Goodbye Car, Hello Bus

In a car crazy culture, a planner decides to make the switch to transit.
September 8, 2003, 12am PDT | Christian Peralta
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 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.

 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.

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