the Jawa went to a school that was on the BART line, we probably wouldn't even need that.

Or, I should say, "wouldn't have." No way does this Bar Mitzvah happen without our Volvo V50 wagon.

"During your speech, when you thank everyone, you should thank the car," I told the Jawa one day, while careening through the narrow streets of Ashbury Heights. By the time we reach August, that car will have clocked well over a thousand miles just going back and forth between our house and 2 Lake Street. In the end, we will have made that drive around 100 times over 18 months. Not a huge number for a car, but try it on a bike.

Most of our weekly temple commitments are meetings lasting an hour or less, which makes the entire package similar to a flight between San Francisco and L.A.: actual flying time is only part of the total time spent.

When the Jawa was just a toddler, on the days we weren't forcing him to walk the mile between daycare and our Seattle apartment, I sometimes picked him up after work in our then-new Subaru Outback. One day, while following three cars slowly down the street, I heard, from the back seat, a tiny little voice saying, "Come on, buddy!"

Until that moment, I'd never thought of myself as much of an angry driver. I'd heard much better driving rage come from others. I also knew that an eighteen month-old child doesn't come up with "Come on, buddy!" on his own. He hears it somewhere.

Sheepishly, I held my tongue for the rest of that ride. Since then, I've tried -- really, I have -- to keep my cool while on the road. I try to act rational, even as I'm pointing out to the Jawa that the guy in the SUV up there really doesn't care about anyone but himself.

I fail. They tell me this all the time. My reputation as a behind-the-wheel hothead is cast in stone. Despite my best efforts. And that's with people in the car. It's worse when no one's there. I don't actually yell, though. They made that up. Or they're remembering it from years ago, like how I kept getting argyle socks for Christmas long after I'd stopped wearing them.

What I need to do is find a study whose results determine that San Francisco has the worst traffic in the U.S. It doesn't seem to exist, unfortunately; most of them peg weird places like Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

That's because they're limiting themselves to freeways. The real action in San Francisco is on the surface streets. When you're trying to get across the 6.6 miles that separate Brandeis Hillel Day School from Temple Emanu-El, it seems that every imaginable obstacle -- including tourists driving with maps spread out on the dashboard, people looking for parking spaces, people who took a wrong turn about a mile ago and need to throw a quick U-turn to correct, people who didn't realize that you can't turn left on Nineteenth Avenue for the three miles between Sloat and Fulton -- they're all out there, doing their best to make your drive resemble the 1980s video game "Frogger."

If you can make it through without exploding, swearing, randomly shouting out the driver's side window or transferring all of the angst you have toward your boss and unloading it on the old lady in the Nissan Sentra driving 25 in the left lane, then you are a better person than me, which isn't saying much, so don't get cocky.

Of all the things I will miss once this Bar Mitzvah is over, the drive between Brandeis and Temple Emanu-El ranks very low. Somewhere above "making a speech," somewhere slightly below "wearing a suit once in awhile on a Saturday."

And then, I will consider trading in my car and purchasing a bicycle. Or a Segway. Maybe a Razor scooter. Or not.


Butter Goats said...

You just need to learn to relish the chaos, like Ted. "And I deny you!"

The Hammer said...

I know this drive well. 20 min door to door. Skip 19th and take Sunset into GG Park, MLK to Crossover to Park Presidio to Lake. Done.

Option 2: school bus door to door; there by 4. Costs a bit but fun for Jawa with cool kids and no hassle for you or Sandra Bullock.

As you said, hard to get sympathy from those of us on "the other side of town" but you have mine anyway. Hang in there - only 6 months to go...