Back in March, a video producer who was texting-while-driving slammed into me and totaled the early 90’s hatchback that Kelly and I shared. We went from a one car household to a car-free household overnight. A combination of environmental guilt and distaste for car shopping led us to a six month car free living experiment in Los Angeles. That period ended in late September when we purchased a car from a friend. It’s well past time we came clean and discussed the ups and downs of car-free living, as well as the reasons that led us to start burning dinosaur juice once again.
Only a nobody walks in LA
First let me dispel the myth that you have to have a car in Los Angeles. At least once a year some out of town journalist blows into LA to repeat the usual tired stereotypes about the place, about the celebrities, shallow intellectual culture and always, the notion that nobody walks or bikes in LA. This is because the people writing this stuff have never tried negotiating LA without a car. Over the last twenty years LA has installed an extensive network of trains that will take you in all four directions with considerably less stress than sitting in traffic, especially during rush hour.
The subway and light rail system works especially well if you ride a bike. This was a hitch for Kelly. Understandably, she’s nervous about riding a bike in traffic here. While the bike network is getting better, it’s got a long way to go. Bike lanes have been squeezed in where it’s been convenient for engineers and politicians to do so. To make the bike network really work we’re going to need to begin a more uncomfortable conversation about taking away driving lanes and parking. We’ll know bike revolution has really begun here when we see more women riding bikes (and older people, and kids! — kelly) . And that will happen when it feels safer to do so.
During the time we had no car we figured out our transportation needs almost effortlessly. Having had only one car for a long time we already knew how to use the public transportation system. When we needed a car to go to a far flung suburb or out of town we rented one. We also perfected the fine art of bumming rides.
But when an almost new and well-cared for car dropped into our hands via a friend I couldn’t resist. I’ve struggled with some knee problems of late, which made biking hard, and I felt sorry for Kelly whose dislike of cycling kept her home more ofen. I thought that if we got a car we would not use it much. Unfortunately, cars are like crack pipes and I went on a driving binge for the first few weeks.
But I rekindled my love affair with the subway after one epic two hour car journey in rush hour. If it’s going to take me an hour to go 10 miles I might as well be reading and relaxing on the Expo line. One great thing about living without a car is how all those traffic reports don’t apply, not to mention insurance, repairs and gas.
It took me a long time to write this confession. The truth is that I’m ambivalent about the car. It’s more convenient to have one, especially late at night. And there are times that I don’t feel safe on my bike. On the other hand the automobile is one of the worst machines on the planet and I’m part of that problem once again. It’s also really expensive to keep and maintain a car.
Kelly chimes in:
I’m glad we were car-free for a while, because it deepened my acquaintance with the public transportation system. And as Erik says above, it is actually often faster or more pleasant or more convenient to take public transport than to drive. I expect we’ll continue to use public transport frequently–and I always love to walk.
I will admit that I was gleeful to get the car. I didn’t think we’d ever get one again, because the combination of our innate cheapness, our environmental guilt, and our hatred of used car lots would conspire to prevent any forward momentum. In that light, our friend’s offer was like a gift from the sky.
Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy about a car. Erik was a teeny bit mopey there for a while after we got it–sore from falling off his high horse, I suspect–whereas I was like a thrilled contestant on The Price is Right, jumping around and crying for joy. It’s just a little hatchback but it feels like pure luxury. I couldn’t imagine wanting anything nicer. And yes, the car is evil, but I can’t fight the evil. Not here.
While I could survive without a car, I felt limited, both by my lack of bicycling
cajones cojones, which made getting around much slower and less fun than it would be otherwise, and more importantly, by the complete inaccessibility of many activities I wanted to do. I was missing out on a lot of stuff, and missing nature. We rented a car about once every other week–there was no car share service convenient to our location– and tried to cram our errands into that day, but we couldn’t load the rental car with horse poo or straw bales, and I couldn’t rent a car every time I needed to go to the woods, which is often.
I suppose, in the end, it’s all about lifestyle. I can easily imagine a lifestyle here in the city which would not require a car — but that is not our lifestyle.
A couple things we learned which make car-free living in Los Angeles much more pleasant:
1) Live within walking distance to a train line. This will make all the difference. The city will be your oyster.
2) Own a smart phone. Seems most folks do now, but being luddites really hampered us. With a smart phone we could have checked bus routes and schedules (LA doesn’t post such things at bus stops), and tracked arrival times. You also need a smart phone to use alternative cab services and some of the car share schemes. If we’d remained car-free we would have had to invest in a phone and data plan, and considered that part of the price of transportation.
What do think? Comments!