You can live in San Francisco without a car very easily. Many of us get around taking public transit and augmenting that by walking, biking, skating, and unicycling. But unlike many other people raised exclusively in San Francisco, I actually have a driver’s license and even use it on occasion.
I got my license as a teenager which was odd since I didn’t see myself changing my MUNI-taking ways and becoming a regular driver. I think I saw it as traditional teen rite of passage—and potential freedom—that I didn’t want to miss out on. We had the behind-the-desk , “drivers ed” at St. Rose Academy, but for the driver’s training instruction we had to go to a public high school (Washington!). That “training” consisted of a few hours in a dark trailer with a driving simulator followed by some terrifying behind-the-wheel time. The instructor was a blowhard bloke who showed blatant favoritism towards the one guy in our group. (And was very dismissive and unhelpful towards me and the other nervous females in the class.) My really useful driving instruction came from my older cousin. She’d had a wonderful, calm demeanor that helped the basics of automobile operation sink in as we tooled around the empty parking lot of Riordan High School.
Once I got a bit more comfortable behind the wheel, I logged my additional practice hours with mom in her vintage 1968 Volvo station wagon. (Mom was another driving late-bloomer and only got her license in her 40s when she started her own landscape gardening business.) We established a weekend routine that we both looked forward to. We’d leave early in the morning before there were many cars on the road and head out along Lake Street, a nice wide thoroughfare along the edge of the Richmond district. We’d then cut through the scenic mansions of the tony Seacliff neighborhood and up past the cypress trees lining the golf course and the Legion of Honor museum, until we got to the end of Geary Street, overlooking the Cliff House. After some practice with parking (much easier out there in the Richmond district—plenty of spaces I would just pull into.) we’d get brunch at the Seal Rock Inn, an unpretentious hotel diner.
Fortified by a hearty breakfast, I’d drive us back home, taking a different route back through the avenues. It would sometimes get a little more stressful with more active late-morning traffic flow. I remember a couple of stand-out blood pressure raising incidents like the time I didn’t realize the cross traffic didn’t have a stop sign or the time I forgot to take off the emergency brake and we didn’t realize it for about a mile. But no major mishaps in my memory to mar this wonderful memory of time spent with my mom learning this skill
I did eventually get my driver’s license-taking the actual test at the DMV in Daly City with a much more mellow surroundings (a helpful suggestion from our driver’s ed teacher). But I never took out my mom’s car solo after primarily because it was essential for her landscape/garden business. I would never risk getting into an accident with her livelihood, but I was also not keen on using her car because it was the quintessential Berkeley-mobile-plastered with political bumper stickers. I managed to sneak a few of my own on there too, but it wold never been the cool-teen machine.
My driving skills lay dormant for many years until I took some lessons in my 30s and then started to use those skills when I’d go on vacation to places where a car was an essential mode of transportation. And thanks to car-sharing services like Zipcar, I can now practice driving on my own and not have to rely on car-having friends for errands that involve schlepping things too unwieldy for the bus. I feel very accomplished each time I navigate some new out of state territory—driving in snow flurries in New Jersey, getting stuck in a Los Angeles police activity traffic jam, or merging onto Texas expressways. Unless my circumstances change and I’m behind the wheel more regularly, I don’t see myself ever having the ease that life-long drivers have (especially merging on and off freeways) but I’ve come a long way since my learner’s permit days.