Tag Archives: car free

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.


Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

More money, less garbage

Our vision through the windshield: impaired

We sold our car about four months ago. Since then I have noticed two major changes in our lives. First, we have more money at the end of every month, which makes sense to me. Second, we now generate less weekly garbage, which I still don’t understand.

The more money thing is pretty nice. It is still new, and makes a happy little surprise at the end of the month. Where did all this money come from? Oh yeah.

Why yes, we can go out for ice cream again.

Given that we were already riding bikes and transit most of the time, transferring the remaining car trips into City Carshare rentals came with no real inconvenience. Sure, sometimes it would be easier to pick up a car downstairs in our garage than from the nearest car share pod. But it was much more hassle to figure out what to do with a car we owned at the end of every trip (Does it need gas? Do I have to pay for parking at work? Did someone hit it?) than it is now to just drop a car back in its pod. Plus, any car picked up at a university pod comes with a university parking pass. The other week I had to put gas in a City Carshare rental. It was the first time I’d been to a gas station in at least six months. “Wow,” I thought idly as I pulled in, “gas is $4.80/gallon now? Well, I don’t have to pay for it.” Then when I pulled out, someone nearly hit the car. “That would be a bummer,” I thought, “but City Carshare would pick me up.”

It was all very relaxing. With the cargo bike now in action, I suspect our car rentals will be even less common in the future, however.

How does a bike that can carry anything generate less trash?

I’m still mystified by why we generate less garbage. Back when our daughter was in diapers, our garbage can was full every week. After she joined the land of the toileted the can was usually about half full. However in the last few months it’s never been more than a quarter full. I might not have even noticed this if I Bike U Bike hadn’t mentioned the same thing, at which point I thought: huh. The recycling also dropped a little, at least until the last few weeks, when we’ve been blanketed with election-related flyers, which is thankfully temporary. There is slightly more compost.

I can’t figure out what changed. Why do we produce less garbage? But I suppose I don’t need to know the reason. The landfill is happy no matter what.


Filed under car-free, San Francisco

You cannot run faster than a Bullitt

This weekend, the Bullitt arrived. We immediately took it out for an 11 mile ride with the kids. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  • After two months without riding a Bullitt I was nervous about my ability to pick it up again. I got the trick of steering it back in about 20 feet.
  • Even with the BionX, San Francisco hills are much steeper than Portland hills. Going up to Bernal Heights I did use the highest level of assist, and I would have been delighted if it went “to 11.”
  • Thank goodness we got the lightest cargo bike.
  • To my surprise, my kids decided to ride together in the box. It’s not all that roomy in there for two older kids, but they were happy. At one point my daughter even stretched out for a nap, although she did not actually nap.
  • The preferred entertainment for two kids in a Bullitt is singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” On a five mile ride, that song can stretch into negative numbers. Adding a sound system to this bike has been upgraded from “nice to have” to “critical need.”
  • An unexpected disadvantage of a low box is that the kids assume that they can reach out and pick up anything on the street that interests them while we are moving. We had to have a conversation about that.
  • It is impossible to overestimate how much attention a Bullitt will get on the streets of San Francisco. Lots of drivers pulled up right next to us to ask questions. “I love your bike!” said one.
  • Other bike riders will assume that a Bullitt belongs to a man, and ask my husband questions about it. In response, he will stare at them.
  • This bike can go anywhere in this city with two kids and whatever else we pick up along the way.

On the way back home, on the Panhandle, we spotted: another Bullitt! That was unexpected. It was a milk-white Bullitt (unassisted) with a kid box like mine, but the rider was carrying a big black dog. Given that there are no Bullitt dealers in San Francisco, we were both nonplussed. “Nice bike!” I said. “Yay, BULLITT!” he said. Based on his accent, I think he was Danish. The other riders on the path looked dumbfounded.

On Saturday night before the Bullitt arrived, we had to do a longer-distance errand at night with both kids, and given the distance and the fact that it was dark and our lack-of-a-two-kid-cargo-bike situation, we rented a Nissan Leaf from City Carshare for a little while. We were stuck in traffic for most of the trip. We couldn’t find parking. The kids got fussy. Matt and I were both struck by the fact that we used to do this EVERY SINGLE DAY. We were relieved to return that car. “Okay, that sucked,” said Matt.

Worth the wait

In light of this experience, I hesitate to call the Bullitt a car replacement, although that is arguably the closest equivalent. But the Bullitt is better. Within city limits, it is faster than a car, because it doesn’t get stuck in traffic. With rare exceptions, it can carry more than a car. It can park by the front door of any destination. Our kids enjoy the ride. It turns out we weren’t looking for a car replacement. What we wanted all along was a totally awesome cargo bike.


Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Role models

On the first day of school our son asked to go by bike.

We have not been involved with family biking that long. One could argue that we make up for lost time with intensity. We have no car anymore, and we ride somewhere pretty much every day, although I know myself too well to track days or mileage, because that would inevitably lead to compulsion and madness. I learned that the hard way when my employer was handing out free pedometers. The day mine broke snapped me out of an obsession that had had me pacing around our bedroom at 11:59pm every night to break my steps record from each previous day.

Because I don’t track miles and I’m not riding a bike to get in shape, I am enjoying myself and so is everyone else. I realized that the other day when my kids found some old packing paper, spread it out into a makeshift course in the living room, and started racing each other using a ride-on hot wheels truck and a ride-on bumblebee. They called out, “I’m winning!” “No, I’m beating YOU! I turned on my electric assist!” “I’m pedaling faster than you!”

Our default rental car is now this plug-in hybrid (City Carshare is offering these at their lowest rate).

We have been in cars a lot in the last month: rides to the airport, rides to the train station, a week at my mom’s, a trip to Marin. We rented a car last week for one of our more intensive grocery runs, which involved refilling a gallon jug of olive oil and serious inroads into the bulk food bins. Altogether it’s worked to out about a dozen car days this month (although those were mostly clumped together while traveling, and astonishingly, all of them together still cost less than the lowest monthly tab of owning the minivan). This is apparently not enough driving to dislodge my kids’ new self-perception that riding a bike is what’s normal. On our trip to Marin, my daughter asked me whether it was possible to buy a car with electric assist that would make it go faster. I said that’s not really how electric cars work, and suggested that cars went fast enough already, but she remained unimpressed.

