Cars? In Berkeley? Specifically, My Old Red Van?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday February 01, 2013 - 12:22:00 PM

So okay, has anyone seen a 1995 red Honda Odyssey, a small van, that doesn’t belong on their block?

Someone stole (or “borrowed”) my car on Wednesday night, darn it. 

This is not the first time I’ve had a car stolen, nor will it be the last, I expect. 

The pleasant officer who came promptly, arriving very soon after I called the Berkeley police, said that these old Hondas and Toyotas are easy to steal because many keys will work in them. In fact, our even older car, the ’88 Toyota, was stolen four times. It was found twice in Richmond and once in the Elmwood, seemingly borrowed by someone who just wanted transport for the evening. A new owner is dealing with that one now. 

This one, the erstwhile “new car”, has never before been taken— we tried a club on the old Toyota, but I didn’t think my van needed one. Somehow I thought Hondas were more secure, but evidently I was wrong.  

Our previous really old car, a Ford Econoline, was stolen a couple of times in Ann Arbor in the early 70s, by a smart alec who first stole the keys. After its second outing the resident engineer jerry-rigged an alarm system which sounded the horn if a key was turned in the ignition without turning off a switch. When the horn eventually went off, we rushed out to see the back of a very surprised young man who left behind his key chain with dozens of keys to other people’s cars. But we don’t hold with commercial car alarms here, because vibrations from the constant traffic on Ashby Avenue set them off all the time, much to the annoyance of the neighbors.  

It’s just urban living at its best, and we’re used to it. Living as we do on one of Berkeley’s small number of sacrifice streets, we see more of this kind of thing than our friends who are privileged to live behind barriers or in the hills do, though it happens everywhere. 

This city is a living testament to failed planning of all kinds. Woe to those who make friends in neighborhoods not their own—typically, you can’t get there from here. It’s possible to expel endless carbon and expend endless hours trying to figure out how to drive to the home of a new acquaintance in another part of Berkeley. 

Oh, you say, you should be biking instead? Well, sure, if you’re fully able-bodied and preferably young, but riding a bicycle is a luxurious option with diminishing availability as life’s vicissitudes take their inevitable toll on your body.  

Or perhaps a bus? It’s a continuing mystery to me that as propaganda for public transport increases in frequency and volume, bus routes continue to shrink and vanish. When my kids were at Berkeley High, they could jump on a 65 bus at our front door and be there in 20 minutes. I could take the E bus at all hours of the day and night to my job in San Francisco. The 51 bus went from Alameda to the Berkeley marina with no need to change at Rockridge BART. These buses were modest in size, frequent, speedy and usually full. And there were even clean, safe and reliable Greyhound buses that my daughters could take from Oakland to visit their grandparents in Santa Cruz, but no more. 

Now AC Transit has sunk untold millions into gigantic ocean liners that can only be accessed on major streets like Telegraph, and can be seen, often travelling in pairs, using huge amounts of energy on warming the planet, with at most four passengers on board. The well-concealed fact about current state-of-the-art public transit is that it uses MORE energy per passenger mile than efficient automobiles with multiple passengers.  

Nonetheless, huge sites in and near downtown Berkeley have recently been rezoned, both locally and per operation of California law, as targets for what is euphemistically called “transit-oriented development” (TOD). The philosophical underpinning of TOD legislation seems to be “if we build it they will come”—contrary data be damned. It’s a kind of cargo cult, like those of natives of South Sea islands who built elaborate constructs anticipating the arrival of ships with lavish gifts. But though “transit villages” are proliferating, the transit never comes. 

In downtown Berkeley, the latest promoted project (with skids well-greased by hiring an ex-City-of-Berkeley planner to “expedite” the permit process) aims to construct luxury apartments to serve as bedrooms for highly paid commuters to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Will they take buses? Maybe to and from work, but on their ski weekends or day trips to Point Reyes? I doubt it. Never fear, they’ll have ample cars to keep in the commodious planned on-site garage. 

Yet and still, Berkeley is also spot zoning sites in West Berkeley which are close to the freeway and far from BART or buses, for office projects which will inevitably be peopled by high tech employees driving down from the hills or on freeways through tunnels and over bridges to get to work. There’s no sign of imminent arrival of transit down there. 

So the bottom line seems to be that it’s still mighty hard and getter harder, not easier, for most people to navigate the Bay Area without a car, and Berkeley’s not much better than the ‘burbs despite a lot of pious rhetoric. Yes, the mayor does occasionally walk from his Berkeley digs to City Hall, just a few blocks, but he’s often seen in his wife’s car (state-supplied?) on other excursions. And frankly, he’s even older than I am, so why should I begrudge him that convenience? 

I guess that I’ll just have to hope that the cheerful police officer was right in his estimation that my own car will soon be found, since I need to travel to points farther than downtown Berkeley where public transit really doesn’t function. He said that mostly these old Hondas and Toyotas are just taken by someone who needs quick transportation, and they’re abandoned at the destination. 

It’s possible that the problem of casual car theft by stranded travelers would be alleviated if AC Transit beefed up its totally inadequate late night service to the remoter reaches of Richmond and Oakland. Worth a try, anyway. But in the meantime, until the cargo ship arrives, please do let me or the police know if you spot an old red Honda van somewhere.