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How to Enjoy L.A. Arts and Culture Without a Car

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Fri, Apr 13, 2012 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker

When someone asks me if they have to rent a car when visiting L.A., I really, really, really, really want to say no. Of course you can experience L.A. without a car. I do it every day. But for me to explain all the quirks of navigating our transit-nascent city to a wide-eyed visitor, I'd pretty much have to strap them onto my back as I boarded the nearest rapid bus. Now, thankfully, I can simply hand them Nathan Landau's new book.

Where most travel books add a conciliatory line about taking transit in L.A., Landau's Car-Free Los Angeles and Southern California is a door-to-door guidebook to seeing L.A. without getting behind the wheel. From how to get from the airport (FlyAway!) to planning your route (Metro Trip Planner!) to riding the bus to the Getty (without parking, admission is free!) to getting to Disneyland by transit (it's possible!), the detailed transit directions for hundreds of Southern California destinations makes a car-less visit feel possible. And, dare I say, enjoyable.

But a revealing thing about Landau's book is that his tips and advice are almost more resonant for an L.A. resident who wants to give car-free living a shot. Landau actually proposes completely unique itineraries for experiencing Los Angeles, including a few that my transit-savvy self had not even considered. It makes the guide less like a travel book, and more like a handbook for local culture-seekers who'd like to climb out of their cars for a different kind of urban adventure. Here are some of the more compelling ideas I found in Landau's book that will work for anyone -- native or newbie -- who wants to immerse themselves in the other side of L.A.: The one without valet parking.

click to enlarge A trip to the Getty can be a completely car-free experience - ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker
  • A trip to the Getty can be a completely car-free experience

Visit streets, not just sights. Most travel books work the same way: They toss out a bunch of locations like marbles scattered on a table and leave you to your own devices to figure out how to get between them. Landau has a more realistic approach to sightseeing, framing specific stretches of streets as the destinations themselves, and highlighting what to see on a block-by-block basis. "Then think strategically about what you want to see, where things are in relation to each other," he says. "You can see a lot if you cluster things together." Downtown's Spring Street is an obvious favorite of Landau's, as is Hollywood Boulevard. But there are also more surprising strolls, like Washington Boulevard as it cuts through Culver City. "Walking west from the Washington/Fairfax bus hub is interesting because the galleries mix in with the plastic distributors and the car repair places," he says. It'll be even more interesting after the Expo Line opens here April 28.

Stay in a transit-friendly neighborhood. It might seem like an obvious decision, but it's one that many tourists so blatantly avoid. (For locals, this might be interpreted as move to a transit-friendly neighborhood.) Landau suggests strategically choosing neighborhoods like Hollywood, Santa Monica and Pasadena, which give you the most cultural access with the least drive-time. His top pick for an arts and culture weekend? Downtown L.A. Not just because of the high density of museums, but also because of its easy transit accessibility to elsewhere. "It's an easy ride on the very frequent Wilshire rapid to the County Museum, you can take the Gold Line to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena," he says. "The Blue Line will take you down to Watts Towers. You can get to live theatre venues in Hollywood -- like the Fountain Theatre, one of my favorites -- on the Red Line subway."

click to enlarge Long Beach has plentiful bike lanes and cultural venues - ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker
  • Long Beach has plentiful bike lanes and cultural venues

Use the buses as sightseeing tours. Instead of forking out cash for the StarSeeker bus, use Metro's buses as your architectural or scenic tours. As long as you get a good window seat (tip: avoid peak times), these are great ways to see long stretches of the city without having to worry about driving. Landau recommends the 2 as it travels Sunset Boulevard through Echo Park and Silver Lake, Hollywood and the Strip, and Westside mansions (and gates), ending at the PCH. "Since the whole Strip is designed to be a billboard, seeing it on the bus is perfect," he says. Another favorite: the 720, which travels Wilshire from the City of Commerce to Santa Monica, weaving through Art Deco landmarks, Beverly Hills, and the Condo Canyon of Westwood, all the way to the sea. "Wilshire Boulevard was such a focus of L.A. development for so long, it sums up a lot of the city," he says.

Create progressive dining (and drinking) itineraries. Armed with a Metro Day Pass ($5), one can hop on and off any bus on a whim, indulging and imbibing without dealing with driving. For this reason, the 780, which travels from Culver City to Pasadena, is dubbed the Food Bus by Landau, who suggests using it for restaurant- and bar-hopping. "The 780 bus cuts across so many food-oriented areas -- Little Ethiopia, Fairfax, Hollywood, East Hollywood, Los Feliz, Glendale, Eagle Rock, Pasadena -- it's just great," he says. In San Diego, also extensively covered in the book, Landau recommends MTS line 2, which the city itself has dubbed "The coolest bus in America" in a nod to the bus's convivial atmosphere after dark. "30th Street is a three-mile corridor of eateries and drinkeries -- too far to walk the whole thing -- but the bus helps to knit that long stretch together," he says. "Maybe there are some streets in L.A. which could use this kind of promotion."

click to enlarge The Blue Line offers a car-free alternative to visiting Watts Towers - ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker
  • The Blue Line offers a car-free alternative to visiting Watts Towers

Take a car-free trip to Santa Barbara. Now here's a true vacation for an Angeleno: A vacation from driving! Landau suggests hopping the Amtrak Surfliner to Santa Barbara for a blissful non-car weekend. A program called Santa Barbara Car Free lists discounts and incentives at local hotels and restaurants if you present your Amtrak ticket. Plentiful bike rentals and free(!) city buses make getting around the city a breeze. Plus, as Landau points out, there's more museums per capita than anywhere else in California. "Santa Barbara has four accredited museums, the fourth largest number in the state, even though dozens of California cities are larger."

Know it's only going to get better. Still not convinced that you can do L.A. without a car? That's okay. Perhaps the most attractive part of the L.A. car-free experience is that it's always improving. Take the new light rail line opening this month. "The Expo Line will be really helpful for culture vultures," says Landau. "It goes right to a pile of museums in Exposition Park then goes to Culver City, where there are galleries and theatres and great restaurants."

But there are other changes, too. "Metro's been running the Red, Purple, and Blue rail lines every 10 minutes in the evening, up until midnight, instead of every 20. That makes it a lot more convenient to go to plays, movies, concerts." And as transit expands, Landau thinks we'll see more cultural institutions choose to locate near transit centers. For example, Libros Schmibros, the Boyle Heights bookstore, recently moved to Mariachi Plaza, right next to the Gold Line station. "The Broad Museum is going in downtown. The Motion Picture Academy decided to build its museum at Wilshire and Fairfax, at a planned station on the Purple Line subway extension," he says. "There's going to be more of this as time goes on."

Landau will be reading from his book and leading a transit tour on Sunday, May 6 at The Last Bookstore, which is easily accessible by several Metro buses and the Red Line.

Alissa Walker blogs at Gelatobaby.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gelatobaby and for more arts news like us on Facebook or follow us at @LAWeeklyArts.

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