I still have yet to own a car. I have a driver’s license, but in reality I am in
a cockpit more often than the front seat of an automobile. This life choice has
been challenging at times, but I have been quite fortunate to have lived in
situations where owning a car is not required.
I wanted to take a deep dive on my thoughts on transportation in the Bay Area,
and how a single guy makes it all work in a cost-effective and sane-ish way.
I live in San Francisco, a city that is in an ongoing battle to make personal
automobile transportation as painful as possible. Without a doubt, the biggest
reason I do not own a car in SF is because high costs that do not justify the
benefits. I am going to ballpark some of the costs assuming I were to lease a
- Car payment: $200/month
- Street Parking: $150/month
- Gas: $4/gallon × 20 gallons/month = $80/month
- Insurance: $80/month
- Maintenance: $30/month
I am intentionally being conservative with these estimates by assuming a minimum
amount of fuel, a cheap car that requires little maintenance, and a driver with
low insurance premiums. The costs above add up to about $540/month in
The devil is in the details
It gets worse than that. Those costs don’t take into account commuting to work
or going out. Most people are going to use public transportation or their taxi
service of choice anyways, even if they own a vehicle. If you were to drive to
work in San Francisco, then your parking costs alone would balloon out of
control. If you tried to drive to the bar on Saturday night, well you wouldn’t
have much fun now would you 😉?
Accordingly, let’s add another fudge factor for taking public transportation to
work and a couple taxi rides on weekends. The Muni currently charges $81 for a
monthly pass, which makes
sense financially if you live and work in SF. In the best case, taking an Uber
or Lyft to the bar on the weekend is going to set you back $10/week.
That brings an additional overhead cost of about $120/month, increasing our
previous estimate to $660/month.
But wait, there’s more! We haven’t even explained the risks with parking your
car in San Francisco, where you have two options:
- Pay $150/month for street parking and risk having your vehicle’s window
stupid unlucky they might even steal visible valuable
items you left in your back seat.
- Pay $300/month for a garage spot and significantly reduce your insurance
claims, as well as time you waste playing musical chairs every
Tuesday for the street sweeper.
Let’s just say that there is an additional overhead of $150/month in either
case: for the risks and time spent street parking or for the explicit costs of
having a dedicated garage space. This brings our monthly costs to
$810/month. There are so many other hidden costs that I haven’t mentioned,
but you get the point: it’s expensive.
Many residents in San Francisco have also come to similar cost conclusions about
owning a car. Those residents either don’t buy a car or quickly liquidate the
one that they have. In that case, these residents typically get around by one of
the following modes:
- Public transportation
- Taxis (Uber, Lyft)
- Bike (personal, bike share programs)
There is a significant population in the yuppie community that travels almost
exclusively by taxi, and that gets expensive quickly but in most cases is still
cheaper than owning a car. A friend of mine said they spent on average $600/month
on Uber rides. That is a more extreme case, but many people certainly do better
by mixing in some of the other methods as well.
Those that do own cars in the city usually have them because their commute
justifies the ownership, the car has already been paid off, or they are
frequently leaving the city to go to Tahoe or some other lovely destination.
These considerations do not apply to me personally, but they are certainly worth
mentioning and will affect your cost-benefit analysis.
I am definitely in the multi-modal camp when it comes to transportation
strategies. I use all of the aforementioned methods of transportation in
addition to a few others:
- Scooters (Scoot, Lime, Bird, etc.)
- Rental cars (the big guys, Zipcar)
- Small airplanes (just kidding )
I tend to view transportation as a commodity: a product that is easily
substitutable and differentiable mainly by cost. The cost is composed of
explicit costs (paying the bus fare) and the implicit costs (the additional
time or lack of comfort) of that mode. The implicit costs are what drives my
decision making. I tend to put less focus on comfort rather than time, and I
would say I am much more flexible on the time aspect than most. At the end of
the day I pick the method of transportation that fits the requirements of the
- If the destination is a mile or less, I walk.
- If I am going somewhere in town served by a direct transit line with no
transfers, I tend to use public transportation.
- If I am trying to get from the Mission District to the Outer Richmond or am
otherwise time-constrained, public transportation is going to take
significantly longer and I consider a motorized scooter or taxi.
- I use my bike (with panniers) to commute to work sometimes, go to the
grocery store, and go to the park to hang out with friends.
