Sharing the Love

If City CarShare succeeds, San Francisco can have its love affair with the auto and find a place to park

The first car I ever drove was a gray, four-door 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 Custom with a six-cylinder engine, a trunk that held five bicycles, and the kind of American-style ride that makes 75 miles per hour feel like a rolling sea. I remember my first time at 100 mph, shuddering as the rushing landscape narrowed my range of visibility to 15 degrees.

Later, working summer nights in Lodi, I would drive home just before sunrise as the full moon set. It was huge, red, and shimmering in a way that seemed to illustrate the sublime nature of driving on an empty freeway. I remember 50-plus-hour drives between Mexico City and California, and a 13-hour stretch of road between Laredo and El Paso that may be the world's straightest path to inner peace.

I love to drive. I love the kick of a big engine just biting into third gear. I love feeling my innards shift starboard through a curve. Heck, I even love the "scan" function on car radios.

But my love wasn't meant to be.

In San Francisco, I have come to realize, car love is a destructive kind of love. That's because automobile ownership is linked to pretty much every malaise suffered by this town. Exploding rents? Nonprofit evictions? The impending extinction of San Francisco's diverse, eclectic character?

At the heart of these is car love.

When most residents of a dense city like San Francisco own cars -- as two-thirds here do -- otherwise charitable-minded citizens unite to keep out new buildings, because new apartments and offices inevitably bring new drivers, who take up parking spaces and clog streets. Neighborhood opposition has severely limited the construction of apartments, and car-spawning commercial space. So apartments are scarce, and residential rents have exploded. Commercial space is unaffordable to all but the venture-capitalized.

To succeed as a vibrant city, it became clear to me, San Francisco had to break the link between increased housing and office space and added cars.

So I had to enlist my intellect, and suppress my love. I got rid of my car. And, after three years of commuting to work by bicycle, time has helped heal the wounds of separation.

Still, on some evenings, I'll stare at the 18-square-foot framed photograph of a 1950s Chevrolet I keep above my fireplace, and remember the pain. I'll indulge in the kind of magical thinking typical of people who've left a bad relationship: Maybe if we got back together things could be different this time. Perchance she's changed. Maybe automobiles aren't so bad.

Right around the time I was engaged in a round of magical-thinking sessions last week, the federal government approved a $600,000 grant to a City Hall-backed program that may allow me to resurrect my car love -- without the dysfunctional side effects. If it lives up to the optimistic plans of Executive Director Elizabeth Sullivan, City CarShare may just help end the relationship between automobile use and our housing and commercial space crunch.

All while letting car saps like me live out our fantasies.

It works like this: Sometime within the next few months -- the federal funds must first be routed through the state government, then through the city's Department of Parking and Traffic -- the nonprofit City CarShare will place 15 metallic-green Volkswagen Beetle GLs at city garages all over the city.

To use the service, I'll have to be approved by City CarShare's insurance company and put down a $300 deposit; but once I'm signed up, going for a midnight drive up Mount Tam will be a mere matter of making a reservation on the CarShare Web site, which will program an electronic box on one of the cars' dashboard to accept my CarShare-issued magnetic key fob. Then, I turn the key and drive, drive, drive, for as little as an hour at a time. At the end of the month I'll be sent a bill including a $10 monthly fee, $1.75 per hour driven, plus 45 cents per mile. I pay for no gas, insurance, repairs, or anything else.

Because customers are charged at an hourly rate, this scheme sunders the economic logic normally associated with automobile usage, in which car owners pay massive up-front insurance, financing, and registration costs, and are therefore encouraged to get their money's worth by driving as much as possible. People using the program will drive only when they really need to drive, and, one can hope, ever more people will decide having a car when they need it is quite good enough, and will choose not to buy cars, or to give up the costly, space-eating ones they already own.

To start, three cars will be parked at each of five locations: the North Beach Garage, the Fifth and Mission Garage, the Performing Arts Garage at Grove and Gough, the Golden Gateway garage at Embarcadero and Market, and on Treasure Island. Eventually, sponsors plan to put 675 shared cars on the road, with the hope of freeing parking spaces, and reducing the number of cars on the road. Pedestrian deaths could decline. Air pollution could thin. And it could become easier to get around a less congested San Francisco, whether or not you drive a car.

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