One less car

The total weight of my worldly possessions dropped by about 2,557 pounds a week and a half ago: I gave away the 1992 Acura Integra that had become a driveway-bound monument to how getting around D.C. has changed for me.

Integra mileageI should have done that long ago: November of 2007, to be exact, when the Washington Area Bicyclist Association had a promotion running with Zipcar that would have yielded $500 in driving credit on the car-sharing service.

Instead, what finally pushed me to research my options (I was the “Rob” who sought Greater Greater Washington’s advice) and choose WABA’s current, less generous offer of a year’s free membership was seeing the oil-pressure light come on.

Two mechanics told me that probably would require dropping $1,000 or so on a new oil pump, and that the diagnosis alone would cost over $100, and that was enough to end an automotive relationship that began in the spring of 1997.

Transportation in Washington was much worse back then. There was no ZipCar, no car2go, no Capital Bikeshare. Bike lanes were vanishingly scarce, protected “cycle tracks” unimagined. No signs or mobile apps counted down the minutes before the next train or bus arrival. The city’s taxis ran on the idiotic and unfair zone system, as interpreted by cabbies who rarely missed a chance to rip me off. App-driven, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar were a decade from being possible.

What would it take to get somebody with no off-street parking and no need to drive to work to write a check for $9,294.60 to buy a used car? All of those things.

Integra gearshiftAnd I really did love that car, so much that it took this long for me to accept that I ought to give it up. This Integra RS must have been the least luxurious Acura ever made, lacking power windows, power locks or even power side-view mirrors, but it handled great, the stick shift was a joy to work, and that little four-cylinder engine roared delightfully as it neared its 6800 RPM redline.

(One memorable drive: On New Year’s Day of 1998, I made it from Greenwich Village to Clarendon in three hours and 45 minutes by not stopping for anything and generously interpreting the speed limits. That’s not a record I plan on breaking–as if I-95 these days would let me.)

And for a car bought basically for fun, this was amazingly practical. I often beat the EPA highway estimate of 28 MPG and once notched 36 MPG on a particularly blessed tank of gas. And with the rear seats folded down, the Integra could haul almost anything–a full-sized bed frame, a Christmas tree of any size, not one but two bicycles.

(Another memorable drive: In May of 2000, I went to Manhattan with my friend Doug for Bike New York, with said two bikes in the back. We somehow found an open parking spot outside my cousin’s apartment on Carmine Street–at which we had to pay for less than an hour before it went unmetered for the weekend. That’s probably the greatest street-parking job I’ll ever accomplish.)

Acura Integra in 1997I babied that car for years, regularly washing and even waxing it, as the photo at right reveals. But then in late 2001 I scratched the passenger side by taking a turn too tightly on the way out of my condo’s garage and decided that I did not need to spend almost $800 to fix the damage.

Getting married didn’t really put a dent in my driving habits, but my wife’s problem-plagued Dodge Intrepid blowing a gasket in the summer of 2005 did: The Toyota Prius we bought to replace that snakebit vehicle could carry almost as much stuff as mine, fit into the same parking spaces and got better mileage. And then my wife got a job within easy walking and biking distance, leaving the Prius free for me to use almost all the time.

My annual mileage totals went from four digits to three digits–I’d put over 33,000 miles on the Integra by then–to the low three digits. The biggest problem on this incredibly reliable vehicle became having its battery run down from a lack of use.

And so after 38,478 miles together, it was time to say goodbye to what is almost certainly the last solely gas-powered car I’ll ever own. A week and a half after I last saw my car–behind the tow truck hauling it down the street–I can’t say I miss the old girl. But I do have one small regret: I forgot to check the coin box when I cleaned out the inside, and I suspect I left a quarter or two there.

Transit is my travel hack

PALO ALTO–I spent most of the last three days here in the middle of Silicon Valley at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, with a side trip to San Francisco for a press dinner last night. And a car never figured into my plans.

Auto-awesomed Caltrain photoInstead, I took Caltrain up and down the peninsula, with one connection via a VTA bus and reasonable amount of walking. What do you think I was going to do, drop $100 and change on a rental car that would sit idle except for when it would have me sitting in the loathsome traffic of U.S. 101?

For the most part, that worked fine. My travel times were sometimes longer, but I could get work done on my laptop and then get some exercise on foot at either end. The one huge exception: Missing one southbound train from San Francisco meant I had to spend almost an extra hour in the city when I was dead tired and just wanted to get back to my hotel.

Even when the alternative is not renting a car but taking a taxi, the local rail or bus service has often been a better idea. Take Las Vegas–please. Between Vegas cabbies’ documented habit of “long hauling” passengers to run up the fare, the deliberate inefficiency of the one-person-per-car taxi line at McCarran, the ripoff $3 surcharge for paying with a credit card, and the militant opposition to Uber and other potential competitors, I’ve had more than enough reasons besides the non-trivial cost savings to begin acquainting myself with bus service there.