Although I’m not opposed to using a car occasionally, pretty obviously, not owning one has been liberating. When we drive I remember that being in a car kind of sucks: hello traffic, parking, and road rage. I definitely appreciate the increased range and time-savings over long distances (we won’t take BART to visit my in-laws again, it takes twice as long and is almost as expensive as renting a car), but altogether I’d rather be doing something else. My daughter’s preschool is closed this week, so on Monday we rode down to the Academy of Sciences, parked the bike at the (empty) rack by the front door, and walked right in. Watching other parents struggle out of their cars several blocks away or the subterranean parking lot, I thought, “I’m glad we’re not doing that anymore.”

Kids on bike racks: it never gets old.

But that’s just me. Our kids get to live this way because it makes our lives easier, not because they chose it, although they were the inspiration. My kids are simpatico with our vegetarianism (which I realize is hopelessly retro of us in this brave new world of “primal” eating). I wondered if they would resist life without a car. We don’t spend much time talking about more general reasons we might want to reduce driving, as our daughter is three and our son worries way too much about doing the right thing already. We do our thing, and we told them we will rent a car whenever they want. And it turns out that’s fine with them. They like riding the bike and taking the bus and walking; it means we can pay more attention to them.

I have these occasional terrifying moments as a parent when I realize that literally everything we do defines our children’s understanding of what is normal. We view life as easier and better not that we drive (much) less and so do they. I like that our transportation choices are now more closely aligned with other things we want in our lives: quieter streets, cleaner air, and streets designed for people. And we are not totally unaware of the environmental implications. Without getting too deeply into our world views here, we have a compost bin and we’ve been known to use it.

She came up with this all by herself, before I had the chance to show her Loop Frame Love, who pioneered the bike rack tunnel.

So it turns out I like being this kind of role model. I like being happy with my commute and I like that I can share it with my kids. I like saving money. I like feeling less tied to things. And I like watching my kids pretend that their toy trucks are really bicycles.

(A shout-out goes to the infinitely readable Davey Oil for inspiring some of these thoughts.)


Filed under car-free, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

The costs of living without a car

In brief: they are significantly less than living with one.

We don’t even need to park the bike at our son’s summer camp. Matt just rides into the middle of the field to pick him up. The other kids were so jealous.

I wrote earlier about the monthly costs of keeping our minivan ($400-$600/month), but I realized I forgot one expense: parking. Parking for one car is included in our rent at home, and although the market value of that space is ~$250/month, we’re not allowed to rent it if we don’t use it so it’s a wash. But whenever we drove the minivan anywhere else, we almost always had to pay to park. Our weekday driving primarily came when Matt drove to work because he was going out of the city for business. However, even though he’s not normally a car commuter, if he stopped at the office before or after, paying for parking was his responsibility. Because hey, it was just his normal commute, right? The same was true for me. The cost of parking where we work is $15-$20 per day. It worked out to between $50-$100 per month, conservatively. Plus on the weekends we had to feed meters. So the cost of owning the car was really somewhere between $450-$700/month, depending on how much we drove. It shocks me just writing those numbers. And we owned the minivan outright, so no car payments in that calculation. (If you ignore depreciation and only count actual out-of-pocket expenses it was still $250-$500/month.)

A portion of our newfound savings, admittedly, went to a new helmet.

This is still better than when we were car commuting and paying $140/month for a campus parking permit on top of the occasional downtown parking. My god, that car was expensive! No wonder Uber is making a killing in San Francisco. I could take daily limo rides without running up a $600-$850 monthly tab (or $400-$650 ignoring depreciation again).

Anyway, now that Matt has to rent a car for his business trips, the company pays for parking the rental car at the office, because he obviously wouldn’t be driving a rental car on his regular commute. Ha. Ha ha.

My son, passed out on my lap on Muni. (The Brompton continues to reign supreme in practicality; there was only space on the bus bike rack for one more bike–my son’s.)

In this first car-free month I was curious how much alternative transportation would cost us. It was a weird month. Matt had a series of meetings in the South Bay, so got a rental car for one week through work. By coincidence that was the same week that his mother went in for brain surgery in Redwood City, so there was a lot of extra driving to see her on top of those meetings. And we took a long BART ride one weekend to visit her in Berkeley after she went home. What can I say? We worry. We had planned to rent a car (and will next time we go; the round trip on BART is 4+ hours) but the San Francisco Marathon shut down the city. The MinUte went back to the bike shop while the N-Judah line was under construction, so we tried out ride sharing one weekend. And our son had a week of bike camp across town when Matt was away, which given the need to carry his bike implied a couple of trips using car share as well–we tried it once on Muni but (a) it’s so slow that we were late and the camp called us wondering where he was and (b) he was exhausted all day after riding over from the bus stop. And then the mamachari died.

Coming out of the tunnel on BART

I realize that every month is unique in its own way, but ironically, we drove more in July without a car than in any of the previous three months when we actually owned one. However no one else we know has brain surgery plans and the N-Judah is back in business, so this was probably an expensive month by the standards of car-free life, although having our bike collection radically thinned isn’t helping. Overall I hope that the next few months are much less exciting regardless of cost. (Matt’s mom is fine, by the way, although her surgery would have been better timed around Halloween, when she could have gotten some serious mileage out of the staples ringing her scalp. Oh well, hindsight.)

So our transportation costs for the month (rounded up to whole numbers):

  • fares for extra Muni and BART rides: $44
  • City CarShare rentals, meter parking, and Lyft ride: $48
  • maintenance on the Kona MinUte (bent derailleur repair): $24
  • rental car through work (including parking): $0 for us!

The total damage (for a very heavy month of auto  travel by our  standards even without the rental car through work): $116. Seriously? And we actually drove more than usual? Well hello, college savings. Even if we didn’t own bikes and took car share, ride share and Muni everywhere, we’d still save money by not owning a car. I am still sideswiped by disbelief. No pun intended.


Filed under car-free, commuting, San Francisco

Need a Lyft?

We’ve been taking Muni to Japanese class on Sundays ever since the big bike breakdown during Pride. I had ambitions to ride this week, but the MinUte went to the shop for a derailleur adjustment yesterday (and I’ve been encouraged not to carry heavy loads like my son on the Breezer anymore). Muni is a convenient ride usually, but the N-Judah streetcar is closed for construction for much of the summer, including this weekend. The alternate routes are not so great. We took the bus to class on Sunday, but as usual, it took 20 minutes more than the N-Judah, I had to carry my son through much of the Financial District, he was exhausted by the time we arrived, and we ended up getting to class late anyway.

These fluffy pink mustaches identify Lyft cars, evidently.

just wrote that there were probably dozen other options to get around this city, so on the way home I decided to try one, sending ride requests to Homobiles, Lyft, and Sidecar. Sidecar didn’t have a car within range. Lyft and Homobiles both did, but Lyft got back to me first. Less than 10 minutes after we got out of class, Sam from Lyft swung by to take us home. I figured when I saw his car that that must be our ride. My son liked the mustache. (All the cars have pink mustaches. The drivers greet you with fist bumps. My first impression, that this service had a college student vibe, seems to have been on target.)

