Already overwhelmed on a hectic morning, I grew frantic when my car made a sound akin to a game-show buzzer. I didn't know that cars did that, but it would be my money-sucking convertible that revealed the fact.
Assuming it was a misfire by the faulty electrical system, I (foolishly) finished driving to work before taking the vehicle to a shop. Bad move. The shop told me the engine was fried, and driving after it sounded the alarm hadn't helped. Whether the car could be fixed was iffy, and it would cost a substantial chunk of change to try. I wasn't willing to take the risk.
Rather than shop for a new car, I decided it was time to go car-free – something I'd wanted to do for some time. I'd actually chosen my apartment in Los Feliz partly because of its proximity to a Metro station. Plus, I'd just taken up cycling.Still, it wasn't an easy transition. For one thing, I had to figure out what to do about my car. Undrivable, it sat in the shop for days while I stalled for time, agonizing over several questions. Could I sell my car for scrap even though I still had a loan balance? (No – I had to pay the loan off, which meant more time stalling while it was being processed.) Was I ready to live without a car? I knew I could get to my office – I already frequently used public transit to get there – but what about off-site work meetings? What about socializing?
It took several stressful days to work out my plans. But in the end, I paid off and then sold the convertible. Though nervous about life without a car, I was relieved to be rid of it – and thrilled that I didn't face the dreaded prospect of shopping for a new vehicle.
That was about two years ago. And though I encountered plenty of skepticism from those who were sure I wouldn't last, I still get around via public transit and bike.
Even though car-free living is becoming more popular among young city dwellers, it strikes many folks as a weird way to live in L.A. Just 7 percent of the city's households (and 5 percent of county households) lack “regular access” to a vehicle, says Eric Bruins of the 1,500-strong L.A. Bike Coalition. For most people, getting around without a car in a city this sprawling is unthinkable.
But while I knew I'd be sacrificing convenience, I was excited to leave the freeway behind. I'd had a contentious relationship with L.A.'s roads from the start.
In fact, the day I moved to Los Angeles, the freeway brought me to tears. It was the end of a four-day journey, which started in my home state, Oklahoma. Most of my trip toward the Golden State took place on the fairly open desert road. But once I crossed the California border, both dealing with traffic and finding my way became much more difficult.
That night, I managed to reach the L.A. area just in time for rush hour on the freeway. I'd never even heard of a freeway. I was flummoxed at how traffic could be so congested and move so fast at the same time. It was terrifying – and changing lanes to get to an exit seemed impossible. Lost, overwhelmed and panicked, I pulled into Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, the only place I could find to stop that didn't require parallel parking. In the cemetery office, I placed a teary phone call and asked relatives to pick me up.
In time, I got (mostly) used to freeways and traffic, but I never really enjoyed driving around the city, or dealing with other realities of car ownership. Standstill traffic wasted hours. I got lost numerous times before I had a GPS-capable cellphone (and sometimes after, if my phone died before I reached my destination). I got parking tickets because I forgot to move my car on street-sweeping days. Parking in a Hollywood garage for a few hours cost $20. And, all too often, I found myself sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups in auto shop waiting rooms while my car underwent yet another round of unanticipated repairs.
Eliminating those stressors felt good immediately, but adjusting to a new way of living wasn't easy. Every time I wanted to go somewhere, I had to log on to the web and get directions, which often were confusing. I'd taken the Metro many times, but the bus system still seemed mysterious and intimidating. I didn't know where bus stops were located, what to do if the bus was late, or how long it would take to get anywhere (usually about 30 minutes longer than apps or websites predict).
Sometimes I found myself struggling to carry all the things I needed for the day. And I had a few “adventures in public transit,” reaching events late or missing them altogether because a bus was late or didn't show.
Despite the challenges, I soon felt more comfortable getting myself (and my stuff) around. I attached a basket on the back of my bike so I could carry a change of clothes for the gym. I bought a big backpack with plenty of pockets so I could tote my laptop, lunch, a book and anything else I needed. I cycled to work, arrived feeling refreshed, and hung my helmet on my office door.
There were sacrifices, of course. I found myself accepting fewer social invitations – it just wasn't feasible to get to every event I previously would have attended. My Saturdays of jumping from a Pasadena barbecue to a Silver Lake party gave way to simpler, slower-paced weekends.
And simplifying felt good. Walking and biking added exercise to my day. Reducing my transportation expenses allowed me to pay off my credit card debt. I started to spend more time in my own neighborhood, and really enjoy what it has to offer. To be fair, I haven't eschewed driving and emissions altogether. I'm a member of car-share service Zipcar, which means I can pay an hourly rate to use its vehicles. Zipcar claims that each of its vehicles – 230 cars in the greater Los Angeles area – takes about 15 others off the road.
The fact that Zipcar had come to L.A. was one of the factors that first convinced me I could manage without owning a car. When I was first adapting to car-free living, I used Zipcars about once a month to stock up on groceries, get to the beach or attend parties across town. As I grew more adept at car-free living, I needed Zipcars less often. I walk to the grocery store, and ride the bus even to reach the Westside (the occasional drive to the beach notwithstanding). Now I use the cars just a few times a year.
I wouldn't blame other people for deciding that they need a car. I'm single, childless and partly self-employed, which gives me a lot of freedom in arranging my schedule. My friend Jennie Roberson spent about a year car-free, but because her work entails some late nights, she ran into trouble.
It came to a head when the reality show she was working on assigned her a shift that ended at 3 a.m. After bumming a few rides or shelling out $30 for a taxi home, one night she ventured onto a bus at that early-morning hour – only to find herself harassed by a male rider. Fortunately, some L.A. heroes – “wonderful sex workers,” she says – came to her defense and scared the guy off.
“I couldn't continue to take those buses, but I couldn't afford the taxis home all the time,” Roberson says. She eagerly took her first opportunity to get a car.
So I guess I'm lucky – and I may even get luckier in the years ahead. While L.A. is known as a city where car culture reigns, its future looks to be more bike- and public transit-friendly.
Bruins says his coalition is working with the city to add hundreds of miles of bike lanes. And MTA, according to spokesman Paul Gonzales, will extend the Metro to LAX, Santa Monica, UCLA and Azusa. He calls this a golden age for rail in L.A.
Of course, it will be many years before some of those projects reach completion. But when the new stations open, I plan to be there, with a sizable backpack, comfy shoes and my Metro pass. Unless, of course, we're traveling via giant tubes by then.