Goodbye Car, Hello Bus

In a car crazy culture, a planner decides to make the switch to transit.




Untitled Document

Photo: Christian PeraltaThis
past July 1st I decided to stop driving everywhere I go and start using public
transit, my bicycle or my own two feet to get around.

Why would I do this, you might ask? Well, there are a lot of reasons.

One big reason was money. This summer, just out of college with my freshly
minted urban planning degree but without the full-time job and a generous salary
(an expectation of many college graduates before the recent economic slowdown),
I began to bemoan the fact that my car and all its related expenses were burning
a big hole in my wallet. All told, I was paying over $7000 a year for the privilege
of driving.

And what was I getting for my money? Well, freedom of course.

With my car, I was free to come and go as I please. I was free to drive three
blocks to the corner supermarket, traverse the city in search of the best sushi
bar, or drive half way across the county to buy toilet paper and socks at bargain
prices at the nearest discount warehouse chain.

But that sort of freedom also comes with a high cost. While some things are
getting cheaper to buy, cars don't seem to be one of them, and for most
people, it's a big purchase. You end up spending a lot of money financing
and maintaining a car. Then there's the cost of insurance to protect yourself
from all the other people out there with 4000 pound machines under their control
(or in some cases protect them from you).

Of course, those aren't the only costs.

For every moment of freedom, I was also practically held prisoner idling in
rush hour traffic, burning gasoline that cost me two dollars a gallon, while
at the same time adding my personal contribution to the unhealthy air that I
and everyone else breathes. And when I wasn't actively exercising my freedom,
keeping my car handy meant even more money, be it put into a meter, subtracted
from my pay, or added into my rent. (We all know there's no such thing as free
parking, right?)

While saving money was the single biggest practical reason for my decision,
there was another motivating factor that led me to explore alternatives to driving,
which in my case was probably just as compelling as the sheer economics.

As a trained planner, I know that America's dependence on automobiles has created
some serious environmental, economic, and social challenges. Our health continues
to be affected by air and water pollution despite dramatic and continuing technological
innovations to reduce automobile emissions. Our nation is struggling to supply
the seemingly unquenchable thirst for energy of our ever larger cars. And our
cities and neighborhoods are separated and segregated by freeways and sprawl.

With my new job as a policy analyst for a non-profit housing developer that
promotes smart growth and sustainable development, I had already professionally
committed myself to advocating for the type of compact, walkable, mixed-use,
transit oriented development that supports a comprehensive public transit system.
All that was left was for me to personally do what I and many planners and policy
makers were already asking others to do -- get out of my car and hop on
a bus, train, bike or the soles of my own two feet.

Photo: Red Line Subway
The Hollywood & Highland Station where I catch
the Red Line subway for the 20 minute trip to downtown.

Photo courtesy: MTA (metro.net)

Did I mention I live in Los Angeles?

I know, I know -- but everybody drives in Los Angeles, right? And the reason
everyone drives is because the transit service is lousy, right? Well my experience
so far tells me that the answer is no on both counts. Almost one and a half
million people ride public transit in LA County every day. And while I'm not
saying transit in Los Angeles couldn't be improved (dramatically in some areas),
it's respectable. With the opening of the new light rail line to Pasadena this
July, Los Angeles has 73 miles of light rail or subway lines, in addition to
over 200 bus lines operated by the MTA and municipal transit companies, with
more service on the way.

So, how's my car embargo going? Well, to be honest, not too bad.

Sure, there are some trade-offs; transit isn't generally as fast or convenient,
there's a bit of a learning curve to figure out all of the schedules,
big stock-up trips to the supermarket are out, and walking around the city in
the middle of summer can be a bit uncomfortable at times. Generally, it's
not as convenient as driving a car. Not a big surprise, right?

On the plus side, I have been able to get practically everywhere I've
wanted to go. My morning and afternoon commute, while now 45 minutes instead
of 30, gives me the opportunity to get some reading done and get a daily walk
in as well. I can talk on my mobile phone without fear of crashing into anyone
or anything. And don't forget the money I'm saving. Just by leaving
the car at home, I saved money by not using gas (a monthly transit pass costs
$42, far less than most people, including myself, spend on gas each month).