Sam, it turns out, moved to San Francisco last month from Oklahoma and is currently driving for Lyft as his full-time job. I was impressed that it was possible for him to make a decent living in a new city immediately upon arrival. Personally I wouldn’t have chosen a stick shift for driving around the city, and he says his leg gets pretty tired at the end of the day, but I assume it’s flatter in Oklahoma. He said that San Francisco was full of the nicest people he’d ever met, and I agree: I have lived in many cities (Boston, Chicago, Munich, Paris, Seattle, Minneapolis-St.Paul, etc.) and although the Twin Cities had a lot of Minnesota-nice, on most days San Francisco is the friendliest place I’ve ever been. Sam was a nice guy himself and a decent driver. He wants to keep driving even after getting a traditional office job, so if you call, maybe you can get a ride from him too.

Post-ride mustachioed photos are nearly obligatory. But: unbeatable value!

This was my first Lyft ride, and I’m considering this whole month as an experiment of sorts in figuring out the costs of car-free life, so I didn’t worry much about the fact that Lyft doesn’t give an estimated cost for the trip until the end of the ride. If it turned out to be exorbitant, well, lesson learned: I wouldn’t use Lyft again. Howver this was not a problem. Our trip was (roughly) from the Financial District to the Inner Sunset farmers market. The rates we’ve found:

  • Homobiles, at $1/minute, would have worked out to ~$20 (plus tip).
  • Sidecar suggested a donation of $22, had a driver been available, for the same trip in reverse.
  • A taxi ride for would be $32 (plus tip) according to the online fare calculator, assuming we could have found one, which is unlikely.
  • Muni fare is a much more economical $2.75 for adult+child, but would have taken an extra half hour.
  • Lyft’s charge for the same ride turned out, once we’d arrived, to be $12 (plus tip). Sold!

When we got home Matt said, “You’re back early! You must have gotten a ride back.” Yes we did. And I don’t doubt we’ll be getting occasional rides from Lyft again.


Filed under car-free, San Francisco

Transportation resources for car-free (and car-light) families, in San Francisco and beyond

When we sold our minivan, one of the things that made it easier not to replace it was the discovery of all kinds of new ways to get around the city without our own car. Realizing there were all these options that offered a safety net helped us finally make a decision. The resources below are so ridiculously exhaustive that we would be hard-pressed to use them all regularly, so we don’t. When we need to get somewhere, we primarily ride our bikes, walk, or take transit, in that order. Every once in a while, for a longer trip, we rent a car from City CarShare or Matt rents one from an agency for a business trip.  Everything else listed below fills in the occasional gaps. For example: my employer, as part of its commitment to reducing car commuting, will reimburse the cost of a ride home from work in the event that a non-driver has a sick kid or bicycle breakdown. I am willing to use some of the more expensive services I’ve listed in emergency situations because time is an issue, and because I know that I’ll be reimbursed. Other companies in San Francisco have similar programs, but they’re poorly advertised, so check with HR before you decide to smack me for being so lucky.

Overall, our bikes are the best transportation choice on most occasions: they are personal vehicles that we can use at our discretion, they’re largely immune to traffic, and we can always find parking. This is why it’s often faster to ride a bike than to drive in San Francisco. But there are occasions that these other options really shine, and they might work even better for other families, and they’re so interesting I thought they were worth documenting in this outrageously long post.

Some useful tools for the car-free family:

  • Cash: Transportation is one of the final holdouts of a cash economy, along with Chinese restaurants, cooperative bakeries, and gambling. I carry around more cash than in the past.
  • Credit card: That said, the majority of ride-sharing services don’t work unless you have a credit card on file.
  • Transit cards: The miserable days when we had to make sure we had two singles in order to ride Muni disappeared when we purchased Clipper cards.
  • Smartphone: I did not get a smartphone until last week, because I live in my own personal Dark Ages. But there is no question that it makes the car-free life easier. Now I can look up bike routes, the next bus, or schedule a car ride instantly. The BayTripper and PocketMuni apps are particularly helpful, as is Bikesy (the bike route mapper for Baytripper).
  • RideSafer travel vests or other portable car seats: We got RideSafer travel vests  as car seat replacements for our trip to Europe last year because they were light enough to meet luggage weight restrictions on European

    Using the RideSafer travel vests in our San Diego rental car.

    airlines. But they are incredibly handy for travel with kids; two fold up small enough to fit in a backpack with room to spare for snacks. Although the kids find them uncomfortable on long trips, they are perfect for short rides. They are pricey but we travel enough out of state that it was worth it to us (also, look for sales; we paid much less than the current price). The vests only work for older kids (arguably 2.5 years and up). However, when we traveled with our son as a baby, we took an infant car seat without the base with us—these styles of car seat all have instructions for installation by seatbelt. And after hearing the stories of such car seats releasing from their bases in collisions, I now suspect that he was safer that way. On occasions when we take longer drives with our kids (e.g. to the Monterey Bay Aquarium) we use regular folding car seats, which now spend most of their time in storage.

  • Folding cart/stroller: It’s nice to have a way to haul kids and/or groceries around. When our kids don’t want to ride a bike to the farmers’ market, we take the stroller and pile up purchases underneath, or we take a folding shopping cart (ours actually works as a cargo-only bike trailer as well).
  • Named non-owner auto insurance policy: If you don’t own a car, but drive, you can still buy auto insurance. We’re on the fence about whether to get a policy like this. It’s not necessary for a lot of car sharing services, which have great insurance (better than you could buy as an individual). But if you’re in a situation where you rent a lot, and have to use national rental agencies, it could be a good deal.

Just the basics (for the more interesting options, skip down to #8)

1. Feet

  • What they are: Look down.
  • When to use them: Local shopping and neighborhood restaurants, visiting local friends and attractions
  • How they work: If you’re able-bodied you know this already.
  • Pros: Good exercise; helps us learn about the neighborhood; we live in San Francisco so everything we need to live is within walking distance
  • Cons: Limited range (especially if kids are involved); limited ability to carry stuff; slow
  • What it costs: Free!
  • Good to know: We can walk further than we think we can, even when carrying a grumpy six-year-old uphill.
  • Personal experience: We like walking; early dates with my husband were long walks.

