The creeping habitualization of convenience

I pull my jacket on, trudging up the stairs from BART to emerge onto Market Street. It’s my second week in San Francisco and I’m on my way back from Oakland where I’d been visiting a friend. It’s late, I’d caught the last train, and I pause to reflect for the first time on the reality that this city can, somehow, feel cold at 55˚. Market Street is humming with its strange late-night beauty, the noise of the freeway a low drone off to the east through SOMA and a light fog giving an altogether ethereal look to the downtown.

I was staying with a friend in Pacific Heights, a temporary lay-up as I navigated the murky, treacherous waters of the San Francisco rental market for the first time. As I left Oakland I asked my friend the best way back to Pac Heights from downtown.

“Probably the 1-California, but honestly it’d be way faster to call an Uber”

This, as I recall it, was the first time I heard the now-ubiquitous ride-sharing company come up in casual conversation.

I took this recommendation with a smile and a nod and set off toward West Oakland BART. I was skeptical of the necessity of taking a cab when I could easily walk or take the bus. However, my intrigue got the best of me, and by the time I walked through the turnstyle I’d installed the app on my phone and set up an account. Just in case, I told myself.

I’m standing now in the chilly midnight downtown, watching the bus stop sign cycle between messages. Presumably the 1-California was nowhere nearby as I pulled out my phone and opened Uber. I briefly considered the walk: a veritable hike up the mountain of Nob Hill and then a gradual descent down into the relative valley of Sacramento & Steiner streets. Forty minutes, even at a quick pace. I knew this well, having done the same walk twice in the past week. The fog bore down on me, and I was tired.

So I indulged. I called an Uber and was home in bed no more than 15 minutes later. A fair trade; money in exchange for time and energy. By all definitions an indulgence.

Jump now to August of 2014, almost two years later. “Lyft” and “Uber” are words as commonly used in the San Francisco dialect as “hella” and “burrito”. By this point it was commonplace to find myself in a Lyft or Uber once a week. I was living in the Richmond District, and taking a cab home with housemates after a night out in the Mission just made sense. For four people the choice was clear: $2 each for a bus ticket and an hour of time, or, $4 each and a cushy ride home in 20 minutes.

In August, both companies introduced their equivalent of casual carpooling, “Lyft Line” and “Uber Pool”. With these new changes came a dramatic drop in price; whereas an average ride prior might have run up towards $20 for a 30 minute ride across town, you could now be at your destination for around $5 with only a 5- to 10-minute tax on time. Suddenly, using these services not as an indulgence but as a commonplace convenience* *became a viable option.

Between the summers of 2014 and 2015, using Lyft or Uber turned slowly from a viable alternative form of transportation to the de-facto way that my friends and I got around. Initially it was a splurge, heading home from a bar when it was late and cold. Later it became a convenience when I was working late and didn’t want to ride my bike. And then finally I reached a point where commuting to work via Lyft several days a week was becoming normal.

Around then, in July of 2015, I spent three weeks on the East Coast, visiting friends in Brooklyn, Boston and Nashville. In each city I rented or borrowed a bike and spend nearly full days riding. Despite having been to Brooklyn a dozen times in the past decade, I’d never explored it on a bike. My experience of the city was walking to a subway station and coming back up in another place, the train acting as a sort of time warp between different neighborhoods.

On one day in particular I set out early, riding from Crown Heights up to Williamsburg for breakfast. Normally going between those two neighborhoods is painful, a 45-minute affair. Via bicycle I made it in 15 minutes. After eating I biked back south to Prospect Park, traversing its perimeter and exploring its myriad interior paths. Feeling absolutely alive, I decided to bike to the city. Up and over the Manhattan Bridge I pedaled, and then north along the East River. When I hit 57th I cut inland and arrived at the mouth of Central Park.

I biked the full length of Central Park, all the way to the 110th St entrance and back south, now on the west side with the sun starting to set off to my right. I cut over to the Hudson and rode the bike path nearly as far as I could, to Tribeca. I dove southeast then, back into the heart of the city, making my way this time to the Brooklyn Bridge. I pieced my way carefully through rush hour foot traffic on the bridge and an hour later arrived back in Crown Heights where I’d started that morning. With the exception of a couple short rests, I’d biked for nearly 10 hours straight.

At this point in the essay you’re wondering how my bicycle escapades in Manhattan will tie back to the account of Lyft and Uber becoming everyday expenditures.

After arriving back in San Francisco, falling again into the routine of everyday living, I began to feel strangely about my cab habit. After biking around a city whose geographic area could contain San Francisco several times over, my city felt so tiny by comparison. And with that realization came a distinct feeling of not appreciating the smallness of San Francisco. The utter walkability and bikeability of a city that is only seven miles square.

So I stopped using Lyft. I committed to walking or biking to work every day, even in the rain, even when I didn’t want to. And it has been wonderful. At the end of December I biked to work in an outright downpour and arrived at work dripping and nearly laughing with glee. I guarantee myself a certain minimum of physical activity each day, a not-unimportant consideration given that I work indoors at a computer. If I don’t ride I walk. Forty minutes to myself with a podcast or my own thoughts, a sort of morning meditation.

To be sure, this is a personal decision and one that I wouldn’t wish to prescribe—though would certainly recommend—for anybody. If nothing else, this experience has served as a humbling reminder of how easily we can form habits—expensive ones—out of things that were once occasional indulgences. Since July I’ve tried to apply this way of thinking to other areas in my life. Where do I overindulge, when am I overspending on convenience? These types of habits creep in slowly, such that we barely recognize that they’re there. It’s been fun seeking them out and questioning their necessity.

As always, a work in progress.