By the end of July, I was so pleased with my ability to get around without
a car that I decided to permanently join the ranks of the car-free. At the end
of August, I sold my car, and in the process, my annual local transportation
expenses went from over $7000 to just under $700.

What has surprised me the most about my decision to live car-free was how many
people told me that they envied me for being able to forego driving. Sure, I've
gotten the "Are you crazy?" look from plenty of people, but almost
as many times I heard "Gosh, I wish I could do that, too" or "Gee,
that must be nice and relaxing." And this is not just from friends who
work in the planning field. It's almost like I told everyone that I hired
a personal chauffer.

My response has been that while the car-free life certainly isn't for
everyone, not owning car is a viable option in Los Angeles, contrary to many
people's perception. You just need to make a few life adjustments and
be comfortable with some occasional inconvenience (which unfortunately seems
to equate to sacrifice for many people). And it really helps if you live in
the right neighborhood -- the right neighborhood being one with good transit
service and some basic services nearby.

Because while I do feel that public transit in Los Angeles has been unfairly
stigmatized, I think what makes my new lifestyle more palatable is that I don't
have to rely on transit for every trip. In my neighborhood, I have 2 grocery
stores, at least a dozen restaurants (including a sushi bar), a drug store,
clothing and shoe stores, a library, movie and live theaters, bars and clubs,
a barber, a music store, a dry cleaner, a camera store and more all within short
walking or biking distance (no post office, but I'm covered since there's
one near my work). In March, a new shopping center anchored by a first of its
kind Target store will open six blocks away, so in six months I'll even
be able to shop for inexpensive consumer goods at my local big-box store if
I want, something that has generally been restricted to car-burdened suburbanites
(I like to think I'll have the best of both worlds).

And for the odd occasion where nothing but a car will work, I do have options.
For those out of the way errands or the big shopping trip, a company called
FlexCar has begun offering cars to rent
by the hour in several locations across the city (though none close to me --
FlexCar, if you're reading this, put a car in the Hollywood area). And being
that this is Los Angeles and most everyone I know still has a car, there are
plenty of opportunities for carpooling.

So, have you contemplated living a car-free life?

Since beginning my experiment, it's become clear to me that there are plenty
of people are interested in not having to drive everywhere, even if they don't
want to ditch their car altogether. If your situation is amenable to it, my
advice would be to give car-free (or at least car-light) living a try. You just
might be surprised about how much you don't miss fighting traffic, looking for
a parking space, or sending in your car payment. And if you're fortunate enough
to live in the Seattle Area, the county is even giving people incentives, like
a free transit pass and discounts for FlexCar. (Check
it out here
)

In the mean time, I will continue to chronicle some of my experiences and insights
as a car-free citizen of Los Angeles on my web log at http://ridingtransit.blogspot.com.


Christian Peralta is a
policy analyst for Livable Places,
a non-profit housing developer and public policy organization in Los Angeles.


Comments

Comments

rural and car-light

I live in Baker City, OR, pop <9,000 and 40 miles from another town. People look at me funny when I say "This town isn't big enough to need a car." I use mine for weekend trips to Portland, but otherwise it sits.

Car Free Challenge

'Bent Rider On-Line, the e-zine for recumbent bicycle enthusiasts, sponsors an annual Car Free Challenge. The September issue of Bent Rider On-Line contains the 2003 winning essay, written by an 18-year-old who took up the car free challenge. The winner received a Bachetta recumbent (worth about $1500) and $500 cash. Anyone interested in the car-free culture might want to go to http://www.bentrideronline.com/ learn about the Car Free Challenge, and maybe compete to win a sweet recumbent.

A dream that will be accomplished

I work in Metro Chicago, but live in the City. Where I work, it would be infeasible to to live carless, but in the neighborhood in which I live, it can definitely be done. But, I intend to locate myself in one of the multi-modal transpo. first ring suburbs, like Oak Park, in which my wife and I can still have a car but are not a slave to it.

I have no sympathy for those that still attribute too much emotional attachement to having a car. Do we put as much emotion into our washer and dryer? A car is a much an appliance as a washer and dryer.

Car Light in San Diego Co!