2. Bicycles (the practical kind, not the road racing/mountain biking kind)

  • What they are: Those things on two wheels most people learned to ride as kids; but if you didn’t, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will teach you how to ride in a couple of hours.
  • When to use them: Virtually anytime, although in San Francisco it can be a little tricky to get outside city limits on bikes when heading east
  • How they work: Hop on and ride off
  • Pros: Good exercise; faster than cars in traffic; never worry about parking; some bikes can carry more than cars; kids love riding on bikes
  • Cons: Can take some practice to learn to ride in the street with cars; can fuel an obsession that becomes more expensive than planned (although way cheaper than a car) and unnerves friends and colleagues; theft is a problem in San Francisco (although a recent arrest has improved matters dramatically)
  • What it costs: Ranges dramatically, from $50 for a beater bike found on craigslist (quality unknown) to $3,500 for a snazzy new cargo bike, but without kids almost everyone will do fine walking out of the local bike shop on a $500 commuter, with kids ditto on a $1500 cargo bike. Any decent bike shop will let you test ride extensively before purchase. Electric assists for hills and heavy loads run $500-$5,000, but most reliable models run $1,000-$2,000. Maintenance and repair costs are bupkis, even for electric assist bikes, which recharge for pennies.
  • Good to know: If you’re hauling kids you probably need more bike than you think you do. Many people buy a first bike that’s inadequate for their needs and have to replace it (guilty as charged). But even the most wildly expensive cargo bike with electric assist costs less than the estimated cost of car ownership for a year. And also less than an amateur road bike.
  • Also good to know: If you fear breakdowns, you can buy nationwide bicycle roadside assistance from Better World Club.
  • Personal experience: This is our favorite way to get around.

3. Public transit (around here, primarily the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, aka Muni, but also systems around the bay for trips outside the city including BART, Cal Train, and Golden Gate Transit)

  • What it is: Buses, street cars, trains
  • When to use it: When it’s too far to walk; when the bike breaks down; when feeling lazy or when the hill situation or route is unclear in advance; when we have lots of time
  • How it works: Find a route using a trip planner (Baytripper app, 511 through Google Maps), head to the nearest stop, pay, and get on. In SF, the Pocket Muni smartphone app can identify how close the next bus (or whatever) is.
  • Pros: Inexpensive; accessible; nice views; riding historic streetcars and cable cars is a thrill; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, most of whom are kind
  • Cons: Horribly unreliable (Pocket Muni can help, but still); aging equipment that breaks down; dirty; the most useful routes are often incredibly crowded; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, some of whom are mean and/or insane
  • What it costs: In SF, $2 for adults, 75 cents for kids but cable car rides are $5; to go outside the city, costs vary but are still cheap. Fares are cash and exact change only unless you buy a Clipper card.
  • Good to know: Public transportation is like getting work done at a dental school: the price is right, there are no perks, the service is as promised but it takes a long time.
  • Personal experience: Very useful, but flawed (however I feel the same way about cars)

4. Taxis

  • What they are: Cars driving around that will take you wherever you want to go on a fare schedule negotiated with the city in advance
  • When to use them: Only when we’re desperate
  • How they work: Call in advance for a pickup and hope someone actually comes, hail one on the street and hope it actually stops
  • Pros: Only car service legally allowed to pick up street hails; gets you anywhere you want to go at a predictable price
  • Cons: San Francisco’s taxi fleet is notorious for poor availability, the willingness of dispatchers to lie about sending a taxi for a pickup, the unwillingness of drivers to pick up people that don’t look rich and well-groomed, etc. The cars themselves are often filthy and I say this as a Muni rider. Drivers pay little attention to traffic laws or speed limits. All taxis in San Francisco are supposed to take credit card payments but trying to pay that way can anger drivers enough that they threaten passengers and/or throw their belongings on the ground. This has happened to me.
  • What it costs: $3.50 at pickup then 55 cents per fifth of a mile or minute of wait time, plus tip
  • Good to know: You can do better, see below.
  • Personal experience: Primarily hellish, although there have been exceptions

5. City CarShare (see also: Zipcar)

  • What it is: A membership service for borrowing cars. These are parked around the city in reserved parking places.
  • When to use it: When we have a reason to drive somewhere.
  • How it works: Apply for membership and pay the fee; if you don’t drive like a maniac and have a valid credit card, you’re in. Once enrolled, members can reserve any car in the system online or by phone (there is a smartphone app for droid phones, but not yet for iOS). They send you a key fob in the mail; when your reservation begins, swipe it on the reader in the front window to unlock the car. At the end of the reservation, swipe the fob on the reader to check the car back in.
  • Pros: For occasional drivers who live or work near pods, it’s much cheaper than owning a car and more convenient. For complicated trips (hauling six kids, going to Ikea) there are pickup trucks and minivans to rent. For people who like cars, there are interesting vehicles to drive: Mini Coopers, Smart cars, electric cars.
  • Cons: Need to schedule trips in advance and be aware when the reservation is ending or there will be late fees. Cars must be dropped off at the pod of origin, so all trips must be round trips, and members are responsible for parking in the interim. Not all members are responsible about bringing vehicles back on time or refilling the gas tank, which can be a hassle (although people who don’t live near a university like we do report fewer problems of this nature). Car sharing can be expensive for frequent users. May not be worth joining if pods are far away (unless you have a Brompton!)
  • What it costs: We pay an annual membership fee plus a set rate when using a car ($1-$9/hour) plus a mileage fee (35 cents/mile). Each membership comes with a certain number of “day trips” allowing a 24-hour rental ($48-$70/day plus 10 cents/mile) and more day trips can be purchased for $12 each. Membership includes insurance, maintenance, roadside assistance, tolls, and gas (or charging if an electric vehicle). Fees are charged at the end of the month to a credit card on file.
  • Good to know: Car share services have reciprocal relationships with their counterparts in other cities. Zipcar is more expensive and has poorer insurance than local nonprofit options.
  • Personal experience: Good; historically we’ve rented through City CarShare once every couple of months, although this has now increased to 1-2 times/month.

