Today marks the tenth anniversary of my not owning a car. On 18 July 2011, my 1990 Suburu Loyale nicknamed the C.A.R.D.I.S. (Car And Relative Dimensions In Space) blew a head gasket or two somewhere around Niland. It sputtered its last just past North Palm Springs, near the windmills. I had it towed to Desert Hot Springs. The mechanic recommended not resuscitating. I took the good luck charm from the rearview mirror and sold the rest for scrap. I got $50 for it. I was hardly gutted, though; I’d only paid $350 for the car in the first place and in the six years that I owned it, it only broke down one other time. Besides, I was already driving it less and less often, and it had been taking up valuable parking space formerly that could’ve been put to better use by hosting my ping pong table.
I suspect that more than a few of my friends think that I hate cars — which is not the case — although I’m certainly ambivalent about them. Some of my earliest memories involve cars. According to my mother, we moved to Kentucky, when I was a week old. There’s a picture of me in a plastic baby bathtub. The caption on the back reads, “Eric in his ‘car seat’.” Now, I don’t remember that adventure but I do remember our ivy green Scout. It was the latter vehicle in which I can place my earliest date-able memory — of watching Rocky at a drive-in in Lexington. Not long after we moved to Kentucky, my parents, for whatever reason, bought a beige pacer — small like a compact car — but with the mileage of a limousine.
Like many kids, I owned dozens of toy cars. I had toy boats, planes, trains, and guns, too, but whereas no one thinks it’s strange not to own a boat, plane, train, or gun; many people — perhaps Angelenos in particular — think it’s outrageous not to own a car — especially if one has been offered for free. Not owning a car in Los Angeles doesn’t just raise eyebrows, it sometimes raises blood pressure — not in the car-free, mind you, but in others who think that someone choosing not to own a car is some sort of personal attack. A woman once told me that it was sad that I didn’t own a car. I told her that I was happy to not own one. She replied that I must not get out much. I told her that I have almost certainly seen more Southern California than most. “Well, congratulations! You figured out how to beat the system,” she yelled in a tone that indicated unmistakably that she was not happy that I had “beat the system.”
Another time I was at a bar in York Valley for a friend’s birthday. Someone asked how I got there and I replied that I’d taken Metro. A man I assume was English (on account of his English accent), having overheard me, began to accost me. “What if there was an emergency and you needed to get to, say, Culver City in fifteen minutes.” It seemed an unlikely scenario. I could think of no case in which it would make more sense for someone experiencing an emergency to summon me to the Westside rather than to simply to call 9-1-1 but I told him that if such an emergency arose, I’d be screwed, car or no car, because it would probably take me at least half an hour to get there, even without traffic.
Although I played with toy cars, drew pictures of cars, and watched shows like Knight Rider, many of my most vivid childhood memories revolve around bikes, which provided actual rather than imagined freedom. I remember speeding down the steep driveway and crashing into my mother’s strawberry patch. I remember the first time I rode without training wheels, in the grass between the conifers of our Missouri home’s windbreak. I remember being spooked by a three-legged collie and wiping out on my brand new green and yellow Schwinn Sting-Ray after hitting a pothole. I remember riding on the hot bubbling tar bubbles of Rural Route 3 to the creek where I’d try to catch crawdaddies and avoid the fangs of cottonmouths. My brother and I would joust on our bikes with dried sunflower stalks in a game I called KillTech ’93, because 1993 then seemed very far into the future and in future dystopias, people are often reduced to performing weird blood sports. I don’t even remember, on the other hand, when my parents ditched the Scout and Pacer for another unlikely car, a 1978 Peugeot 504.
Sometimes I’d ride all the way down to the Missouri River and dip my shoes in the rushing waters. A bike ride to the river inevitably meant dealing with mean dogs and even meaner river people (or “grits” as they were known in the parlance of Little Dixie). In one case, grits even sicced their dog after me. I must’ve been about eleven. My mom had advised me to just coast when being chased by dogs so that they wouldn’t be drawn by their predatory instincts to my pale, peddling legs. My mom also proudly wore a hooded sweatshirt with a patch commemorating her having been bitten by a dog whilst cycling. Needless to say, I ignored her advice and peddled as hard as I could and, as a result, never got bitten by a dog or captured by any grits. After escaping, I’d usually reward myself with an orange soda purchased at a tiny general store in either McBaine (population 10) or Huntsdale (population 31) and then embark on the long ride home.
When I was fourteen, my grandfather began giving driving lessons in my mother’s maroon Toyota Corolla. I dreaded it. Gramps loved cars. He usually drove a big Chrysler but, in his lifetime, he owned 38 cars during his life but also hopped trains as a hobo, commandeered a famous actor’s boat in Panama, and had sold coal from a mule cart — all by the time he was 25. He’d drive his huge cars out onto our pond to make sure the ice was thick enough to play hockey. I suppose if it hadn’t have been, he’d have imagined that he could steer his boat-like cars to shore. He’d tell me about how engines worked and showed me how to check the oil and change a tire. The Camry was a stick shift and he’d make us stop at pretend stop signs on hills as part of his training. I remember killing the engine and someone behind me just laying into their horn instead of going around me. I didn’t really see the point in learning to drive. I had a bike and my high school was only 5.5 kilometers (3.5 miles) away — close enough to ride home for lunch during summer soccer practice. If I didn’t feel like cycling, there was a free school bus.
