Even though Los Angeles is billed as the nation’s melting pot — one that shows the rest of the country what it will look like in a few decades — quite a bit of homogenous thought still persists among residents on certain topics.
For example, I unwittingly asked “Who is this senile old man?” while Chick Hearn was broadcasting a Lakers game and got verbally mugged. I have voiced other opinions that have elicited varying degrees of animosity and disbelief — I don’t like hiking or bacon-wrapped hot-dogs or even sunshine all the time.
But in Los Angeles, there are five words that exist in their very own pantheon of shock-and-awe, always resulting in collective jaw-drops from those within earshot: “I don’t have a car.”
Everyone who considers moving to LA has heard the mantra: “You have to own a car if you live in LA.” For a city so beleaguered, so psychologically traumatized by traffic that Obama visits make people call in sick to work and the 405 shutting down for just a weekend caused the media to coin the term “Carmaggedon,” one would think that such blind dependence on cars wouldn’t be the absolute.
You have to be able to afford a car to suffer from this disease
Of course there are a few caveats to this mechanized Stockholm Syndrome, but the most crucial is that you have to be able to afford a car to suffer from the disease. What most car-bound Angelenos don’t realize as they clash with the lumbering, orange behemoths that comprise the LA bus system is that thousands and thousands of people are actually riding those things, conducting their lives and making their way around the city without their own, personalized glass and metal chariot.
I was one of those silent fist-shakers for a long time, road-raging my way through tragic humanity one windshield at a time. Riding Metro was this fun little experiment that I did to avoid traffic going to the Hollywood Bowl (and even then I parked near Vine and traveled one stop by subway).
Until one fateful day I got into a car accident after unknowingly letting my insurance coverage lapse. I didn’t have $13,000 to pay for the damages and didn’t feel like fraud was my bag, so I sucked it up and was the Carless White Man of Los Angeles for what wound up being 8 months.
I was lucky that I could take the Red Line to work. This was actually the second job where this was possible, but I was so insular and resolute in my attachment to my car that I hardly ever took the train in either instance over a period of 4 years.
There are bus stops — every few blocks?!?
I walked to Metro every single day. I became a regular and noticed the other people who always traveled at the same time. I was free to think as I went to work. I mean really think instead of driving and getting into some deep thoughts and starting to really mull something until all of a sudden "DO YOU NOT KNOW WHAT A FREAKIN' TURN SIGNAL IS?!"
What was even more alarming was that I started noticing bus stops. Everywhere. Like every few blocks. Which meant that even if I didn’t live close to a Metro station, I could still get to places? This was crazy talk. So I actually started researching bus lines and taking those to work as well, just to see what it was like.
Eventually I was taking the bus from my downtown-adjacent abode to hang out with people on the Westside and in Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks. I even took it to Torrance one time to do my taxes, but that was a disaster when I realized that the extremely convenient “commuter” buses only operate during rush hour. Still, I made it home safely after 2.5 hours of cold, bus-hopping pandemonium.
The apartment bubble to car bubble to work bubble vs. the overflowing effervescence of humanity
Suddenly I found myself walking to places around my building to eat and to shop on the weekend. This made me infinitely more aware of my surroundings and the people who occupied them. Incredibly, I felt like I was a part of Los Angeles instead of a reclusive automaton who simply traversed the distance between my apartment bubble and my work bubble in my car bubble, all the while letting no shred of the world around me penetrate. You can still hug the window on a Metro bus, but good lord, you cannot possibly escape the overflowing effervescence of humanity around you.
Of course it’s not always convenient to take public transportation. I was stranded more than a few times and in the fast pace of modern living, there are many instances where you can’t take an hour or more to get somewhere. And let’s not even discuss grocery shopping.
So I still own a car. I still use my car. But I am most certainly a transformed person, liberated from a dependence as severe as the kind that cause people to seek treatment. It’s a shame that I had to be forced into that situation in order to experience it, but I am eternally grateful as it opened my eyes to a completely different Los Angeles — which was right under my nose yet totally unseen until the seatbelt was off.
Photos taken by Chris Nelson during his carless adventures