Driving San Francisco Sane

Although the city has more cars per square mile than either New York or L.A., driving in S.F. is no nightmare. In fact, once its intricacies are mastered, motoring here can be downright civilized and civilizing.

After seven years without one, a year ago I bought a car, a 20-year-old Toyota Tercel, an automatic, two-door hatchback with 70,000 miles on it; it got 25 mpg and cost a whopping $1,200. It drives like a tough little go-kart, has great visibility, and zips up and down the hills. I can park it anywhere.

My life changed. I left the carless, itinerant, meditative, hike-wait-and-ride San Francisco lifestyle -- with its sidewalks, bookstores, bus stops, and doughnut shops -- behind and joined what I thought would be the stressed-out demolition derby going on just beyond the sidewalk.

Day by day and block by block, I fell into the grid-bound mind-set of a San Francisco driver. The learning curve was as steep and long as, say, 17th Street. But once I mastered the grid(s), my options were many, traffic jams were few, and it took about 20 minutes to get anywhere in the city -- even though San Francisco has a much higher vehicle density than New York City or Los Angeles County.

I came to appreciate the sheer expertise that the densely packed city demands and the patience that it enforces. Whether waiting for a shuffling pedestrian to clear a crosswalk or a harried parallel-parker to clear my traffic lane, it was these exercises in common civility that gradually tamed me and my rushing speed demons. My trusty Tercel's average speed slowed to a poky 25 mph, and I began to let people into my lane.

It must be something in the water. Or maybe there's something about the city's implacable street grid that requires restraint: Ted Harvey, a musician and carpenter who spent four years driving a cab for Veterans, confesses that he tries to pilot his own '78 Cadillac Seville with "patience" and "forgiveness."

"I've been here long enough to know the city's going to slow you down anyway," the native Detroiter explains, "so that's how I drive the big Cadillac, to relax, like I'm sitting on the couch."

A fashion stylist known as "Tokyo" who lives in the Outer Richmond and works South of Market routinely goes out of his way to avoid what he calls "competitive traffic" on roaring thoroughfares like Oak and Fell, Bush and Pine, Fulton and Lincoln. He angles his way across the city, zigzagging willy-nilly, depending on his mood.

An old San Francisco hand named Teresa Trego commutes by car from Bernal Heights to her job in Sausalito. She told me it took her three months to fine-tune her intricate journey across the breadth of the city to the Golden Gate. Her morning route: Cesar Chavez to Guerrero to Laguna to Turk to Balboa to Park Presidio to the bridge -- depending, of course, on traffic tie-ups. At day's end, Trego heads home across the bridge to Lombard to Scott to Oak to Laguna to Guerrero to Division to 101 south to Cesar Chavez.

"It's complicated but civilized," she says.

In this urbane checkerboard, pleasure is to be found in the little things, like jumping into the left lane to get around a double-parked truck and thereby catching every light up Guerrero; or turning Divisadero's obstacle course of potholes, slowpokes, and double-parkers into a smooth cruise; or coordinating a busy four-way stop so that no one actually stops. I'm learning it's not so much a demolition derby as a ballroom dance performed in bumper cars -- full of whirling sidesteps, feints, and polite "excuse mes."

I call it the art of driving in San Francisco, though some people insist it's a science.


"It's not an art when you're waiting behind some idiot who's too timid to make a right on a red," says cabdriver and City Hall gadfly Barry Taranto, who pilots a Crown Victoria for National Cab Co.

"The art of driving in San Francisco," he pronounces vigorously, "is about making a right on the red in thick downtown traffic. You gotta be aggressive and take the right before the green, because as soon as the light turns green, pedestrians step into the cross-street crosswalk, and you're blocked -- along with the people behind you -- till they clear out."

The professional cabdrivers I talked to about driving in the city all agreed, zeroing in on tiny, perfectly timed, split-second moves wherein a driver assesses three or four variables, knows the rules, and acts decisively. No hesitation: "The city's so compact, you gotta know where you're going and keep moving," Taranto says.

Luxor cabbie Christopher Fulkerson has been driving for 13 years. He too has a thing about meek drivers and the right of way: "Giving up the right of way is one of the stupidest, most unsafe things you can do," he says, explaining that when two or more cars arrive simultaneously at a four-way stop, the car to the right has the right of way.

"Take it when it's yours!" he exhorts. "It's the law. So many situations are obviated if people know the rules and act on them. If there's virtue in aggression on the road, it would be that."

Taranto haunts City Hall hearing rooms as one of the very few advocates for San Franciscans who drive. (In 2002, there were 533,969 active California driver's licenses held by the city's 775,000 residents.) A former volunteer lobbyist for the United Taxicab Workers, he is loaded with opinions about traffic engineering and bitter complaints about street closures, construction sites, bike lanes, overzealous parking control officers, and badly routed detours.

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