After my mom died, my brother and I briefly lived with our theretofore estranged father in Tampa. Even though we lived only 3.3 km (2.1 miles) from my high school — a distance I’d have easily and happily walked — he insisted on driving — even though inevitably meant getting to school late, with my brother and I crammed into a single passenger seat of his midlife crisis-screaming MR2 — a truly impractical purchase for a man with a wife, two children, and two stepchildren. On one occasion, he drove up the landscaped median in order to avoid traffic. This was after he’d crashed into cars on two occasions — neither of which, according to him, were his fault even though he’d been drinking both times. In our high school, driver’s education was mandatory. They should’ve made us take rider’s ed, though, so we could learn how to navigate the city with HART buses. I was so bored I remember looking at the clock and seeing how long I could hold my breath. Nevertheless, I got an A. I didn’t, however, get a driver’s license because I was happier walking and cycling.
I wasn’t in Tampa long, though. After a few months, I decided to visit relatives in Iowa and never return home. My relatives there took my brother and I in. I did get a driver’s license and started driving because everything was so spread out across a seemingly endless series of cornfields, soybean fields, and hog lots punctuated by grain bins. My high school was 18.3 km (11.4 mi) north in Pleasantville. My after-school job was 28.4 km (17.7 mi) east in Knoxville. There is no public transit there. Sometimes I’d get off work after 2:00 am. Temperatures sometimes were forty degrees below zero. Many of the roads were dirt or gravel. It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to make a case that a car isn’t a necessity for a farmer in the Middle West. Over time I started enjoying driving — maybe a bit too much. Sometimes I’d drive up to Des Moines just to explore. I got the first of several speeding tickets pretty quickly.
Once I went to college in Iowa City, I again found myself car-less. Sometimes I’d ride the Cambus just for fun but usually, when I needed to actually get somewhere I just walked or biked — although admittedly more than most. I walked from my apartment along the wooded banks of Clear Creek, beyond the city limits, and never encountered another soul. In fact, I almost never saw anyone walking anywhere, except on campus, despite the town’s small size. I used to explore the then-undeveloped “peninsula” area, often with a book and a bottle of retsina. Once a friend accompanied me and fell down a partially filled-in well. On winter nights, I’d walk through the woods of Hickory Hill Park, the nocturnal woods dimly illuminated by moonlight reflecting off of the snow. Sometimes I’d walk all night and then get breakfast at Chill N Grill, a diner that opened at 5:00 am. On the way back from the Coralville Reservoir or some other destination, I’d sometimes have my friends drop me off before we got back to town just so that I could ramble through pastures and get a bit lost before I found my way home. At some point, I made an admittedly crazy personal project for myself: to visit every block of every street in Iowa City. I soon extended the project to neighboring Coralville, North Liberty, Tiffin, and University Heights. At the same time, I satisfied my love of driving by maintaining two delivery jobs — one at a Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream that was later destroyed by a tornado and the other at a flower shop, Every Bloomin’ Thing, that managed to survive floods and a break-in.
Around 1997, my grandparents decided that I should have my grandmother’s 1988 Ford Taurus that she no longer needed. It had very few miles on it because she, too, preferred to walk or ride bikes and only used it to pick up groceries. She insisted that I wash it once a week, which I assured her I would, although I obviously didn’t. That car opened up the world in a way that walking and cycling hadn’t. I would explore nearby small towns like the Amish town of Stringtown where I’d eat cheese curds and the locals referred to us as “English.” I drove to Columbus Junction, a Mexican migrant town, where we danced to banda and people referred to my friends and I as “Hawkeyes.” We drove to Riverside to visit the future birthplace of James T. Kirk, and to attend Trekfest (essentially a small fair with little obviously to do with Star Trek). I regularly drove some 185 km (115 mi) to Des Moines to visit friends and watch Melrose Place at a bar.
I also drove to other states. My brother was in school in DeKalb and sometimes friends and I would visit him to drink Icehouse or play croquet. I sometimes drove over to Hannibal because there were clubs there where they played hip-hop from the Dirty South (including booty bass). I drove to Chicago to dance to House music or see bands and films that skipped Iowa (e.g. Blur, Pulp, and Velvet Goldmine). I drove to New Orleans to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, because the Chicago show had sold out. I drove to Los Angeles with a friend from Chino to take him home and decided I wanted to live in Los Angeles. On the way back to Iowa City, I visited Portland, Seattle, Snoqualmie (because of Twin Peaks), and back to Iowa City. I drove for 36 hours without sleeping because I didn’t have enough money for a hotel after staying at the Salish Lodge (Twin Peaks‘ Great Northern Hotel). When I got to the Iowa border, I decided I had enough gas in the tank to get home and so treated myself to lunch at a Sioux City Taco Bell.