6. Rental car agencies

  • What they are: An ad hoc service for borrowing cars
  • When to use them: Longer-term rentals or business/out-of-state travel
  • How they work: Call or book online to reserve a car, hope we get something like what we requested
  • Pros: Lots of different cars available; no extra charges for long trips
  • Cons:  Most agencies require customers to come to them but don’t provide rides, which can be inconvenient (exceptions: City Rent-A-Car in SF, Enterprise nationwide). Insurance and gas are the responsibility of the renter. Cars tend to be in poor condition (relative to car-share vehicles) and it is obvious that some people smoke in them. Rental agencies tend to dump gas guzzlers onto renters who book economy cars, which is a drag as the renter pays for gas.
  • What they cost: Varies, in SF usually ~$40/day on weekends or ~$400/week plus gas, insurance for an economy car; credit card payment required
  • Good to know: Local agencies like City Rent-A-Car typically have better prices, cars, and service than national chains; airport pickups involve substantial additional fees
  • Personal experience: Tolerable, used for business trips but only because Matt’s company makes the reservations

7. Limousines/livery cars

  • What they are: Private car service for passenger trips
  • When to use them: When scheduling a one-way trip in advance, e.g. to the airport, in which case they are almost as cheap as cabs or airport shuttles for a family of four but vastly more reliable (at least in San Francisco)
  • How it works: Call a dispatcher or book online, usually several hours in advance
  • Pros: Cars usually come when scheduled or earlier; cars are clean; drivers obey traffic laws
  • Cons: Some services are more reliable than others; expensive; with kids a portable car seat may be needed although some provide child seats on request
  • What it costs: $55-$65 for an airport ride regardless of the number of passengers; other pricing is hourly or zone-based and typically comparable to or slightly more expensive than a cab (we only use these for airport trips so I’m ignorant); credit card payment required, tips often included
  • Good to know: Dealing with individual companies is a thing of the past thanks to Uber; see below.
  • Personal experience: We decided it was worth the money to take limos to the airport after a couple of incidents where cabs and airport shuttles didn’t bother to show up.

Peer-to-peer and beyond (this is where things get interesting!)

8. Bike trailer loans: If you’re a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, you can reserve and borrow Burley Travoy or Bikes at Work trailers for heavy cargo loads. Included for no additional cost with membership! (no personal experience)

9. Bike rentals: City CarShare is rolling out an e-bike plus cargo trailer rental option late in 2012, rates to be determined. Most of the other bike rental options in San Francisco are geared to tourists, but might be useful for family visiting from out of town; check Yelp for deals. San Francisco universities have relationships with a local bike shop that allows students and other visitors to rent a Trek 7.3FX commuter bike for a day ($25), multiple days ($12.50/day), or a semester ($175), contact milanal@lombardisports.com. (no personal experience)

10. Employer and transit shuttles: Some employers and neighborhoods offer free shuttle service to various locations throughout the city. Amtrak also takes people across the bay for no charge. If you’re near the route, these are the best deals in the city. Technically I work for the state so although my employer’s shuttles are primarily for staff and patients, anyone can ride them—see also PresidiGo, SF City and County, Nordstrom. Driver quality is better than cabs but worse than limos. In San Francisco, check university websites or Yelp for details on shuttle rules and routes, or ask around. Personal experience: Excellent

11. Casual carpool/slugging

  • What it is: Some cities, like San Francisco and DC, have established ad hoc car pool locations for regular commuters. In the Bay Area, drivers pick up passengers in order to use the car pool lanes on the bridges into the city.
  • When to use it: When you want to get into the city more quickly and cheaply than you could alone and the routes and times make sense
  • How it works: Head to a pickup location as a driver/passenger, then pick-up the next two people in line/hop in the next car that pulls up. Drop off/get out at the drop-off site.
  • Pros: Cheap; fast
  • Cons: The etiquette around payment of carpool tolls has not yet been established for passengers (some drivers ask for a contribution). Some people freak out about the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, although this is mitigated by the fact that drivers typically pick up two passengers (women passengers often refuse to join a two-seater vehicle in the casual carpool line; I know I did when I was using casual carpool).  The routes and times don’t work for everyone.
  • What it costs: As a passenger, up to $1, but often free. Drivers pay normal commuting costs but a lower toll.
  • Good to know: It’s nice that such cooperative arrangements can spring up organically, isn’t it? Sure, it’s not everyone riding their bike or transit to work, but casual carpool gets lots of cars off the road and reduces traffic.
  • Personal experience: I rode casual carpool for several months when we lived in Berkeley and it was pleasant enough.

12. Zimride

  • What it is: A formalized casual carpool; drivers taking long trips or regular commutes post rides to potential passengers
  • When to use it: Long road trips in lieu of Greyhound; also, large employers use the service to arrange regular carpools
  • How it works: Check out the website for posted rides and dates; sign up if there’s one that works and arrange pick-up/drop-off with the driver
  • Pros: Cheaper than driving alone; less grungy than the bus; can get picked up somewhere near where you live
  • Cons: Somewhat complicated to arrange; some people freak out about getting into a stranger’s car; ride timing dependent on the driver
  • What it costs: Varies; check website but SF to LA seems to run ~$50 per passenger (by comparison Greyhound is $45-$65 for the same trip, plus the cost to get to the station)
  • Good to know: There’s definitely a college student vibe to this service. Lots of discussion of music; unlike casual carpool, don’t assume you’ll be listening to NPR on this ride.
  • Personal experience: Nada, although my employer runs all its carpools through Zimride, which suggests it is decent.

13. Sidecar/Lyft

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer donation-based ridesharing
  • When to use it: When we want a lift across town for less than the cost of a cab that’s quicker than public transit, or when we don’t want to stand on the bus
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is and suggest a donation based on past community standards. If you accept, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. The donation is charged to your card on file.
  • Pros: Cheaper than a cab, faster than public transit
  • Cons: Mainly the usual freak-outs about getting into a stranger’s car, although drivers are screened, interviewed, and rated after every ride by the service and by their passengers (personally I’ve had much worse experiences in taxi cabs than I’ve ever had while ride sharing). Negotiating the suggested donation can be tricky if driver and passenger don’t agree. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat as suggested above.
  • What it costs: Varies, check the apps but seems to run approximately $1/minute; e.g. the community average for a trip from the Inner Sunset farmers’ market to the Financial District was $22, compared to an estimated taxi fare of $32 before tip
  • Good to know: Sidecar seems to have better coverage in San Francisco. Lyft is associated with the successful Zimride, but seems organized to primarily appeal to college students.
  • Personal experience: I looked up a ride with Sidecar recently when my sister’s rental car was hit and I thought I needed a quick way home; although I didn’t book, they said they had a car three minutes away and would get me home for $8. Further updates as events warrant. I suspect I’ll use this service eventually.