Vegas bus guidancePlus, there’s the perverse pride to be had in getting around car-free in a place not known for its transit service. (See also: taking the VTA light rail around Santa Clara County and taking Capital Metro’s Red Line in Austin.)

Yet I keep hearing things like “I don’t know how to take the bus” from other out-of-town types at these events when I mention my mode of transportation.

I understand: It can be intimidating getting on a large vehicle full of strangers when you’re not sure exactly where it’s going or how you’ll know when to get off. I remember the anxiety of trying to figure out Metro buses from a tiny map at a stop or on a brochure.

Fortunately, it’s the year 2014 and you no longer need to rely on printed documentation. Google Maps and Bing Maps both include transit directions, and Google’s even offer turn-by-turn navigation. As long as your phone has a charge and a signal, you cannot get lost. You can, however, win the satisfaction of unlocking the workings of a new and somewhat complex system–which is, as a tech journalist, is the kind of thing I’m supposed to be doing anyway.

The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

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Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

Yet another airline prepares to pull into the hangar in the sky

With yesterday’s announcement of a planned merger between US Airways and American Airlines, one more airline I’ve flown will vanish from the skies. Well, not its planes or people, but its name, livery and two-character code, and hopefully its call sign too: It would be tasteless to ditch AA’s “AMERICAN” for US’s America West-derived “CACTUS.”

Pan Am boarding passThe list of defunct U.S. and foreign airlines–excluding regional carriers and those from childhood that I don’t remember–that have transported me from one place to another is longer than I’d thought. I’m not sure if that demonstrates the crummy economics of the airline business or merely my own advancing age.

  • Aloha: We flew them to and from Maui for a friend’s wedding several years ago. Maui is an excellent place to go to a friend’s wedding.
  • America West: My chosen conveyance to and from CES for a year or two. I don’t miss their hideous livery at all.
  • ATA: My wife and I took this discount carrier to Chicago and San Francisco a couple of times.
  • Braniff International: I was on them a few years with my parents in the ’70s or ’80s. Their colorful paint jobs are still missed.
  • China Southwest: Flew me from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet and back on a memorable, two-and-a-half-week-long vacation in 1998.
  • Continental: The first airline I reached elite frequent-flyer status on; some of those miles went towards upgrading our honeymoon flights (they took great care of us), and some are still in my United account.
  • Eastern: Flew them up and down the East Coast a few times growing up.
  • National: This short-lived airline got me from San Francisco to Las Vegas–horribly late–for one Macworld-plus-CES trip.
  • Northwest: They got me to Tokyo and Hong Kong on that 1998 but couldn’t get me home, courtesy of a strike that resulted in my getting rebooked on United a day later. Did I complain about having to spend an extra day in Hong Kong? No.
  • Pan Am: The one I miss most of all, as do all self-respecting aviation dorks.
  • PeoplExpress: Not “People’s Express,” damnit. I learned years later that their dense, single-class configurations had earned them the nickname “PeopleCompress.”
  • TWA: I think this was the first airfare the Post paid on my behalf, courtesy of the paper sending me to cover the first E3 video-game trade show in L.A. in 1995.

If you have anything you’d like to say about the departed, the comments are all yours.

The trade-off of travel

I’m in the middle of an unprecedented amount of travel. Two weeks ago, I flew out to L.A. to give a talk at an Edmunds.com conference; tonight, I’m flying to Berlin to cover the IFA consumer-electronics show there; two Sundays from now, I’m off to San Francisco for TechCrunch Disrupt; a week and a half after that, the Online News Association’s annual conference takes place in the same city; one week later, the Demo conference happens in Santa Clara.

I feel tired just reading the preceding sentence. In a normal month, I might have one trip out of town, certainly none requiring my passport.

I have business reasons for all this flying back and forth. I’ve never gone to some of these events before and would like to learn what I’ve missed; I expect to see interesting products debuted and demoed at them; they should represent good networking opportunities for me; at least for this year, I can afford the expense.

(The IFA trip is largely subsidized: The organizers have a pot of money set aside to bring some U.S. journalists there, with no requirement that I can discern to cover a particular vendor or technology. My regular editors were okay with that.)

But I have seriously mixed emotions every time I start to pack.

I hate the part of travel where I have to tear myself away from my lovely wife and our bubbly two-year-old. That dread often sets in not one but two nights before a departure, and it hasn’t gotten that much easier since my first business trip as a dad.

But I like travel itself–seeing the ground fall away from the wing at takeoff and then draw near again as we settle onto the runway, then finding my way around some new part of the world–and that allows the gloom to lift once I reach the airport. (Especially if it’s my beloved National Airport instead of, say, United’s grim C/D concourse at Dulles.)

The other part of traveling as a parent is the spouse debt I run up every time my lovely wife has to care for our bubbly two-year-old solo–something I have done for all of maybe four nights myself. I try to even the balance by setting aside a few nights’ worth of dinner in the fridge and freezer before I head out, but I know I couldn’t do this without the support of my family. And I know how fantastic it will be to come home to them this Sunday afternoon.