LA2GO: One month without a car

On World Car Free Day - you do what? If you want, you walk instead of driving. And our author describes what that feels like for a real petrolhead in a typical car city like Los Angeles. Admittedly: He didn't walk entirely voluntarily. And it didn't last just one day.
Text Helmut Werb
Photo Helmut Werb /

"A month without a car? In Los Angeles? Impossible!".
George, my Greek friend, puts four fifty-dollar notes on the counter of Musso & Frank, probably the oldest and most famous bar in Hollywood and our favourite for that very reason. "Two hundred bucks you can't make it! You're crazy!". And while Manny (the first bartender at the M&F since it opened in 1919) serves George a fresh beer, I wonder whether George, a fundamentally sensible person despite his Greek origins, isn't right after all and whether I'm completely out of my mind.

Four weeks without a vehicle in a city built for the car, an urban desert with an area of 1500 square kilometres, most of it seven hundred thousand billion asphalted freeway miles? A juggernaut consisting of one gigantic traffic jam? Without your own vehicle in a metropolis that could never exist without cars, where thirteen million inhabitants spend their day (and most of their night) on the boulevards and avenues? Thirty days without wheels in a city that, simply put, embodies pure car culture?

I have to admit, I have it easy. I'm not exactly a typical workhorse. My daily route to the office leads via the bathroom and the kitchen directly to my desk in the living room. So I have a home advantage - in the truest sense of the word - and don't have to squeeze in between unwashed Angelenos on crowded buses every morning at six. I can easily do my grocery shopping on foot - under normal circumstances. I can also easily walk to The Grove, a chic shopping centre with an adjoining cinema, and a few nice restaurants in the Farmer's Market right next door. I do my banking on the computer and at the ATM. For work-related necessities, I use messenger services. So the basic necessities are covered. And for the pool party tonight at a friend's Bel Air Villa, I'll just take a taxi.

Rule number one for all new Angelenos without a car:

LaLa Land is not New York!

Don't stand on the side of the road and wave! Your arm will fall off before even one of those darn carts stops and takes you away! So I resignedly dig the iPhone out of the Armani and order a taxi. The lady, who is only barely fluent in English and sits at the VoIP phone in Bangladesh, promises to pick me up within the next twenty minutes, and I am glad that the probability of precipitation in Southern California is comparatively low at all times of the year. Half an hour later I decide to wait at home for the taxi, which then appears promptly, whereby the term "promptly" is to be interpreted with Californian composure.

In any case, the party is great fun, even after the sixty dollars (including tip) that the twenty-minute trip between West Hollywood and BelAir cost. I enjoy the freedom of unlimited alcohol consumption and cheerfully toast George, who was already there when I arrived (as was everyone, by the way). Never mind, I meet a very nice young lady, blonde (like everyone, by the way) and tailored to perfection (ditto), who kindly agrees to drive me home.

"I don't think you should drive anymore",

she had fluted, and I let her believe.

"What do you mean?" the nice young lady asks the next morning, completely stunned, "you don't have a car?" One fact that non-car drivers in Los Angeles have to come to terms with is that every day obviously starts with disillusionment. I don't even try to explain much at first, because the nice young lady makes the second rule for Angelenos without a car clear to me without further ado: Only losers walk! Anyone who doesn't own a car in Los Angeles is a loser, a failure, a "freak-of-nature", socially unacceptable and absolutely indiscountable as a partner anyway. Pedestrians are only accepted as equal homo sapiens if they have at least one SUV in the garage. Responsible behaviour towards the environment only counts in the form of a Toyota Prius. My God, a rust bucket would be bad enough, but without one? Life under the bridge is just an idle speed away.

Understandably, the nice young lady resolutely takes flight. I'll be in touch, I call after her. She has to wash her hair, she calls back, already at her own car door. Today, tomorrow and all next week too. Then she's gone on her spinning wheels. I will have to cut back on my social life.

Getting to your destination in Los Angeles is surprisingly easy, as long as you understand the term only geographically. Los Angeles has a really well-functioning public transport system - not outstanding, but very decent. The L.A. Metro Transportation Authority's website is understandably more than extensive - after all, LAMTA serves more than two hundred bus routes and five underground lines over more than 3800 square kilometres - but it works excellently. The connections within the city have been perfected as much as the immense size of the city area allows. And that's also the problem: LaLa land is huge! An office visit in Torrance, easily done in thirty to forty minutes by car, requires half a day, and after that you need a holiday. Express buses connect all parts of the city, and direct connections are not significantly slower than driving in a traffic jam. But if you have to change buses - which is called a "transfer" and is free the first time - it's time-consuming. On the other hand, you can make new social contacts.

