Coastal Commuter

A Question of Auto or Not

Since deciding that my career and personal endeavors would be enhanced by sharing my time between San Francisco and Los Angeles, my life has been much more auto-centric than it’s been since the days when I was an eager 20-something who lived in the Oakland Hills, moved within walking distance of Lake Merritt, and regularly commuted to San Francisco in a cherry ’65 Mustang. Eventually relocating to the other side of the bay, I ditched the sports car, rode my motorbike from Russian Hill to SoMa and beyond, took buses, and walked a hell of a lot. Then, Los Angeles changed the vehicular equation.

The driving thing? It’s a serious necessity in Los Angeles, and it’s a questionable luxury in San Francisco — one with strings attached. As soon as I settled into daily life in Los Angeles about seven years ago, it became clear to me that the car-less in SoCal are essentially a sedentary, helpless people — like some primitive tribe trapped on a remote island surrounded by a turbulent sea, with no hope of ever reaching the nearest nightclub.

Unlike the city limits of San Francisco, the sprawl of the Los Angeles metroplex — including the San Fernando Valley and points west and east — is beyond daunting. Initially, I was landlocked in a lovely but remote corner of an upscale hillside neighborhood with no vehicle of my own. Public transit within walking distance? Certainly, if, by walking distance, you meant a half-hour hike to the nearest bus stop. It took Abe Lincoln less time to trudge to school from his log cabin home — and he didn’t have to follow that with a 45-minute bus ride to the office. I’ll just be kind and say that the Los Angeles transit system makes Muni and BART seem like a civic-minded boon to the citizenry.

So, yes, I needed a car to navigate my Southland turf — and to commute to my San Francisco home for weeks of welcome recharging. I lucked out when I found a 1998 Nissan Maxima on a used-car lot in the wilds of Van Nuys. It had 125,000 miles on it, but looked pretty good, and under the hood, it possessed an engine that was apparently in great shape and has since proven to be quite durable with proper, regular maintenance.

I learned to finesse the 380-mile-plus highway trip from City by the Bay to City of Angels and back, whether via the 101 or I-5, aided and abetted by my iPod, audio library, and Bose speakers. Barreling down the asphalt (or whatever is used to pave our state-traversing arteries), I get into that storied me-and-the-road Zen state, focused yet meditative — unless one of those ideal sing-while-you-motor songs comes up on shuffle, preferably one with harmonies that I can harmlessly mangle while alone behind the wheel.

After the five to seven hours required to get from one city to the other, the daily ramble and cruise on Los Angeles’s seemingly jerry-built freeway system feels like a piece of cake — albeit, one with a fine veneer of engine exhaust and smog. I know where I’m going and how to get there as fast as possible, regardless of the hour or the road conditions. And I learned how to game the parking restrictions with a minimum of fines, whether specific neighborhoods require daytime or nighttime permits, where and when the meters are enforced, what businesses validate for what garages — and where you can leave your car for hours, freely and in relative safety. I’ve become a veritable Los Angeles transpo-ninja, stealthy and nimble (minus the violence … so far). The Metro system is expanding, and some folks are benefiting, and there are many well-moneyed denizens who call a town car, limo service, or taxi. And a new generation now avoids having to grapple with the weekend traffic after dark and the parking conundrum by tapping an app and getting door-to-door Uber service at a more reasonable and convenient rate. But those of us who are economically challenged and yearn for the familiarity and comfort of our own vehicles continue to drive ourselves, crazy or otherwise.

In keeping with San Francisco’s smaller acreage and greater bus and Metro coverage, I tend to rely on my residential permit and those much-prized parking spaces on an increasingly crowded Russian Hill. Once I return to my NorCal home and find an open spot near the pad, I leave the Maxima there for as long as possible. What is a boon in Los Angeles, where neighborhood streets can be less jammed and the hunt for the elusive parking space can be fairly easy, is a bit of a challenge, nay a nightmare, in San Francisco since the latest tech boom led to a jump in population. Here, unlike Los Angeles, public transit is frequently a better way to go, particularly if you’re headed downtown to the Financial District during business hours. But there are times, especially if I’m going to the Avenues, or it happens to be past 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in Clubland, or I’m taking one of those rare East Bay or North Bay jaunts, when I sacrifice that precious parking spot, get into the car, and just ride. Although it’s not like going 70 on the 101 in Hollywood after midnight, it’ll do the trick.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's "David Feldman Show" and "Thom Hartmann Show" and on "Michael Snyder's Culture Blast," available online at and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster