Bark's Bites: A Weekend Without A Car
After a week in which I was burned in effigy by some “autowriters” who didn’t much care for my editorial about their complete and total lack of ethics (don’t worry, fellas — I still won’t send you a bunch of web traffic, er, I mean, name names), I found myself in a situation that Alanis Morissette would call “ironic.”
I was going to spend the weekend in Philadelphia at the glorious Hotel Monaco, right in the Old City across the street from Independence Hall. Thanks to a last-minute deal, I got a magnificent rate of $100/night, but there was still the specter of the $43/night parking rate looming over my head, not to mention the difficulties of finding parking elsewhere in the city once I actually retrieved my vehicle from the valet.
As a result, I decided to go without a rental car for the four-day weekend, instead depending entirely on Uber and the city’s taxi services to squire Mrs. Bark and me around the City of Brotherly Love. This was the perfect way to test out the only viable theory that some of my colleagues in the automotive journalism (not that there’s much journalism going on, but that’s another subject for another time) game put forth as to why some writers don’t own cars.
“It’s too difficult and/or expensive to own a car in the city,” they said. As somebody who was born in the Greater New York City area, but has spent most of his life in the Midwest and the South, I was eager to see if I, too, would make the choice to go carelessly carless on the eastern seaboard.
As with most cities, Philly doesn’t make it easy to use Uber at the airport. My only Uber option at PHL was a black car, which my app estimated would be a $61 to $76 expense to take into Center City. From prior visits, I know that the flat rate for taxis from the airport to downtown is $28.50, so I opted to hop into the first waiting vehicle. That’s where I found this sign awaiting me:
As we exited the airport and hopped on I-95 South, our taxi driver suddenly swerved off the ramp onto the shoulder and came to a halt. “Lots of traffic and accidents today,” he said in halting English. I have no idea why that made him pull over, considering the highway heading into the city was nearly devoid of cars at 4:17 p.m. He apparently felt safe enough to continue on our journey, as he re-entered the highway and made his way into town. The generally sad condition of his Toyota Sienna minivan made me wish the 17-minute trip would end as soon as possible.
Luckily, the Hotel Monaco, my favorite hotel in the Kimpton universe, awaited us.
Sigh. Happiness. I love the Monaco. Not only is it perfectly situated in the middle of All Things Tourism in historic Philly, and not only is it the home of the sinfully cool Stratus Lounge on the rooftop, it also happens to have the most tastefully and beautifully appointed rooms of any hotel in the world.
We arrived just in time for the famous wine hour from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., where we cozied up to the lobby’s fireplace and made our plans for the evening. I’m a huge fan of El Vez, but it’s notoriously difficult to get reservations there (even for famous autowriters), so we decided to head over to the trendy South 13th Street area and take our chances.
Since we didn’t have a car, we made use of the most basic form of human transportation: My Adidas.
The walk from the Monaco to El Vez was a little less than a mile, and since Mrs. Bark and I are both in relatively good shape, we didn’t mind the leisurely walk down Walnut Street past Washington Park, the final resting place of hundreds of unknown Revolutionary War soldiers. The weather was mild enough, at a cool 43 degrees or so, to make it an easy jaunt in our winter coats. Unfortunately, El Vez had a wait of 2 1/2 hours, so we pulled up the traveler’s best friend: Yelp. It informed us that an even more highly-rated Mexican restaurant, Lolita, was directly across the street. They, too, had an immense wait time, but luckily, two seats opened up at the bar as soon as we walked in.
Lolita is now my favorite Mexican restaurant — not only in Philly, but in the world. My fried chicken tacos were fucking perfection, while Mrs. Bark’s fish tacos (STOP IT) were delightful, as well.
After dinner, we wandered over to Philly’s imposing City Hall and Love Park, where we explored the vast array of temporary shops set up there for the “Christmas Village” shopping area. It was incredibly quaint. What was considerably less quaint was the walk back to the Monaco, down Chestnut Street after dark. Philly does a great job keeping the historic areas and the trendy shopping areas free of those who would do harm. The rest of the city? Not so much.
As we walked down the eerily quiet street, nearly every doorway seemed to be home to a beggar. The streets weren’t lit nearly as well as I would have liked. Several of the sidewalks were under construction, and we were forced to walk underneath scaffolding that seemed harmless in the daylight, but appeared to be the perfect place for anybody who would be lurking, hoping to prey upon out-of-town tourists. Luckily, we avoided any such encounters, save for a overly-persistent panhandler or two, and we made it safely back to the confines of the Monaco. After that less than pleasant stroll, I decided to make use of Uber for longer trips, as well as those that took place after dark.
The next day, we walked across the street in the late morning and took a tour of the wondrous place that is Independence Hall — the very building where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. To stand in the footsteps of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington is a humbling experience, indeed. We then set out in search of the best Philly Cheesesteak.
The tourists’ favorites of Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Cheesesteaks are a stone’s throw away from each other on East Passyunk Avenue, which is a little over 1.3 miles away from Independence Hall. We decided to take our first Uber ride of the weekend and, after a bit of confusion as to where we actually were at that moment, we were picked up by Sang — a recent Temple University Finance graduate — in his new Toyota RAV4.
Sang drives Uber on the weekends to pick up spare cash, because the $150,000/year he makes at his financial industry job isn’t enough for him to live comfortably in Philadelphia. Ouch. He told us of the $5,000 house he bought near Temple when he was a student so he could establish residency, which saved him a considerable amount on tuition. After Temple invested over a billion dollars gentrifying the neighborhood, he sold it for $310,000 only three years later. I’m still not sure why Sang needs to drive for Uber.
He did tell us, as did every other person in Philadelphia over the course of the weekend, that neither Pat’s nor Geno’s was the place to go for cheesesteaks.
“Only tourists go there,” Sang told us. “You want to go to Jim’s.”
After he dropped us off, we discovered that both Pat’s and Geno’s only offer outdoor seating. While I’m sure this isn’t a problem in the summer, it was only 32 degrees that afternoon and Mrs. Bark wasn’t having that. As a result, we ended up wandering up the street into the Italian Market area where we found yet another wonderful Mexican restaurant, Blue Corn. Remember how I said Lolita was now my favorite Mexican restaurant? I totally meant that at the time. Blue Corn was unfathomably good. They had a salmon quesadilla that was so delicious that I forgot that I don’t like salmon.
However, we were still a lengthy walk away from our next destination, Macy’s in the former Wanamaker building. Thus, I dialed up the Uber app again and requested a ride. This time, we got Willy and his Hyundai Sonata.
Willy was a slightly older gentleman who was incredibly directionally impaired. Despite his GPS telling him exactly where to go, Willy got lost twice. Actually, he got lost three times — one of which was on the way to pick us up. I watched Willy wander around aimlessly on the Uber app, cursing him with every wrong turn. I have no idea how our 1.2 mile trip took seventeen minutes, but it did. Willy, however, was a nice guy who offered pleasant, harmless conversation. I didn’t mind the experience as much as one might suppose I would, but I was mercifully glad to get out of the car across the street from our destination and bid him farewell. I still gave him five stars on the app because we live in the Google reviews era where people only give one or five stars to everything, and Willy didn’t deserve one star.
Both of our trips that afternoon were subject to “surge pricing,” which is what Uber does when the demand exceeds the supply. Our fares were 1.5 times the normal price. I suppose that I could have waited for fares to go down, or I could have walked. But, in both instances, I decided to pay the extra fee for convenience.
I won’t bore you further with the details of every Uber trip we took for the rest of the weekend, but I will give you some highlights here:
- Maher spoke no English, drove with his windows down in freezing temperatures, but was otherwise fine. Paid surge pricing again. 12 minutes to go a mile.
- Arthur drove us to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Christmas concert in a very pimped out, slightly older BMW 7-Series. He asked us which radio station we preferred, told us to go to the Reading Terminal Market and get a Roast Pork sandwich from DiNic’s (which we did), and delivered us quickly and safely. Took us 13 minutes to go about five blocks, due to some challenging traffic patterns around Broad Street. (Mrs. Bark did not want to walk in her sassy heels.)
- Said could not find us after the concert at the Kimmel Center. He went to the wrong entrance, and he could not speak English well enough for me to communicate to him where we were, so we just ended up walking to him. However, once inside his Toyota Avalon, we had a quick ride home to the hotel.
- The best ride of the weekend went to Karl, who hustled his Jetta Hybrid across town with great velocity and agility. He deftly changed lanes and found holes in the traffic where I didn’t think they could be found. I suggested to him that he join the Philly SCCA and go autocrossing. He drove us the 2 1/2 miles from the hotel to the Art Museum in just 14 minutes, a feat which I doubt could be replicated by real racing drivers.
- This was followed immediately by the worst ride of the weekend, Nikesha in her two-generation-old Maxima. She cranked the music to the point where we had difficulty hearing each other speak and, not only that, the music was filled with obscenities. I would have asked her to turn it down, but it was almost funny. We rode with her from the Art Museum to Jim’s Cheesesteaks where, upon arrival, she informed us that we had chosen the wrong cheesesteak. That was the first and last time she spoke to us. I gave her three stars and a “TURN DOWN YOUR MUSIC!” comment on the app. I immediately got an e-mail response from Uber management, apologizing for my experience.
- Jason took us to Rittenhouse Square in his Maxima wordlessly, also with the windows down. Unremarkable trip.
- Finally, Shermain drove us back to the airport on Monday in her new Corolla. She streamed my Spotify Jazz playlist on the ride, which was a nice bonus. The fare was $18.84, about half of the fare plus tips of our taxi into town three days earlier.
Overall, my Uber fares totaled $75.93 for the weekend. My taxi was $35, including tip. For four days of transportation, we paid $110.93. A rental car would have cost about $45 a day from National, plus the $43 parking fee, plus however much it would have cost to park it elsewhere in the city, for a total of $309 plus additional city garage/street parking fees. There’s no question that, for a weekend trip, it makes much, much more sense to Uber than rent a car.
But what about everyday life? Wouldn’t the impracticality of having a car in a big, urban city like Philadelphia (or New York, or Chicago) become further magnified by actual car ownership? Don’t those urban, city-dwelling journalists have a point when they say they don’t need a car?
No. No, I don’t think that they do. First of all, living in the city is a choice one makes, and it’s rarely out of necessity. I understand that some outlets, including Jalopnik and Road & Track (two other fine websites where you can find examples of my work), are based in New York, but you don’t have to live in the city to work there. That’s a choice you make. And those guys who work there do, for the most part, own their own cars.
Secondly, if you’re passionate about something, you’re likely going to throw entire heaps of rationale out of the closest window. I don’t own forty pairs of dress shoes because I need them. I like shoes. I don’t write about cars because of the piles of cash that TTAC sends me at the end of each month. I do it because I love cars. And if you love cars, you should own one, regardless of where you live. You might be like our friend David, who moved to downtown Chicago and garages his 991 GT3 in Atlanta, because he loves cars. Of course it’s inconvenient. He does it out of love.
Lastly, if you live in the city, and if you’re a sage, inventor, and patriot like Ben Franklin, you can just have prisoners from the local jail carry you around in one of these:
Mrs. Bark looked dashing (and comfortable) in one of Franklin’s “sedans” that we saw at the Benjamin Franklin Museum.
There you have it. If you’re visiting, go with Uber. If you live there, and you have a passion for cars, I’m confident that you’ll figure out a way to make car ownership work.
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“I watched Willy wander around aimlessly on the Uber app, [the app] cursing him with every wrong turn…I still gave him five stars on the app” “Maher spoke no English, drove with his windows down in freezing temperatures” “She cranked the music to the point where we had difficulty hearing each other speak and, not only that, the music was filled with obscenities. I would have asked her to turn it down, but it was almost funny…I gave her three stars and a “TURN DOWN YOUR MUSIC!” comment on the app” I will never understand people who don’t speak up for themselves and their lady at times like this. If you’re paying for a service and not happy with what you’re getting, the time to say something is in the moment; not afterwards with a passive-agressive review. Who said chivalry is dead? “if you love cars, you should own one, regardless of where you live” I love cars, but I live in the city and can’t justify the cost. Cars cost thousands of dollars per year. They may be an essential appliance for people who live in the suburbs; but for me in the city; there are many more life-enriching things I could do with that money. Ironically, selling my car last year was a great choice as a “car guy”. Now, I drive and ride in a much wider variety of cars than I ever have before. Want to rent something fun for the weekend? Services like RelayRides and Getaround, where ordinary people can rent their cars, offers nice options in my area like a WRX, Z4, or 350Z. Instead of driving the same Mazda 3 every day, I’m spoiled for choice.
Wow. I cannot believe what has become of the Farago creation. Removed from my reader. Life is too short, kiddies. The Peter Principile, writ large. Edit if you feel the need.