Christian, Malcom and I are enjoying the good life of commuting without driving a car. I especially enjoy getting to know new people and the extra time I have to read a good book or the newspaper. It has been my experience that the bus is a terrific ride.

Cars per person

Cars, as they say, are an extension of personality, which also makes it difficult for individual members of a household to give up their own personal wheels. In fact, most planners I know who are advocates of Smart Growth, New Urbanism, or are "passionate about the environment" don't seem to be able to let go of the car. They aren't even able to contemplate sharing a car with their spouse, significant other, or roommate. Sharing a car among household members is actually much easier than going car-less, but still out of the question, psychologically, for most people.

My wife and I consciously decided to live where can share a car. We located where one of us can walk to work and access a wide range of goods and services on foot. Our housing costs are a little higher than they would be if we located in the suburbs, but the money saved by shedding one car more than makes up for the difference.

Until we, as planners or advocates for better communities, can actually practice what we preach we can hardly expect to see much change in the community at large. Bravo to Mr. Peralta for living up to his principles.

I know how it is

It is great to hear how somebody else is living in L.A. without a car, as I have done since my days at USC. People have always thought I was nuts, but I was fortunate to live in an area where it all worked out. Kudos to you Christian!!!

Car-free goes with TOD & walkable communities

To be able to live car-free it is essential to have a compact, walkable, mixed-use community and a good transit system (preferably a train system) all together. Trying to do it in suburbia is nearly impossible, but going car free in an urban area that has good services is easy and pleasurable, even for families with children. TOD (transit oriented development) works and makes it possible to live car free.

That is why we all need to be promoting the creation of TODs as dense, walkable, mixed use communities surrounding rail stations. The more of these that get built, the easier it will be for millions of people to live car free. This will help clean up the air, save the planet from global warming, and greatly reduce our need for Middle East oil and a president who will drain our economy spending hundreds of billions bombing yet another country to maintain our supply of "cheap" oil. Its not so cheap when it costs a hundred billion dollars to get it! If millions of Americans are able to give up their cars, we drastically reduce our need for oil, and make all our lives better in the process.

Andy Kunz

http://www.NewUrbanism.org

weather factors

I also work in the urban planning field for a city in Florida. Most days, but not all, I take a bus into work. Granted, I drive four miles to get to the bus stop, but it is a nice perk. The City picks up 50 percent of the tab for the cost of the bus pass.

Unforutnately, the service provided by Hartline, the local transit company, is poor. Buses run late or not at all; the a/c frequently does not work; in rain storms, the buses leak.

All that being said, the riding of a bus in still a good option.

Going car free, however, is not an option when you have children. Nor is it an option here in Florida. I have walked the mile and a half to a grocery store in the summer time. If you are picking up a loaf of bread, not a problem; if you are buying "cold" items, they are warm when you get back home.

Yes, I proudly live in suburbia and drive a 10 year old car with 160000 miles on it. Within three miles I have a Target, Wal-Mart, Sams, Home Depot, Ross, T J Max, Bealls, automechanic, numerous restaurants and plenty of retail shops. Give me another four miles, and I have two malls.

Going car free is great, but only if you have friends with cars (for big or numerous items) and no children.

Car Free in LA too!!!

A city planner friend of mine sent me this article and I do have to admit I thought I was the only young professional in LA taking public Transit. I work @ UCLA , and I've been car free since Novemebr 02. I can't beleive I'm quickly approaching my year anniversary of living car free during the work week. In honor of this I will list my top 10 benefits of LA public transit(specifically Big Blue Bus and Culver City Lines)

10.I'm a better time manager

9. Discovering LA on the bus is fun.

8. Inexpensive

7. conversations with great bus drivers.

6. I CAN READ THE LA TIMES!!!

5. nice naps after a long hard day @ work.

4. Observing human behavior

3. I CAN READ BOOKS!!!

2. Friends are more than willing to pick me up on weekends because they figure I probably need a break from it every now and then(And yes I often get tired, and frustrated with riding the bus)

1. I don't pay $2+ for gas!!!!!(suckers)

Malcolm in LA

Priceline car rentals

Great article!

