Reflections on living without a car (or 2,000 words complaining about transit)


Over the past year and a half, I’ve been gradually reducing my car reliance:

  1. In May 2021, Sharlene and I moved from suburban Los Altos to urban San Francisco. I kept my car for my commute to Burlingame, and we found an apartment with a garage space so I could charge my car, but we no longer needed to drive for local errands like groceries.
  2. In April 2022, I started commuting by transit. The car mostly sat at home except for occasional trips out of the city.
  3. In July 2022, we moved to a sunnier and cheaper apartment without a garage parking space. I started street parking.
  4. Finally, in early October 2022, I left my car at my parents’ house in suburban Los Angeles, where my mom is making good use of it.

Now that it’s been about two months of life without a car, I thought I’d write a bit about how it’s been going.

Why try to go car-free?

I’m hesitant to label myself, but if pressed, I think I would have to admit that I am a Car Person. Cars have almost always been a big part of my life. I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs, and I’ve always been fascinated with the art, engineering, and culture of cars.

However, there were a bunch of good reasons for me to try a car-free life.

Practical reasons

Car ownership in San Francisco sucks. Because space is so valuable, it’s expensive and/or difficult. The market rate for off-street parking is around $300-400 per month, and if you want to park in your building, you’ll find your housing options drastically limited.

It’s a tradeoff we consciously chose, and I think it’s fair: Living here, we are close to our friends, we get to live in a cute sunny apartment, and we can walk to grocery stores and cafes and the library and the film lab. We just don’t get cheap easy parking.

Also, my sister recently moved and started a job in the Bay Area (yay!), and she needed a car for her commute. Since I wasn’t driving my car much anyways, it made sense to leave my car in LA for my mom to use, so my sister could take my mom’s car.

Ethical and ideological reasons

Cars are pretty amazing machines, but they also cause a lot of harm to our health and our environment. Most notably:

My one car may have a negligible impact, but collectively all our cars (and the society we’ve built around them) have huge and ongoing negative impacts. By driving a car, I felt at least a little complicit in all the ills of our car-dependent society.

I think mass transit is a key solution to all of this. I wanted to demonstrate (to myself, to my friends and family, and to you, my reader) that it’s possible to break out of our car dependence. San Francisco is one of the most dense and transit-friendly cities in this country, and many people here do fine without cars. This should be car-free life on easy mode.

The best of times, the worst of times

After these two months without a car, I have deeply mixed feelings about car-free life and the state of Bay Area transit.

Let’s start with the good: I never have to circle for parking, or worry about street cleaning or break-ins or tickets. I get to read books or nap during my commute instead of slogging through traffic. I start and end my office days with a short walk, breathing in fresh outdoor air and seeing things happen in my neighborhood. The shuttle driver recognizes me and greets me with a wave in the morning and evening, and I feel a little more connected to the fabric of society. Most days, my commute is smooth and uneventful.

Within San Francisco, I don’t miss my car at all. Transit covers most of my needs, and even when I did have a car, I rarely it in the city. Getting rid of the car led me to take a second look at the Bay Wheels bikeshare system, and I found it to be really great—the e-bikes are fast and fun, and the system coverage is pretty extensive.

Sharlene enjoying a Bay Wheels e-bike in Golden Gate Park, on our way to get lunch and explore Outer Richmond

But while there is much to appreciate, there is also plenty to complain about.

I’ve had many bad commute days on BART. To get to my office, I take BART to Millbrae and then transfer to a public shuttle. The BART service change back in September reduced my train frequencies from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes; the shuttle adjusted its schedule in response, but they still run four shuttles every hour. This misalignment makes my commutes more unpredictable, as it’s harder to line up an efficient transfer, and a missed train means an extra 20 minutes of waiting.

For example, Monday, November 6th was an especially terrible commute day. I left home at 7:45 AM, but my expected 7:57 train never showed up due to an issue at another station up the line. The next train came 20 minutes later around 8:17 AM. I arrived at Millbrae around 8:50, waited ten minutes for the 9:00 shuttle departure, and finally got to the office at 9:20 AM. Total morning commute time: 1 hour 35 minutes, about 30 minutes longer than usual. That evening, my shuttle arrived at Millbrae station just as the BART train was departing. I made a run for the train, but it was too late, and so I had to wait 20 minutes for the next train. Total evening commute time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

Or consider my return commute at the end of that same week, on Friday, November 10th. I left the office early around 4:10 PM, got to Millbrae station around 4:25 PM, and then waited on the platform nearly an hour until a train finally arrived at 5:15 PM. I didn’t get home until 6:05 PM, making for a one-way commute of nearly two hours.

I definitely wished I could have driven that week. It would have taken me ~30 minutes in the morning and ~50 minutes in the evening each day. Experiences like this are a strong incentive to work from home as much as I can.