14. Homobiles: Moes gettin hoes where they needz to goez! [ho status optional]

  • What it is: A donation-based ride-sharing service for the LGBTIQQ community and friends in San Francisco. Homobiles was started after its founder heard too many stories of cab drivers in San Francisco refusing to stop in the Castro, or stopping and then soliciting passengers for sexual favors, or kicking same sex couples out for kissing in the car, or commenting negatively on bondage gear, or sharing unsavory opinions about the gay community, and so forth.
  • When to use it: When you want a cab but don’t want a cab driver
  • How it works: Text (or call) a request for a pick with your location, number of passengers, and any special requests to Homobiles at 415/574-5023. They’ll text back with your pickup time if they have a driver available (sometimes they don’t, but at least they’ll tell you) and off you go.
  • Pros: This is a donation-based service that wants people to feel safe, so they’ll give you a ride even if you can’t pay. No one will hassle you for looking queer, obviously. Some of their cars have bike racks.
  • Cons: Cash only. Sometimes there’s no driver available. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat. The name might freak out relatives from less urban locales.
  • What it costs: $1/minute anywhere in the city. $30 flat fee to San Francisco Airport (this may be our future airport shuttle!) Tips not included.
  • Good to know: Drivers will sell you a Homobiles t-shirt or hanky as a fundraiser (like every other ride sharing service, they’re being sued by SF taxi companies, but they’re they only one without venture capital backing).
  • Personal experience: Haven’t used it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but accolades.

15. Uber

  • What it is: A smartphone app-based booking service for limos
  • When to use it: When you don’t have the cash handy for Homobiles or they don’t have a driver available, or you really want to ride in a shiny black car with water bottles
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is, what kinds of vehicles are available (for more than 4 people, request an SUV) and the fare. If you book, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. A tip is included and the bill is charged to your card, with an emailed receipt; this is a cash-free transaction.
  • Pros: Same as limousines/livery cars but with rock-solid reliability and enforcement of good driving behavior (passengers are asked to rank the driver after the ride). Uber prides itself on having cars available at all times, no matter what, even on New Year’s Eve or during Pride.
  • Cons: Expensive; taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat
  • What it costs:$8 base fare, plus $4.90/mile while moving and $1.25/minute in traffic; $15 minimum fare and $10 cancellation fee
  • Good to know: Uber has coupon codes for new members that give $10-$20 off your first ride.
  • Personal experience: None yet, seems pricey (but great reviews on Yelp). I tried to order ice cream for my kids on Uber’s ice cream truck day but they were too busy, which frankly runs contrary to their whole “we will get you a car no matter what” image. I’ll cut them some slack as it was the first time they tried that, but still, hmm.

16. Getaround/Relay Rides

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer carsharing
  • When to use it: Primarily when you want to rent a car for longer periods than are cost-effective using a car sharing service
  • How it works: This is a more informal version of traditional car share. People who have cars available that they don’t use regularly make them available to people who want to rent one. Rates are set by the car owner and listed on the website. When you join (you’ll need a Facebook account) you can pick from a list of available vehicles and request a reservation. Getaround lets you pick up certain cars using your smartphone and an ID reader, but both services default to meeting the car owner and handing over the key. Drive during the reservation window and then return the car as the owner requested. The service provides insurance but the renter is typically responsible for gas.
  • Pros: Typically cheaper than all-day rental using a car-sharing service; much better insurance for the car-free than traditional rental car agencies; often closer to home than other options; owners are usually more relaxed about late drop-offs than car share services are
  • Cons: Handing off keys can be a hassle for non-smartphone enabled cars; rates are somewhat unpredictable; limited availability in some neighborhoods
  • What it costs: Typically $6-$12/hour in San Francisco, with daily rates of $35-$60 (although Getaround’s rental Tesla is much more). Weekly rates are also available. Where we live it’s cheaper than traditional car-sharing for day trips and more expensive for hourly trips.
  • Good to know: Getaround has better coverage and some keyless entry cars in both San Francisco and Portland, which makes renting for short periods more appealing. Relay Rides is national. Car-light folks can rent out their cars.
  • Personal experience: My sister rented a car through Getaround when we took a weekend day trip and it was more exciting than we’d planned, but that wasn’t Getaround’s fault. $50 for the day, and unusually, gas was included. I would rent through Getaround again, especially for longer trips.

Other interesting options that San Francisco does not have yet, but that are available in other cities

17. Bike share

  • What it is: Short term city-sponsored bicycle rentals available from pods scattered in popular travel corridors
  • When to use it: When you have a short one-way trip that’s still too far to walk or would take too long
  • How it works: Typically you buy a membership card, then swipe it to release a bike from one of the locked racks. Ride it to your destination and check it in at a nearby rack. Short trips are free or nearly so and longer trips are expensive. If there’s no space at a given rack, you can get free minutes to ride it to the next closest rack and check the bike in there.
  • Pros: Inexpensive, easy, fun to ride
  • Cons: It might be hard to carry a large load. You probably can’t ride with kids.
  • What it costs: Varies; free to a few dollars.
  • Good to know: California has no helmet law for adults, so don’t let not having a helmet stop you from trying a bike if that’s what it takes.
  • Personal experience: None, unfortunately, but you can bet I’ll try it when San Francisco rolls out its bike share program, supposedly later in 2012. Or maybe 2013. Or maybe never. Sob.

18. Car2go

  • What it is: A short-term rental program for Smart cars run by Daimler
  • When to use it: When you want to drive one-way, alone or with one passenger
  • How it works: You sign up, pay the annual fee, and get a member card to check into cars (typical rules about not driving like a maniac apply here). Cars can be reserved in advance online or by phone, or just wander around until you see a Car2go car with a green light on the reader, wave your card, enter a PIN, and drive off. Park the car in any legal parking spot at your destination, but there’s no need to pay a meter; Daimler negotiates an annual parking fee for its cars with the city and pays it in advance. Members get a gas card with the car and receive credits for filling up if the tank is less than a quarter full.
  • Pros: Seems very useful for last-mile travel for people who don’t want to carry a folding bike; or for emergency sick-kid pickups—e.g. I could schedule a car pickup for us at school and use the time it takes the driver to get to school to drive myself over from work with Car2go
  • Cons: Limited availability; only an option in a few cities; Smart cars only hold two people and there’s no way to install a car seat
  • What it costs:  Rates are the cheapest combination of 35 cents/minute, $13/hour, $66/day (plus 45 cents/mile if you drive the car over 150 miles per day), plus tax.
  • Good to know: Car2go membership recently became transferable throughout the cities where it’s in operation: if you’re a Car2go member in Washington DC, you can also drive Car2go vehicles in San Diego.
  • Personal experience: None, because it isn’t available in San Francisco, unfortunately.

Available anywhere, but use with caution

19 and last on my list: Mooching

My personal feeling is that if I regularly feel the urge to mooch rides, then we’re not really ready to live without our own car. We had one car for over five years, and in that time I can count on my fingers the number of times we asked for a ride, hinted that we wanted one (particularly with kids in tow: who has a spare car seat anyway?), or asked to borrow a car. Given all of the options available to us now, if we start to find ourselves consistently begging rides, I suspect that would be a sign that we should buy a car again.

