Walkin’ in L.A., nobody walks in L.A.
Walkin’ in L.A.
Walkin’ in L.A., only a nobody walks in L.A.
– Missing Persons
Erik: It’s been nearly two months since a texting video producer totaled the car that Kelly and I shared: a 1993 teal Acura Integra hatchback. Except for a few car rentals, we haven’t been doing much driving. In short, we get to claim the olive wreath of eco-smugness: living car-free in the epicenter of car culture, Los Angeles. Not even the electric car driving Ed Begley Jr. can aspire to our level of self-righteousness. I’d like to continue the experiment.
Kelly: Hmmm….do I get to be the bad guy in this debate? The car partisan? To me, it’s not so much a question of car or no car. I don’t like cars. I’d love to live without a car. The question for me is more like LA or no LA, because this city is built around the car. I want to live car-free, but I don’t want to do it here. I know it’s possible–we’ve been doing it. But it’s not pleasant.
Have you ever heard the term “pole shade”? It’s the thin sliver of shadow thrown down by the pole of a street light. People waiting for buses in LA huddle in the pole shadows, trying to shelter from the insanely intense LA sun. There are very few bus shelters here. Bus stops are ill-marked afterthoughts in an already unlovely urban landscape. I stand in the pole shade, wondering if the bus will ever come, and I seethe about the way this city treats its pedestrians.
Erik: It’s a stereotype that LA is car-centric. If I had a dollar for every time some out of town journalist drops in here for a weekend and files a report repeating the “nobody uses public transit in LA” mantra I’d be a millionaire. LA has a very extensive public transit system. I will admit that I prefer to ride LA’s expanding rail system (sorry Bus Rider’s Union, trains are more comfortable and you’re not stuck in traffic with everyone else). Part of Kelly’s problem is what transportation wonks call “the last mile problem.” It refers to the inconvenient distance one needs to cover to get to the nearest train stop. We’re actually 1.8 miles from the nearest subway stop–a bit too far to walk, at least if you’re in a hurry. This is where the bike/train cocktail comes in. They go together like a good gin and tonic.
Kelly: Yep, and there’s the sticking point. The bike. I agree with Erik. The trains here are pretty nice, but it’s hard to get to them without a bike. It’s possible by bus, but amazingly tedious and backward and time wasting. Basically, public transportation here doesn’t support your life, it becomes your life.
Example: we went to visit Erik’s mom last week for a lunch date. She lives about 15 miles away. We left our house at 10 and came back at 5. We had a good long visit with her and about four hours of transit time total. Good thing we’re self-employed.
So yes, the only way to get around with any speed or dignity is to use a bike in conjunction with the trains or buses. My problem is that I’m frightened of riding in LA. I live with a bike activist. I’m not coming from a place of ignorance here. I know driving is dangerous in itself and you can ride defensively, etc. etc., but I’ve also seen what happens when a car hits an unprotected human body. That sort of damage is not abstract. It’s not a call to the insurance company and a tow to the body shop. It’s a complete re-writing of your life script–if you’re lucky.
And since the rise of the smart phone and ubiquitous texting, I also see that nobody is paying any attention when they drive. It’s worse out there than it has ever been. Spend some time standing at the bus stop watching drivers and you’ll see what I mean.
As a matter of fact, right before we lost our car, Erik had been saying that he no longer felt comfortable out there on his bike (I’m outing you,honey!) and after years of pestering me to ride, had admitted that it was probably better for me not to. Not in LA. But now that story has changed, so he’s returned to his bike and is doing well with this car free lifestyle
For me though, I’ve found myself becoming more of a shut-in than ever since we lost our car. I’m happy to walk anywhere in a two mile radius. 3 miles for special occasions, if it’s not hot. I can walk to the library, the post office, the drug store, a few friends’ houses, some restaurants and coffee places and my exercise studio. I’m lucky in this way. But if I want to go anywhere outside my “village”, the prospect is daunting. So I don’t go. My world has closed in around me.
Whenever I complain about living in LA, Erik reminds me that it is a world class city with many amazing cultural attractions and opportunities that’s we’d miss if we gave it up. Well, I’ve given in up. As of now I’m living in a really, really expensive small town with terrible air quality.
Should I man-up and get on the bike? Erik, do you want to see me on the bike?
Erik: I want to see a more bike friendly Los Angeles for everyone including Kelly. Believe it or not, things are actually better than they used to be. After the Mayor’s bike accident in 2006 and a new head of the LA Department of Transportation, the city has been putting in more bike lanes (though, admittedly, they often don’t pay attention to details).