Millbrae BART platform the afternoon of November 10th, packed with people who have been waiting almost an hour for the train

Going farther out of the city could also be better, especially outside of commute hours. We have good friends at Stanford who recently started hosting Thursday board game nights. Getting there after work isn’t too terrible, taking a bit over an hour if our friends can pick us up from the station. But going back home later always takes nearly two hours, because after around 8 PM there are only the slower Local trains, and we have to transfer to BART partway up. We usually leave at 10 PM and get home around midnight. If we drove, it would be a 40-minute trip. For my travel patterns, transit is almost never faster than driving.

Waiting for the train at California Avenue, hoping to get home by midnight

So I have to ask myself: What is my time worth?

To not hate the extra time needed for transit requires a sort of paradigm shift. When I have a book I really want to finish and no impending commitments, I don’t really mind the extra time and I don’t really care if my trip takes 30 minutes longer than it should. More time for me to read! Absorbed in my book, the time flies by.

But God forbid that I need to be somewhere at a specific time, or I’m running late, or I have a lot of work to do and really want to just start my day, or I’ve run out of reading. Every minute spent sitting still can feel like an eternity. If you’re cutting it close, and then there’s an unexpected delay or a missed transfer, you’re out of luck. So to avoid this, you have to build buffer into your schedule, departing earlier than necessary just in case something goes wrong.

So it’s easy to see why transit as it currently exists is a tough proposition for anybody who has commitments, or gets motion sick reading on the train, or just values their time. Choosing transit shouldn’t require performing mental gymnastics or having ethical motivations. For transit to win, it should just be obviously better than driving.

Maybe in my lifetime…

So transit has room for improvement, but transit development here seems to proceed at a frustratingly glacial pace. It’s hard to feel excited about projects when timelines are measured in years (for small things) or decades (for bigger ones).

For example, BART is in the process of installing better fare gates. I think this is great and long overdue! I see people jumping the current gates without consequence on a daily basis, and in my experience they are often the same people who cause disruptions on BART. But installation at all stations isn’t projected to be complete until the end of 2025, two years from now. Will I even still have this commute in two years?

Caltrain electrification was already underway when I first moved to the Bay Area in 2019. They’ve already received new trains and have been testing them, but the trains won’t actually go into service until fall 2024, almost a full year from now. At least I’ll see this one happen—other Caltrain improvements, like the extension of Caltrain into downtown SF, feel like pipe dreams, with projected completion in the “early 2030s,” “pending funding.”

And of course, there’s the California High Speed Rail project. Initial funding was passed in 2008, when I was starting sixth grade. Today, it’s not clear to me if I’ll ever see more than the first segment between Merced and Bakersfield, and that in the early 2030s. I don’t think there is funding secured to complete additional segments beyond that, nor is there any real timeline for completion of the project. I dream of hopping onto a train in San Francisco and arriving a couple hours later in Los Angeles, but it increasingly seems like a dream I should let go of.

It’s hard not to look at other countries and feel envious. I remember reading about the French TGV and the Japanese Shinkansen in books as a kid. When my parents left China 25 years ago, there was no high-speed rail there; now, China has the world’s largest high-speed rail network.

Even Morocco opened their high-speed rail system in 2018, with the help of the French rail operator SNCF after they gave up on California. There’s a pretty painful quote from this 2022 NYT article:

“There were so many things that went wrong,” Mr. McNamara said. “SNCF was very angry. They told [California] they were leaving for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.”

Morocco’s bullet train started service in 2018.

In transportation infrastructure, I can’t see the U.S. or even California as a global leader in any way. We look to others and wish we had what they have.

Will I continue?

I really believe in transit. And for the past several months, it’s successfully met most of my needs. I want to keep using transit, as a vote for the kind of city and society that I want to live in.

At the same time, I think that it’s important to demand more of our transit systems, hold them to high standards, and be clear about where they fall short.

Reading all of my complaining above, you might conclude that I’d be happier if I just gave in and started driving regularly again. I’m trying to figure out if this is true.

Maybe I just have really bad “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome, and if I were driving, I’d be equally unhappy, but about things like traffic and parking and oil changes. Maybe I just feel entitled to gripe and moan about transit because choosing transit in the first place makes me feel like I have some sort of moral high ground.

But maybe I’d be relieved to just let myself do the thing that I want to do, even if goes against the kind of lifestyle and values I want to aspire to. Does it really make me happier trying to consistently stick to my principles? Do I really need to constantly prove to myself that I am the kind of person I think I am?

I’m conscious, too, that most people would probably think all of my hand-wringing completely inane, that how I choose to commute shouldn’t be made into a moral or ethical issue when it’s just a practical decision. I should just pick whatever is fastest or easiest or cheapest, societal implications be damned. This seems like a fair perspective too.

For now, I think I need more time to figure out where I land.

I’ll keep exploring transportation options. I spent a few days last month researching electric scooters, but I eventually concluded that they aren’t what I need. I’m starting to occasionally rent cars on the weekends, to get to places transit doesn’t take me, and as a fun way of test-driving different cars. I’m currently super interested in tiny city cars like the Smart Fortwo (maybe more on that later).

In the meantime, I’ll continue relying on transit for my daily needs. I’ll try to appreciate it when it’s working well, and I’ll try to keep a good book on me for all the times I’m left waiting.