San Francisco needs a Trimet

Portland MAX Train
Just got back from a trip to Portland. Never had been there before. It’s a nice city. No Asian people… even in “Chinatown.” A lot of people smoking on street corners. A few ugly bridges over the beautiful water.

But some good food, a walkable downtown, charming parks everywhere, and… an excellent public transportation system.

My wife and I have been two years without a car in San Francisco, and it has been worth it overall. Nevertheless, every now and then you just have to curse MUNI and think, “Life would be so much easier right now if I had a car.”

Not so in Portland. Whether it’s lightrail trains, proper buses, or the streetcar line, in our almost-a-week there, we never waited more than 10 minutes for a bus (usually 2-3 minutes), we never had a bus driver who appeared to have aspirations to be in NASCAR or to be doing stunts for Michael Bay movies, there was virtually no graffiti, the fares were low (in most places, free even), and the time to get from place to place was minimal.

This difference between Portland’s public transit and the Bay Area’s wasn’t more apparent than when we finally went home.

We woke up at 4-something in the morning, walked half a mile from our hotel to the nearest lightrail stop, paid $2 for a ticket to the airport, waited three minutes for the on-time train to come, and then were at the airport within an hour… with a smooth ride to boot.

Coming back home from the San Francisco airport, we had to hop on a shuttle to get to the BART subway station. Then the BART train (which costs $4.70) we got on just randomly sat there for about fifteen minutes with no movement and no announcement from the conductor as to when the train would actually depart. The BART train was smelly and loud. From BART, we got on the MUNI bus home ($1.50, if we didn’t already have monthly passes), which was extremely crowded and full of permanent marker–graffiti. The bus driver drove like a maniac.

It is great to be home (and at least away from tobacco city), but is it really that difficult to get a decent public transit system here?


The Car-Free Life: One Year in Review

Last year, suburbanites from birth, my wife and I gave up our car and took a leap into the car-free life void.

I have to say a year later that I have no regrets about that decision, even after my dad came to visit and waited with us for 20 minutes for a bus that was extremely crowded, and that had a broken backdoor and ticket machine. Yes, there are bus nightmares. Sometimes the bus driver is scary or rude. Sometimes there are people who will yell racial epithets at you or anybody else nearby. Sometimes the bus just doesn’t come. Sometimes you wish you could just hop in your car and zip to a location and sing along to the CDs in your car.

For the most part, though, I don’t miss the costs of owning a car—both psychological and financial. I don’t miss worrying about whether the car got broken into the night before, whether we have a ticket or not after forgetting about street “cleaning,” whether the car now makes a funny noise and has to be repaired, or how much the gas prices have gone up. I don’t miss scouring for parking, feeding the meter, paying the car insurance premium, or taking the car for oil changes.

Without a car, I’m walking more, I’m reading more, and I’m generally more relaxed. With the advent of NextBus, I also rarely have to wait too long for the bus (they haven’t quite perfected the system yet, so sometimes I do have to wait a long time). If we need to drive somewhere for a few hours or the day, we can rent a Zip Car. And if we’re really so desperate to get home, it’s cold out, a bus is nowhere in sight, and we’re not dressed to walk long distances, we can call a cab.

It was a scary step to take last year, but as long as we’re living in a city (not the suburbs or a rural community), I think we’re going to stay without a car… and reap the benefits.