That said, I don’t see anything wrong with getting a ride occasionally, particularly when we’re traveling. We were very grateful when a friend offered us a lift late at night last year when we were in Paris and we faced a long train ride back carrying two sleepy kids. There are times that people make an unsolicited offer to drive me somewhere, like at work when everyone is headed to another campus for a department meeting. And in those cases I usually say yes because I enjoy their company. And on the occasions that I have a rental car, I’ll often ask people whether they want a lift where I’m going, for exactly the same reason.

Thanks for asking, and thanks for sharing the ride, friends!


Filed under car-free, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Round, round, get around, I get around… First time car-sharing with Getaround

As part of my investigation into our transportation options now that we don’t own a car, I recently discovered Getaround, thanks to a referral from I Bike U Bike. Getaround is a San Francisco-based program where people who own cars can rent them to people who want a car for a while—rates are daily, weekly, or monthly. Someone asked me, “Oh, like Relay Rides?” I had to check what that was, but: yes. However Getaround seems to have better coverage in San Francisco, plus some cars that can be accessed without meeting the owner face-to-face.

I’ve developed a lot more flexibility in the last year.

Last weekend my sister and I took a day trip to a yoga retreat in Sebastopol. This was my big idea; I take yoga at noon at work and I like it. My sister does Crossfit. Ultimately I would say that although the retreat had its moments, and although I like yoga classes, I am probably not the yoga retreat type. Most importantly, it was a long time to spend away from my kids. There was also a bigger emphasis on woo than I had hoped. Yoga can get pretty heavy on the woo: qi, live harp music, discussion of sutras, detailing transformational experiences, chanting, “rebirth,” etc. This retreat was admittedly pretty low on that scale, going no further than seated meditation and breathing exercises. What can I say? I’m uptight, and I’m comfortable with myself that way.  My sister also tends to avoid the woo, but she was a good sport.

Anyway, my sister and brother-in-law don’t own a car, and neither do we anymore. She was going to rent one through Zipcar to get us to Sebastopol, but Zipcar charges almost $120 for an all-day rental! I suggested she try Getaround instead. She found a 2009 Jetta the same distance from her place as the local Zipcar pod, which she could rent for 24 hours, gas included, for $50. What’s more, Getaround has a much better insurance plan. I am foreshadowing.

My brother-in-law suggested this gas-powered kick scooter as a car alternative . Thankfully we can do better.

So we went to Sebastopol and back in this lovely car, which was immaculate, more so any other rental car I’d ever seen. My sister said the owner was fantastic, very mellow, and she liked the experience so much that she began wondering whether it was worth maintaining their Zipcar membership, given that Zipcar involves an annual membership fee, has higher rates, and requires them (for the sake of their sanity, not as a matter of policy) to maintain a named non-owner auto insurance policy.  (We belong to City CarShare, which is nonprofit and has lower rates and better insurance, plus I get an extra discount through my employer, but their coverage in her neighborhood is spotty and she doesn’t get my discount.)

When we returned to San Francisco, we stopped for dinner at a Mexican restaurant we’d both heard of but never visited. It was great. We were having a fantastic day, and left so she could drop me off to tuck the kids in at bedtime. When we walked out to the car, which she’d parked on the street, we saw a taxi stopped in front of it with flashers on and a bunch of people standing around taking photos with their smartphones. Why? There was a giant gouge on the side of the Getaround Jetta where the taxi driver had smashed into it.

“DAMMIT!” said my sister. “My very first Getaround rental! This guy is never going to rent to me again!”

Unlike many drivers in San Francisco who hit  parked cars, this one had stopped. It might have been because both his fares and a handful of passersby immediately stopped to start taking pictures, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, because he seemed pretty decent about the whole thing. But the incident began a whole cascade of phone calls, information exchanges, and smartphone photography.

My sister called the Jetta’s owner, who seemed surprisingly equable about having his car hit. I called Getaround, and although they didn’t answer, they called me right back, and then told my sister everything would be fine. Everyone took lots of photos. The cab driver called his insurance and they wanted my sister’s license and insurance information, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a Getaround insurance card right there in the glove box.

My sister notes that this vehicle is not authorized to enter the bike lane when necessary.

When the cab driver said he wanted their insurance adjuster to come out right then and there, I started thinking about other ways to get home before my kids passed out and my husband assumed that I’d died. Sidecar apparently had a ride available 3 minutes away, but just before I booked it, the insurance adjuster called to say that he was halfway around the world, and given that the Jetta could be driven, could everyone just deal with this on Monday morning? So that’s where we left things. My sister drove me home and headed back herself. We both kept laughing in disbelief. The car got hit the very first time she tried Getaround! Talk about bad luck.

That said, despite the collision, or rather even with the collision, the Getaround part of the day was great. Assuming that we’re both not permanently blacklisted, I would rent from them again, especially for a day trip. There are so many more options for the car-free in San Francisco now; I feel like our timing could not have been better.


Filed under car-free, San Francisco, travel

One less minivan

The minivan goes to SoCal. Trucks on trucks! If only the kids had seen this.

Hey! Hi there! What’s new? There are some big changes here at the Hum household. Not only did I almost break a bike (although it’s back and usable now, I can hear it creaking if I go uphill loaded, so I don’t do that anymore—but give me time, maybe I can still manage to snap the frame in two!), we gave up our minivan last week.

Now we are a car-free family.

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either.

Oh, the places we go: Golden Gate Park Carrousel

We had been talking about getting rid of the minivan for quite a while and replacing it with something more economy-sized that would be better for city driving. We bought the minivan new, in early 2006, and knew it was still worth a reasonable amount. In May we contacted our credit union, which has an auto-purchasing service (thank goodness, because we are lazy), and asked whether it would be possible to sell the minivan and use the proceeds to buy a smaller car. From the used car values we saw online, it seemed as though this could be a zero-cost transaction.

They said they would have no trouble selling the minivan, which was still worth a fair bit, even more than I’d expected—they shopped it around the state, found several dealers who wanted it, and had them bid for it. But their efforts to find us a used small car with good mileage were less successful. Everyone wanted cars like that, and the used market was almost nonexistent. The cars that they found had been driven to death and/or were priced nearly the same as new ones. They suggested that if we wanted to get a car in decent condition with good gas mileage, we’d be better off buying new, although they’d keep looking.

Oh, the places we go: The F Castro line streetcars, imported from Italy

I had no interest in buying a new car. We have learned in the past few years what happens to cars in San Francisco. The city is cruel to vehicles of all kinds. Multiple pieces of our minivan had been replaced when they were hit while it was parked. So we sat around and waited for updates.