I have lived in Philadelphia without a car since December 2001. I find that I never miss the car except when guests fly into town. While I ride my bike most places (and take the bus and train when necessary), it seems less convenient and less "hospitable," somehow, to make guests do the same (and I don't have an extra bicycle). My solution is to rent a car when carless friends visit. This is an affordable luxury since I'm saving all that money not owning a car in the first place! I've found that Priceline has become my best friend. In my market I can usually rent from between $18 and $25 per day for unlimited mileage. For me, this actually works better than car-sharing like Flexcar or PhillyCarShare.com.

Requirements for a lifestyle with less cars

It's interesting to look at this essay and the one about the harried middle class together (see article). There are certainly a lot of reasons why Americans work too much. The primary one is that our employers force us too and our unions aren't strong enough to prevent it.

But clearly we are working to some extent to pay for our cars. Even reducing from two cars to one (as I have), let alone none, saves money. If we could create cities requiring less and less car use, we could take a little pressure off people's work.
This article is also interesting in that it speaks to what transit-oriented development is really about. It's not just an apartment by a train station with nothing around it. It's also a variety of stores and services that one can walk (or for some bike) to and meet basic needs.

Car-free and loving it

My wife and I have been car-free in the Washington DC area for nearly 2 years and love it, and don't miss the car for a second. During that 2 years we have rented a car only 1 time to go to North Carolina for a long weekend. Other than that we take Metrorail daily, ride bikes, ride our electric scooters, walk, or take taxis.

Even if one wanted to rent a car every weekend, it would still be cheaper than owning a car, or 2 cars for a couple. We planned on joining Flexcar or Zipcar but have not yet needed them. There are taxis always parked outside the Metro stations here in DC whenever it is too cold, raining, or we have too much to carry, so living this way is easy.

Its great to not have to fight traffic or sit backed up behind hundreds of stopped cars - that makes one feel pretty stupid in the 21st century!

I would recommend it to anyone interested... your life will become so much more relaxed and peaceful... most of the stress of modern life goes away when you are not battling traffic.

Andy Kunz

Car-free image and dating

The major problem with living car free is certainly the image, and this can be a problem when it comes to dating.
While I live and grew up on the edge of a city that has a decent (albeit poorly functioning) public transit system, getting to the train station requires either a 20-25 minute walk or waiting for any of the three local, unreliable buses. Personally, I have no problem with this, but tell this to the girlfriend who I had to break up with because she complained alot when my $500 piece of junk broke down (irreparably). Let's face it, even in Boston or Cambridge, having a car is very necessary for those weekend trips with that special someone. Many women look at car ownership as status (and bus ridership too - trains somehow don't have so much of the stigma). Heck, women look at watches and shoes right after they look at faces.

I've given up. I have a reliable car on which I have only put 4800 miles in 18 months - just enough for weekend trips and non-downtown traveling.

Another benefit of car-free living

Not having a car has helped me to avoid and/or evade many relationships and responsibilities that seem burdensome.

Public transit fan

I too loved your article. While I'm on the East Coast in Boston, I was also told that life without a car would be too difficult. We have "Zipcar" which sounds to be similar to Flexcar and it meets my needs soundly. The MBTA has a great website which includes trip planning where you input your beginning and ending addresses and the best route possible is given to you, complete with times of buses and trains. Being car free has allowed me to lose all worries that I'm being ticketed or towed. I also don't have to worry about shoveling out a spot all winter!

The "image" factor

As a teen growing up in Los Angeles, I would avoid riding transit because there was a stigma of being poor if you did so - and being so image-conscious at that point in my life, I certainly didn't want to give others the impression that I was poor. I didn't want to publicly display myself along an open, vulnerable bus station with drivers in their zooming cars giving that "you're poor and I'm not" glance. Well, I'm not so image-conscious anymore, so it's not an issue now. (I'm ugly and married, so happiness has been found.) In any matter, I feel that the stigma of being poor may still be a deterrent to riding transit for some people. Most of us still love our shiny cars with our shiny rims - all for the image, the ego. That's quite a price we pay - in preserving our image and egos.

Flexcar

Loved your article. We agree. In fact, we were just talking last week about putting 2 cars along the red line out towards Hollywood (Hollywood/Vine and Universal City I belive). I'd love to have your thoughts on where we should consider car placement. Please let me know your thoughts.

Lance Ayrault

President & CEO

Flexcar

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