Bikes for me are a simple public health issue. We are looking at a present and future obesity and diabetes crisis of apocalyptic proportions if we don’t get our kids moving. But it’s going to take time. There is over a hundred years of car advertising deeply engrained into our subconscious minds–cars are much more than transportation–they are symbols of freedom, virility and safety. As one public health official put it, it took eighty years to reduce smoking, and it’s going to take just as long to get people walking and biking again.
We will know that bike infrastructure works when we see more women and school age kids riding bikes. And, the good news is that I see a lot of high school kids on bikes. I even had a pack of them pull me over one time so they could look at my road bike. I never thought that would ever happen in Los Angeles.
I understand Kelly’s objections to riding a bike. Paradoxically the answer might be along the lines of, “if you can’t beat them join them.” That is, how about we get that laptop our yours hooked up wirelessly to the interwebs so you can get some work done while you ride on the bus?
Kelly: Ugh. Why don’t I get a smart phone while I’m at it so I can spend all my transit time hunched over it, poking the screen and enjoying my virtual life. The virtual life is the important one, right? That’s what makes it okay for cities like this one to suck so much.
But I see that Erik and I are both doing something fairly useless, which is opining on how things should be. How this city could be improved. It doesn’t help in any immediate way with the issue at hand, which is whether or not we buy a new car.
Erik: Making cities safe for walking and biking is exactly the kind of issue where individuals, working with city officials, can make a difference. In short, we need more moms to show up with their kids at meetings and demand safer streets.
Kelly: Great. I’ll just live my Grey Gardens existence until the moms of LA mobilize and make this city into the Amsterdam of the West. Credit to Erik: he worked with the Bicycle Coalition in LA for a long time to make this place better. Many of his friends are still actively working the cause. They’ve made progress in the face of daunting resistance and apathy, but there is still such a long way to go.
Note: I feel like I should add an aside here. I know someone reading this is going to be asking, “What about Zip cars/car shares?” The closest Zip car zone is about 3 miles away. We can get there by bus plus a little walking. It would probably take about 40 minutes to pick up a car, what with walking to the bus and waiting for the bus. It’s not impossible. It’s not that enticing, either.
Erik: There are also more informal car share arrangements. I know someone, who lives downtown, who is part of such a program. Maybe we should look into creating a car share program in our neighborhood.
Kelly: Well, yes, that is a possibility, but is it a likelihood? Are we going to actually get down to the legalities of setting up that system, finding partners, finding a car, committing to the time it would take to maintain such a project and really making it happen, or are we just going to talk about it?
This is getting pressing. I can get by for basic things without a car, but not having access to one has clipped my wings, especially when it comes to outdoor activities, which are important to me. I’ve already rented a car for a weekend outdoor skills course but I’ve also missed some interesting half day classes and lectures since the death of the car, since I couldn’t justify a rental for those occasions. I have no access to the mountains, and that makes me sad.
Also, I’m worried about the animals. We have a cat in heart failure. How will we get her to her specialty vets, both of which are in other cities? What about emergencies? What about all the farm and gardening supplies we have to haul around?
It seems to me that deciding to live without a car in a city like this is a little like deciding to take religious orders. It involves a reworking of all your habits and considerable sacrifice. It would be much easier if we didn’t have pets and backyard livestock and a big garden. It would be easier if we lived closer to a train line.
I want to live a conscious life. I want to live lightly. I know one of the biggest failures of the environmental movement is that everyone is talking but no one is walking. Literally!! No one is walking. I’m as bad as everyone else.
Erik: Like so many other debates these days, we tend to fall into a dualistic trap–car vs. bike, boxers vs. briefs etc. Perhaps there’s a middle ground here. I still think there is great potential for a neighborhood car share, particularly with the large number of “creatives” here who work at home. We really only need a car periodically. And I have to say I really enjoy not having all the expenses and hassles relating to owning a car. It’s worth the extra wait for the bus. My last word? I don’t want us to end up like this:
Kelly: Creative solutions are fine–if they happen.
My notion is to buy functional old beater with hauling capability. It won’t cost much to buy or insure. It already exists in the world, so we’re just doing the service of squeezing every last useful mile out of it. Having practiced living car free, we can continue to use the car only when necessary, as if it were a rental. For instance, we can be smart about combining shopping trips, and make rules about walking to destinations within, say, one mile.
Erik, you have three weeks to present me with a workable car-share scheme. June 11th is your deadline. After that, I’m hitting Craigslist.