"Los Angeles is where personal freedom is defined by the automobile. A city where store entrances are accessible through parking lots rather than sidewalks," observes artist Diane Meyer in her essay, "Car-less in Los Angeles." The remark found instant resonance with my life in the city. A year and a half here brought home this city's love affair with their own four wheels. Such is the obsession, that I get detailed parking instructions, every place I go, people safely assuming that I have a car. Public transport are often dirty words, used with much restraint, when giving directions.
"Most Angelenos assume that there isn't any alternative to car culture because they've never tried anything else," says Meyer, who has interviewed 100 other car-less individuals like me, for her upcoming exhibition, titled "Without A Car in the World." Funded by the California Council for the Humanities California Stories Fund, which supports creative work based on interviews collected from a community of California residents, Meyer's exhibit features images and interviews about car-less dwellers in L.A. and aims to address how "car culture has shaped psychological, spatial and geographic perceptions of the city."
An assistant professor of photography at the Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Meyer herself made the "least-L.A.-like decision in early 2008," and got rid of her Volkswagen Jetta. After the nerve-wracking fear of losing her car began to dissipate, a new feeling -- one of relief -- surged over her, she remembers. It dawned upon her that it was the end to the alarm clock's tone that reminded her to move her car for street cleaning; the agony of parking tickets or the struggle for 10 minutes in an overcrowded neighborhood to find a spot in which to park. That, along with "no more buying/pumping gas, caring about gas prices and paying $900 monthly in car-related expenses," she adds.
For her project, Meyer tracked down subjects via the Internet: Craigslist ads; posts on blogs like the L.A. Green Girl helped; references from friends; Bus Riders Union; L.A. County Bicycle Coalition; sometimes she approached people directly on the bus or Metro. She lugged 150 pounds of equipment on mass transit, from South Bay to Boyle Heights, from the Valley to Altadena, taking pictures of car-less Angelenos. "That I was able to get to all of these places by bus with my equipment demonstrated how accessible L.A. is by mass transit," she says. But Meyer also admits that it was definitely challenging lugging the extra gear on a crowded bus, as well as walking with it through neighborhoods.
Among the 100 like her whom she has interviewed, being car-less in the city has ranged from those who opted out during the mid-1960 to present-day souls who don't have their own wheels. Her subjects are an assorted bunch, including: day laborers; the founder of LA Eco-Village; students; an actress; a comic book creator; a journalist; and the UCLA Women's Center director. Reasons to go car-less have varied, from parking woes, ideologies about car culture and the environment, accident trauma, finances, and simply being tired of spending a lot of time in a car or in traffic. The interviews have also offered interesting insights into the city's commuting way of life, which, Meyer hopes, will encourage others to consider alternatives to owning a car. The decrease in levels of stress; weight loss due to exercise while commuting; interaction with fellow nondrivers; and a lessening of the feelings of isolation are just a handful of the positive outcomes. "Everyone who went car-less said that it was much easier than they'd expected," Meyer says.
Despite the advantages, mass transit isn't always fun: The single mom who must transfer twice on local buses in order to take her kids to a school that is less than two miles from home; an elderly woman from South Central was mugged while waiting for the bus, and now refuses to step out after night falls; laborers who sometimes walk 20 miles in the middle of the night to make their way home; people being passed over for a job because they don't have wheels, as well as the social stigma or assumptions that are made about them because they are car-less are only some of the hurdles that deter individuals from using the city's mass transit. Other factors, like routes that don't run 24 hours; or infrequent bus service; the city's geographic constraints; the difficulties posed by poorly maintained sidewalks; and the absence of wheelchair ramps for disabled passengers also make being car-less difficult.
Meyer acknowledges that it's not possible for everyone to stop driving but simply wants people to consider that there can be alternatives. "Try a trial run on mass transit for a few weeks and get used to using the car less. Sit down and figure out your spending on your car -- the cost might actually shock you into feel as though the inconvenience of not having a car is much less," she suggests.
Her exhibit, she hopes, will highlight mobility issues in L.A. and help people to imagine better transit alternatives. "The 100 people featured in this project prove that the city can be enjoyed, productive lives can be led, sometimes, even improved, without a car. However, the difficulties remain, and Los Angeles clearly has a long commute ahead," she concedes.
Without a Car in the World: 100 Car-less Angelenos Tell Stories of Living in
October 17- December 11, 2009
18th Street Arts Center
1639 18th St., Santa Monica, Gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
(310) 453 3711