When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I rented a room in a three-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, and I did so sight-unseen. When I arrived, I found out the house was a hot mess. There appeared to be something growing in the carpet. The outdoor patio was a tangle of weeds and broken glass. Let’s just say, being barefoot in the shower was not an option in those early days.
It’s fair to say that I was spoiled. I left behind my friends, my job and my very nice condominium with in-unit washer/dryer, central air and 10th floor views along with in-building gym and pool with proximity to just about anything I could want to see in Washington, D.C.. I left all of that for what could only be described as an over-priced shack in the middle of a sleepy suburb of which the residents thought far too highly.
What was supposed to be one year in Silicon Valley, turned into three. During that time, I had six different roommates. I learned how to garden, I changed my diet and discovered hot yoga and hot pilates (as one does in California). I made new friends, but, most importantly, in all of that time, I got that carpet cleaned, and I never had a car.
I find cars to be a nuisance at best and a harmful byproduct of bad design at worst. They are a loophole people slither through to avoid making well-planned towns and cities. I’m a city woman, but I chose to live in Palo Alto so I could walk to my job on Stanford campus. I also chose not to live in San Francisco because I find it to be a bit of a sprawling mess. The public transportation is a sloppy web of poorly maintained buses and a metro line that often leaves me gagging above ground after a ride. (Seriously, Bart is disgusting.) Commuter gods forbid you end up on the bathroom car of Caltrain, which is basically the same as taking a train ride in an outhouse. Great innovations may come out of Silicon Valley, but radical improvements to local public transportation and breakthroughs in area city planning are not among them.
When I returned to Washington, DC in 2016, I was thrilled to have a modern studio apartment to myself for a few hundred dollars more than I was paying for a child’s room and a shared bathroom in the Palo Alto shack. Beyond that, I was extremely excited to have a city full of new and interesting things and diverse people right at my doorstep. I met friends easily at local bars and restaurants and toured the new Washington Post building. I went to museums and took a short metro ride to the airport where I could take short plane trips up north to see more friends. I could do all of this without owning a car. A similar variety and cadence of social activity would have been impossible in Silicon Valley without a car.
So, how do you live in the Bay Area without a car? Here’s how I do it:
- Don’t be an entrepreneur. Okay, you can be an entrepreneur, but you’ll need to make peace with the fact that you’re either going to spend the bulk of your seed round in shared car rides to and fro, or you’re just going to move slower than your automobile-driving peers. The entrepreneurial hustle is real, and mobility is key to an entrepreneur’s ability to be where they need to be when they need to be there. Again, it’s not impossible (I’m sure there’s at least n=1 doing it), but it’s going to make life a lot harder, and it may dull your competitive edge a bit.
- Pay a premium to live near everything you really need. For me, that’s my job, my gym and my supermarket. If I can live near those three things, I’m made in the shade. I pay a heavy price for it in the form of a stupidly high monthly rent payment.
- Focus on your routine and make strong habits. Having really strong morning, evening and weekend routines is very helpful. They help you carry out #4 a lot more easily, because, no matter what, your routine governs your time.
- Say “no” to just about every social engagement. Seriously, when friends ask you to take the train up from the South, it’s okay to say “no”. It’s a long ride, and it cuts a huge chunk out of your day. I basically go to the East Bay twice a year.
- Learn to enjoy time alone. Being alone does not necessitate being lonely. Learning how to enjoy your own company is an important skill. This means really killing the F in FOMO.
- Take flights to more densely-populated and better-planned urban areas. Fly to New York or D.C. or Boston a lot and visit with folks you know in these places. Bias your social time to places where you get more bang for your walking buck.
- Make hobbies that align with your macro lifestyle goal of not owning a car. While I absolutely love hiking, I don’t have a car, so, getting to the national parks is pretty much impossible (unless I want to spend 1/2 a day getting to and fro). My hobbies align with my being home or near my home most of the time. So, I write, read and study interesting things … and that’s about it. Other hobbies usually require being somewhere that's nowhere near my home. So, they’re things I’ve made peace with not doing.
- When you do say “yes” to social engagements, maximize on your time. Decide on a weekend when you plan to go to the city and tell everyone you know up there that you plan to be there. Then, stack your appointments.
- Be prepared to spend the night. If you’re going up north to San Francisco, especially on holiday weekends, it may be cheaper to treat yourself by spending the night in a hotel (Hotel Tonight is a great app) or spending the night at a friend’s place than taking a shared ride back down South. You may also want to plan ahead to spend the night and give yourself a basecamp in the city or down in the suburbs for the entire weekend.
- Don’t be afraid to tell friends, family, co-workers — even prospective employers — who ask you to get a car, “no”. I tell people all the time that cars (non-renewable, human-operated ones, specifically) are terrible and I refuse to do worse by the environment and those around me to satisfy poor city planning decisions. I tell people all the time that I think Silicon Valley is a wonderful hub for people interested in new technologies and for people who want to make new things in uniquely collaborative ways. I also, in the same breath, tell them it’s a horrible place to live unless you’re willing to spend nearly all of what you make to have the life you had in a much cheaper, better-planned environ. Aside from the weather, it has little to recommend it because the city planning is so abysmal, the homelessness crisis is a tragedy and a shame, and the cost of living is unrealistically high.
You can live in the Bay Area without a car. You may live differently than most people, but it’s a great mental exercise to work your way towards being at peace with living on your own terms.