On (maybe) being carless parents

Beth’s not exaggerating when she says we haven’t driven a car since early August. We haven’t. We’re driving every six weeks or so, maybe less. When we do, it’s either to get to Sonoma or Marin to see our families, or to haul stuff around. The hauling is rare, because pretty much everything we need to buy regularly (groceries, toilet paper, books, cat litter, drywall screws, tacos) is within walking distance. Most everything else one might need less often (music, potting soil, pornography, clothing, chiles, electronic beepy things, tattoos, lawyers, korean barbecue) is on the other end of a single BART or Muni ride. Our offices are downtown, and half the transit in the city goes there. There’s a lot wrong with San Francisco’s public transit, but most of the bad bits don’t affect us. When we need to leave the city or haul stuff, there are two carshare lots a short walk away.

In fact, the most troublesome experiences we’ve had trying to get to places lately have involved… our baby. The one we haven’t had yet, but on whose behalf we’ve gone to places like UCSF (44 O’Shaughnessy, N Judah, 38 Geary) for prenatal care, for whom we’re going to visit midwives (26 Valencia, J Church), who will need to see its pediatrician regularly (who knows, but to be pessimistic, 22 Fillmore), be educated, enriched and enlightened up to the point where we cease to be of further use or value and can then head off to the nearest strip mall (23 Monterey) to buy striped leisure outfits and lapse into a suitably portly (14 Mission) obsolescence.

In short, as childless adults, we don’t really need a car, and should probably get rid of the one we have and hardly use. We only still own one out of inertia, convenience, and because I really like the thing and keeping it there isn’t costing enough to motivate us to do anything about it. As childful parents, it’s been hard to predict, but we’re having trouble talking ourselves into replacing it. On the one hand, owning a two-seater sportscar we can’t fit our whole family in is silly, and feels like having an early midlife crisis, one that comes with all the selfishness and none of the actual fun and loose women (it doesn’t even come with the cruising around in a convertible sportscar, because as previously mentioned, we hardly ever drive). Naturally that means we should replace it with a simple family sedan, right? Well, maybe, but the thought of dropping at least several grand on a car that would then go mostly unused feels equally lame in a whole different set of ways.

That’s the sort of situation that leads to car-sharing systems, with which our city is liberally festooned. About 8 bucks an hour will get you a car, gas included. I get another discount through my employer. If you don’t drive much, they’re a pretty good way to go. Except for one thing: availability on demand. If you didn’t know until two minutes ago that you need a car, you aren’t necessarily going to be able to get one. If it’s 2AM some frigid January night and the Seed needs to get to the hospital, you might have a problem.(Actually, you won’t, because at 2AM you can always get a carshare. It’s 2PM when it’s hard. Transit is perfectly available then, but if the Seed is coughing up blood and the alien could burst out of its chest any second without getting to the emergency room, the 2 Clement is not part of my plan.)

So after walking around the house yesterday working out which bits of our adult lives we might need to get rid of, I browsed around Craigslist for a while to see what fairly ordinary, fuel efficient, reasonably safe, sensitive-Dad cars cost. Quite a bit, it turns out, if you want all that safety stuff, or decent gas mileage. Enough that I found myself resuming a recent long-running subverbal argument with the screen over the whole situation, in a way that suggests that I now transition over to Q&A format.

Q: Look, trust me, you don’t want to have to carry a baby around on the bus. You’ll be one of those parents who blocks up three seats and the aisle with their massive child-support-apparatus bags, the stroller and their actual screaming offspring. Everybody on the bus hates them, and one day you end up buying a giant SUV just to feel insulated from all the emnity.
A: Maybe. I gather there’s some baggage involved in managing kids in public. But I’ve noticed a lot of variability, and some folks seem to manage it really well, right there on public transit. It’s there for the whole public, not just the spry nimble and childless. Maybe we don’t need a stroller for every trip — I plan to carry my child everywhere until the Seed can walk on its own, my and my partner’s backs are destroyed, or it turns out to be a bad idea, whichever comes first. Maybe for those times when our only options involve the 30 Stockton at rush hour, we can get a carshare instead. Most of the time it’s okay, right? Right?

Q: How are you going to get your child to school? This is San Francisco, the lottery will place them in a school halfway across town.
A: The Seed isn’t even born yet. It won’t go to school at all for two or three years, and there’s a lot of allegedly pretty decent childcare and preschooling right here in our neighboorhood. If our kid really does need to be ferried across town to somewhere with unreliable transit, we’ll have some warning.

Q: You’re not going to put the child’s car seat in that sportscar, are you? After all those warnings about never putting young children in the front seat?
A: Doubtful. But if an emergency required it, sure. I know how to disable the airbag on that side. We’re talking about the extra risk of a frontal collision while on the way to the hospital here.

Q: Speaking of hospitals, how are you supposed to get Beth and the baby home? Reserve a carshare for three or four days so you can have it outside the hospital?
A: If things go according to plan, the baby will be born at home. Sure, we might end up at the hospital. But really, buying a car for one trip? I’m not Hunter S Thompson. There are other ways.

Q: What about shopping and errands, which the baby will require you to do lots more often and to strange and far-flung places?
A: Go go Gadget Parental Teamwork. Oh, and Amazon Prime.

Q: It takes a long time to get anywhere on public transit. You’ll have hardly any spare time or energy as it is. Just drive a car.
A: Driving a car in this city sucks. Parking sucks even more. Sometimes together they still suck less than public transit. But I’m thinking those times might just be predictable enough to plan for.

Q: But what about safety?
A: Know why there’s so much emphasis on making kids’ car seats safe in the event of crashes? Because cars are dangerous things. Staying out of them is safer yet.

Q: This is all cute and idealistic, but it’s selfish and unparental to be putting your own whims ahead of the safety and development of your children.
A: I’m still hoping that growing up and learning to live and get around in a city is one of the developmental gifts I’ll be able to give my offspring. Maybe cold, unwieldly middle-class urban realities will get the better of us. But escaping to the suburbs is what got us into many of our current problems of sprawl, congestion, petroleum dependency and urban crime in the first place. Can we at least try doing what seems right first?

Q: Look, you just can’t rely on buses or trains. You’ve got to have a car. What are you, unpatriotic?
A: Hush. You’re just the voice of the outraged midwestern Republican I stuck into this imaginary dialog because it gives me a more concrete outlet for my angst and frustration.

Q: But you’ve got a garage. There’s a car in it, even. You only keep that car because you like it so much. You’ll have a child to draw your affections. What harm could it do to have a regular family car there when you need it?
A: Couldn’t we wait to see if we really need it? Sure, I have rhetorically-unhelpful car attachment issues and I’m likely to get over them in a hurry. But that’s about the point when we might go from a two-seater to no car at all. Maybe.

Q: Hey, what about taxis? They work in cities, right?
A: Forget it. They work in some parts of the city, but not this one. You can call them on the phone, but there’s no connection between someone agreeing to dispatch a cab for you and a cab actually turning up. Just figured I should mention that.

Q: So what are you going to do?
A: We don’t know, yet.

– Devin

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