Three weeks ago, we took the minivan in for an oil change. The shop noted that it was time for the 60,000 mile tune-up, which they estimated would cost $1,500 or so. We also received our insurance bill for the next six months, which was $600 (auto insurance in San Francisco is expensive). We were looking at spending over $2,000 to maintain a car that we drove maybe once a week, couldn’t park in our tiny space without flipping in the side mirrors just to get through the garage door, and didn’t even LIKE.

Oh, the places we go: The Children’s Playground at Sharon Meadow

At that point we began wondering it whether would make more sense to just sell it and use City CarShare and Muni until we found something we wanted to buy. The bus stop is 100 feet from our front door, the street car line is two blocks away, and there are three City CarShare pods within three blocks. We have bikes that we ride with our kids all the time. How bad could it be? We called the credit union and they said: sounds reasonable to us.

So two weeks ago we sent in the paperwork with the final mileage to sell the car. Last Friday, a dealer transporter showed up and drove it away on a truck. During these last two weeks, we began to wonder if we really wanted another car after all.

The first week was very hard, partly, I suspect, because the car was still sitting in the garage but we couldn’t drive it anywhere, having submitted the final mileage, the title and the registration. The kids knew it was going away and were confused that they couldn’t take a last ride. But that was the same week that I calculated what it was costing us to own a car that spent most of the time sitting in the garage, and it was sobering.

  • Insurance: $100/month
  • Gas: $50-$100/month (depending on business trips; the minivan had horrible mileage)
  • Maintenance and repairs: $100-$200/month
  • Depreciation: $200/month (given the price we paid on purchase and the price we were offered)

Oh, the places we go: my brother-in-law’s birthday dinner at StrEAT Food, south of Market

We bought the minivan for cash and so we never had interest payments, and by university policy, parking for one car is bundled into our rent. And yet an older, paid-off car that we drove only occasionally was costing us $400-$600 each month. That kind of money would pay for a lot of rental cars and taxi rides, more than I could imagine needing. And that was without even considering that we would walk away with a big windfall if we didn’t get another car.

After some discussion, we thought: well, it’s worth a shot. Even if we decide to get another car eventually, every month that we can put that off saves us ~$500, less whatever we spend on public transit, rental cars, and taxi rides. At a minimum, waiting a few months would fund a very nice family vacation.

And so here we are. With every day that passes the thought of getting another car seems less interesting. Despite some terrible bike karma in the last two weeks (broken bike, flat tires, you name it) everything is basically fine. We were planning to get another family bike anyway. We have found all kinds of cool new travel alternatives: car sharing, ride sharing, public and semi-public transit. All of them seem pretty appealing compared to buying a car that will sit unused in a garage most of the time. And even if we use them quite a lot (we haven’t), they are much, much cheaper than owning the car.

Oh, the places we go: Hayes Valley

There aren’t a lot of families who choose to go without a car if they can afford one, even in San Francisco. Most people insist it is impossible: Muni is unreliable at best, the hills are too intense for biking, taxi service is horrible, and car sharing services are too inconvenient or expensive. You hear the same stories, with different verses, when people talk about living without a car in suburban or rural areas: public transit is dreadful or nonexistent, riding bikes is too dangerous, everything is too far away, taxi service and car sharing are too expensive or too hard to find. Nearly everyone says families in America can’t survive without cars. Can they?

Oh, the places we go: “Look!” yells my daughter. “It’s my emergency room!”

A year ago, we were preparing for a trip to Copenhagen, a city we had no idea was full of bike commuters. If you had asked whether we could live without a car I would have said it was not possible. Not possible. How would we get our kids to school? How would we shop? It was hard enough with one car. What a difference a year makes.

How long will we last? Let’s find out.


Filed under car-free, family biking, San Francisco

Bicycle loans at San Francisco Fire Credit Union

This behemoth fixie could be yours! (Yes, it’s really a fixie. I asked.)

When I started talking about commuting by bike with some of the parents at our son’s school, I realized that a lot of people found our plan for buying a cargo bike unfeasible. Our plan was: pay cash. In the case of our most recent bike, that was absolutely literal. I went to the ATM and got out some cash. (It was a cheap bike.) But most cargo bikes are expensive, far beyond even the daily withdrawal limit allowed by ATMs, which I personally have never even come near. And Matt and I are save-y people.

For normal American families who have two cars and are thinking about cargo and family biking, there is often a transition problem. Most people have a fair bit of debt already: cars, student loans, consumer debt, maybe a house (a long shot in San Francisco, more likely elsewhere). If you want to ditch a car and switch to the bike, what do you do in the interim period, while waiting for the money from selling a car when you don’t yet have a bike? If you’re not sure about getting a bike but want to try it out, how do you afford a relatively expensive bike while holding onto the option of driving? Sure, it’s possible to get something cheap on craigslist once you know enough—astonishingly, this has even happened to me—but most people don’t start at that point. I was talking to a lot of people who were interested in trying out this riding-a-bike-with-kids thing but didn’t feel able to throw a thousand dollars in cash, sometimes much more if they lived on a steep hill and needed electric assist, at the idea. And they certainly didn’t have the confidence to try finding a used bike.

These bikes could also be yours: a selection from the awesome Splendid Cycles.

So when I heard that Portland credit unions offered bicycle loans (always Portland!), I thought that sounded very clever. It elevated bicycle purchases to the status of cars or motorcycles by treating them as installment loans, rather than “max out your credit card” loans. And it solved the transition problem of going from a car-using family to a bike-using family. Sure, it involved taking on more debt in the short term, but for families who really used the bike,  they’d start saving money soon enough–less gas, lower insurance rates, the freedom to drop a second car if relevant. And personally, although we believed we were committed, it took several months before we started defaulting to riding a bike with our kids rather than driving the car. And this is true even though getting our car out of our parking place is a nightmare. Finding a way to buy new riders time made sense to me.

How about a Brompton? If you live in PORTLAND, there’s no shortage of choices at Clever Cycles.

So I asked our credit union if they offered bicycle loans. They said no, never even considered it, but tell us more. So I did. They said, huh, interesting, we’ll get back to you. And I assumed I would never hear anything more again. So it was unexpected to say the least when I got an email earlier this week from the CEO of our credit union saying that they had decided to offer bicycle loans starting June 1st, 2012. There is a $5,000 maximum and terms of up to three years (update: the rate is currently 7%). But how cool is that? San Francisco Fire Credit Union is open to all city residents. If you’re looking for a new bike and think a bike loan might make getting it easier, well, now there’s a way.


Filed under advocacy, bike shops, Brompton, cargo, family biking, San Francisco