- When I go solo to Hayward airport,
I mix and match transit modes. I use BART to get across the Bay to avoid
traffic and bridge tolls. Once I get to the East Bay I get to my final
destination via bike, scooter, or taxi.
It tends to all work out to the following average monthly costs:
- SF Muni Pass ($80/month)
- BART Fare ($80/month)
- Taxis ($70/month)
- Bike ($25/month in maintenance)
- Walking ($0)
- Scooters ($40/month)
- Rental cars and associated fuel/toll costs ($60/month)
Call it about $415/month in transportation costs. Oh and by the way, I get a
little tax deduction from public transportation by purchasing tickets through my
company’s transit benefits program (this is not factored into the costs above
but many large companies have a similar program).
A lot of people who hear my transportation strategy (especially in the “taxi
or bust” camp) immediately question
Do you consider how much money you are losing by taking transportation
methods that cost more of your time?
Why yes I do! I personally believe that the value of my time constantly
fluctuates and it may be cheaper (in units of time) to take a taxi over public
transportation or vice versa depending on the circumstances. Sometimes I just
need to get somewhere fast and a taxi is the only way I can get it done; other
times I am not in a hurry and taking a bus or train sounds like a fun little
In addition to fluctuating cost of time, I think the key to lowering the
opportunity cost of slower transit methods is to make that time as productive as
possible. At the end of the day burying my face in my phone is no different
whether that is on the bus or laying on my bed at home, so I try to allocate
that time efficiently to minimize “dead time” on the bus. It also has an added
side benefit: listening to podcasts on the bus blocks out some of the
screaming background noise. Here are some concrete examples of how to make
your slow transportation more productive:
- I have a backlog of podcasts that I schedule for listening while I am on
then bus or the train. I sometimes download long YouTube videos offline and
watch them during my commute.
- For piloting purposes, taking BART is actually a fantastic way to spend time
getting an official weather briefing online, and to visually observe the big
picture weather systems outside the train!
- Calling a family member or friend while you are walking somewhere can be an
excellent way to efficiently use your time, while also catching up with
people that you care about.
Lastly, sometimes spending more time getting somewhere has added benefits
besides being productive. The new trend among milennials is to practice
mindfulness and meditation. What better way to do that than by collecting
your thoughts while walking the streets of San Francisco? There is a
breathtaking view just about all the time!
On Public Transportation
The most objective criticism I hear about public transportation, especially the
Muni, is that it is slow. I would say it is generally slow-er than other
transportation methods, but not all the time. If used properly, the Muni or BART
can get you somewhere in about the same time or better than a taxi. I have
certainly been in many excruciatingly painful shared taxi rides where I get the
grand tour of San Francisco while I wait extra time for my co-passenger Joe to
figure out which street corner he needs to stand at.
The second criticism I hear about the public transportation is the clientele. I
have to admit that I am definitely more comfortable in this regard than the
average individual. Part of this has to do with my early foray into the field,
when my buddy Ryland and I would commute home from high school on the Los
Angeles Metro. We observed a lot of crazy things in those days and
such schenanigans do not phase me anymore. We saw everything from guys with
razor blades grafittiing the train windows to some dude who had fallen asleep
yet continued to take bites of a Taco Bell burrito resting on his shoulder.
So I guess you caught me red handed there: public transportation is open to the
public, and thus has tons of interesting people aboard. Like this dude:
Yes, that is a cat. If that cat gets scared that dude’s upper back is in for a
In all seriousness though, I actually enjoy being on public transportation. It
brings with it a certain connectedness to the city in a way that being in a
private automobile does not. It is a similar to why people enjoy walking.
Think of a bus or train as a sidewalk on wheels (watch your step). Since the
bus is effectively a public place, it exposes you to a cross-section of society
that you don’t normally spend time with. They are people too, and just because
they sound crazy does not mean that they’re dangerous. We elect plenty of crazy
people to public office, who are arguably more dangerous than that dude with the
cat on his back.
Your Mileage May Vary
I hope that this exposé presented one way of attacking the challenge that is
transportation in our lovely city by the Bay. I do want to call out that your
mileage will vary (literally, in some cases) depending on whether you are not
single, have to commute to a transit desert, or have a life-threatening phobia
of men with cats on their back. I am sure that I will continually find new
distractions to delay the onset of car ownership, and hopefully have a lot of
fun along the way. Sit back,
relax, and enjoy the ride however you choose to do so!