Rule number three: use deodorant.

Use plenty of deodorant.

"Do you mind if I put my arm around you?" asks a clearly unshaven - and deodorant-free - passenger on the 720 bus that quickly connects downtown with Santa Monica. And - poof! - I'm his new girlfriend. Until the next stop. An astonishing number of the city's inhabitants use public transport, especially Latinos, who are traditionally among the lower-income earners, and stone-aged Asian women who are too stingy and depend on buses and trains. The 10-seater Blue Bus sometimes becomes Mexico City's metro, including the passengers seeking physical proximity.

The comparatively new metro, on the other hand, corresponds more to old European ideas of modern means of local transport. On routes that have been used for twenty years, the Metro Rail is outstanding. There is no faster way to get from Long Beach to Hollywood in Los Angeles. Too bad it was local politicians who decided where the underground would go, not transport planners. The 120 kilometres or so run through districts that secure powerful votes, but only sparse ridership. This is set to change when the long-awaited Wilshire Line runs from downtown Los Angeles along the important Wilshire Corridor via Beverly Hills and Century City to the coast in Santa Monica.

But that would still be all right. I have an interview in San Francisco two days later, day 15, and my plane leaves at seven thirty. In the morning. The editors don't cover taxi fares, so I'm left with the bus shortly after five - or an airport shuttle. Adam from Nigeria arrives on time the next morning, chattering incessantly about his plans to set up solar-powered Coca Cola machines in Lagos with the fortune he earns as a shuttle driver. "I'll be a millionaire with that," he gloats as we wait for the fourth passenger. Not if I kill him first, because if Adam packs any more people into his decrepit Chevy van, I'll miss my flight.
I'll put the two hundred dollars on the table for George tomorrow. I swear.

But Adam makes the plane against all fears. When I return the next day, I still prefer to take the FlyAway, a non-stop bus service from the airport to the city, and it is indeed a pleasant experience. Six dollars, no hassle, on time. The only problem then is the connection from the FlyAway terminal to home. Fuck it, I'm tired, I've had it, I'll take a taxi.

Only five days to go!

I survived hour-long bus rides, overly obliging passengers, waited for an hour for a late bus, which was then - surprise, surprise - totally overcrowded. My circle of friends has thinned out, my mating behaviour has fallen into depressive depths, but I have hardly squandered any money in the usual joints. Instead, I know my way around TV and know the name of the twelfth-place finisher on "American Idol". I can cook now, I've lost a bit of weight from all the walking I've done, and the odd bus driver already says hello in a friendly way.

And that is one of the more pleasant experiences of this admittedly idiotic self-experiment. In Los Angeles, people are nicer to each other - no irony, now! - when they don't drive a car. "Road rage" is now a socially accepted traffic offence in Los Angeles. Disputes over the right of way on Sunset Boulevard are sometimes settled with a handgun. Every year, dozens of road users die because the slower Yukon driver has finally blown his top. But in Los Angeles, if you get off the bus, you say "Thank You" and - haven't you seen it - the chauffeur thanks you in return.

"So it works?" he asks thoughtfully. "I wouldn't have thought so."

"Provided you have a certain masochistic disposition," I reply.

My Camaro key is on the counter, George's two hundred boobs right next to it. "That would be your two hundred now," I calculate to George. For bus, underground, taxi, messenger and shuttle I spent less than four hundred dollars, to compare with the monthly cost of owning a car of one thousand dollars. Net profit eight hundred dollars.
George nods his head sympathetically.
"So it works?" he asks thoughtfully. "I wouldn't have thought so."
"Provided you have a certain masochistic disposition," I reply, "remain chaste, have the patience of a Buddha and have lost your sense of smell."
Manny refills my mineral water, George gets his third beer.
That's comforting to know, George says. Can I drive him home, he asks after a moment's hesitation, in my new Camaro.
George had to give up his driving licence - alcohol.
For a whole month.

ramp shop

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