- Erik JP Drobey
Not Just Cars
As much as I enjoy cars and driving, I’m increasingly aware that car ownership is staggeringly expensive and not as convenient as I’d grown up to believe, especially for a city-dweller like me.
I’ve lived in San Francisco proper for many years. From 2012 until I moved in September, I owned a house far from downtown, in a neighborhood I jokingly coined “Almost Not San Francisco.” Everyone on my former block owns at least two cars, in part because getting around without a car in that area is about as inconvenient as it gets in San Francisco. Street parking there is plentiful, and I had a small garage and driveway as well.
At the end of August, I put the house on the market and downsized from that three-bedroom home with a garage and yard to a one-bedroom apartment with no garage and no yard. My new place is much closer to downtown, in the lively neighborhood known as North Beach.
I love my new home and the surrounding neighborhood. There’s a beautiful view of downtown and the Bay Bridge from the kitchen; the neighborhood is much more interesting and walkable than my former one; and I don’t miss the extra room from the old house. I do miss the garage, though. Street-parking around my new place can prove nightmarish. And my commute is longer now; just getting to and from the freeway can be even more frightful, not to mention expensive: despite getting over 30 miles per gallon, the 200-plus miles a week for my commute has me filling my fuel tank with premium and draining my wallet of cash on the regular.
The benefits of living where I do (and with whom I do) far outweigh these inconveniences, but they are compelling me to re-examine how I get around, especially for my commute. By extension, I’m also taking a closer look at driving overall, in a way that challenges—uncomfortably—my enthusiast-centric assumptions about driving’s convenience, my heretofore unquestioning willingness to bear the costs of car ownership, and my perceived need for owning a car at all.
I remain a driving enthusiast—I write for EveryDay Driver not for work but for fun—and I don’t think that will change. I love driving my ND2 Miata, and the thought of parting ways with that little joy-inducing machine is a painful one. I am not, however, a commuting enthusiast, nor am I a cost-of-ownership enthusiast. Right now, on top of making a car payment and paying for insurance, I’m renting a parking space a block and a half from my home. I may love driving, but is that enough to justify spending as much as I am for the privilege of driving twisty roads every once in awhile?
This question has bothered me enough to explore transportation alternatives. I pivoted from mostly watching car reviews on YouTube to content about public infrastructure, urban planning, and bicycles. There’s some interesting stuff out there for which most of us are definitely not the target demographic. Not Just Bikes, for example, produces well-researched and produced video essays about how North America is overdependent on cars, which is difficult to argue. A recent video on how shared places are disappearing in North American suburbs offers a compelling piece about what we lose when we construct giant parking lots and superstores in suburbs,
That channel often cites Strong Towns, an organization which promotes smarter public planning and which produces good content as well.
City Nerd is another research-based and deadpan entertaining channel about public transportation and urban planning.
I researched e-bikes, too. Propel, a retailer which started in Brooklyn and now has a few shops across the US, produces helpful reviews and guides but also some thoughtful commentary about transportation as well. This video, which features a mayor of Emeryville (just across the bridge from where I live), is a good example of how city infrastructure can relatively affordably and easily allow for safe pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
I still drive the Miata to work most days, and still rent that garage. Sharing that parking spot now, however, is an electric bike that I spent a fair amount of money on but costs nothing to run. It’s fast—I opted for a bike with a mid-drive Bosch motor which offers assistance up to 28mph—and it’s surprisingly practical. And despite the electric thing, it’s still a workout, since I have to pedal and I can select the level of assist.
But my alternate commute, which requires me to bike 2.2 miles to the train, ride that train for 35-55 minutes (depending on whether it’s a limited or local), and then bike 2.5 miles to and from the office, is long, and if I don’t time everything well, I can spend upwards of two hours getting home.
That's a trek for sure, and I'm still used to getting in my car whenever I want and head somewhere without having to factor in train schedules or other such constraints. But relaxing on a train is a lot more pleasant than sitting in traffic, and almost every time I decide to commute via bike and train, I'm happier for it.
I have yet to make a drastic change to my modes of transportation. Perhaps I'll get rid of a car altogether for awhile (a scary thought, but also one that's liberating even to consider). Or maybe I'll sell the Miata (ouch) and buy a reliable used car outright to only drive occasionally. Heck, I'm even considering getting a motorcycle for commuting. But whatever the case, it's not just about cars for me anymore.