I moved to Los Angeles in my grandma’s Taurus but once I got here resumed my walking ways — which, to my surprise, immediately around ire in my Angeleno friends. Once, whilst visiting friends in Santa Monica, I found them to be out, and so left my car in front of their apartment and walked the half-hour walk to the beach. I later found out they’d panicked at the site of my parked car and had assumed, naturally, that I’d been abducted by the Graveyard Gangster Crips or Santa Monica 17th Street. When I walked three whole miles to Cinefile, to drop off a movie, I was chastised for being provocative and irresponsible.
Once, as I was driving to my friend’s in Chino, the brakes went out on the Taurus and I steered it into a shop in Boyle Heights. They worked on the car until fairly late in the night which gave me time to explore the neighborhood. Not only was it walkable — people were walking. I girls were also encouragingly flirty. As I sat on a park bench, a man complimented my boots. I decided that I wanted to live there or in Lincoln Heights or somewhere on the Eastside. If not there, I hoped Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, or Westlake — all places where I noticed people walking. My Chino friend, however, insisted on Silver Lake — a place where people drive to a reservoir to walk around it and then drive home. His girlfriend was living with us too and voted with him — so Silver Lake it was. Over time I grew to appreciate its walkability — even if few of my neighbors walked — and the passeggiata.
I worked in Burbank at the time. One of my co-workers told me that he was going to drive Marty Wilson Piper to a gig in San Juan Capistrano. He said, “he’s Australian, he doesn’t know how to drive” by way of explanation. The idea that someone might not even know how to drive blew my mind. I realized around that time that I’d never taken Metro buses — and only rarely the train (there were just three lines then). My Taurus died when the second transmission failed and I decided that it didn’t deserve a second transplant. I’d just take the bus to and from work. Not long after, a woman rear-ended the parked Taurus in the wee hours of the morning as it sat parked on the street. The bang woke us all. I think it was around 3:45. “Please be the Taurus,” I said to myself. My roommate told me it was. “Please let the rear axle be broken,” I prayed, and it was. The police officer filling out the report asked what color it was and suggested “puke.” I offered “beige” and mentioned that it had been my grandmother’s. He said something about that explaining it.
Although the Taurus was an ugly car, it still had very few miles on it and the driver’s insurance gave me money that I used to buy a BMW 318is from a drug dealer who needed to leave the country — and his car — in a hurry. It was an attractive car — boxy and reminiscent of the classic BMW 2002. I added only minimal decoration. A small Palestinian flag to hang from the rear-view mirror and a bumper sticker that read “Ich Gehöre Nicht Zur Baader-Meinhof Gruppe” — an admittedly obscure reference to Rote Armee Fraktion‘s predilection for stealing black BMWs. Its nicknames were “the Baader Meinhof Wagen” and “the Palestinian Money Mobile.” Both the flag and sticker opened the door to unexpected, and sometimes intense encounters with strangers. It was, alas, a terrible car. I was unable to admit that it was a beautiful piece of junk — even when it broke down on road trips and my then-girlfriend quite rightfully insisted that getting a new car or renting for road trips made a lot more sense than spending another dime on it.
On one trip, it broke down on Tết Nguyên Đán. The cop pulled me over and asked if I knew why. I said no. He circled the car slowly, giving himself time to figure out why. My windows were too dark, he claimed. He gave me a fix-it ticket and sped off. The BMW wouldn’t start. My partner had lied to her mother and said she was with a girlfriend in San Jose. Her mom helpfully suggested she take Xe Đò Hoàng — a budget shuttle serving Vietnamese communities and bánh mì. That way she could easily return home for the festivities. The problem was that we were actually coming back from Seattle. We rented a car and she drove home while I stayed in really dodgy motels waiting for a mechanic whose name badge read “Pokey” to get parts shipped up from San Francisco. I was missing work. I had to hitchhike. It was costing a lot of money and causing a lot of stress. I noticed my first gray hairs. In the end, he fixed it by jamming a ballpoint pen under a lose wire underneath the back seat. I ended up selling the car to a co-worker for $500. He didn’t have a driver’s license and, last I heard, used it for storage. And I, if I want to go on a road trip, simply rent a car, just as I would happily rent any other big, expensive, piece of machinery I don’t need to use more than once or twice a year.
I bought the Subaru from a friend who was moving to Europe. I thought my partner, a florist, could use it for her job. It was banged up and rusty from its years in Colorado. On the driver’s side, there was damage to the paint that spread backward and downward as if someone had thrown up whilst driving and the acid had etched a pattern. I was a very reliable car, though, except for the one time it broke down in Paramount and was repaired with minimal fuss. Still, I didn’t especially like driving in Los Angeles and absolutely hated looking for parking. I started walking to and from work at Amoeba, reading novels as I strolled along Fountain, Sunset, Hollywood, or Franklin. Sometimes I would ride my bicycle to my partner’s family home in Avocado Heights, which took about an hour and 45 minutes, or a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley. The rides were long but allowed me to experience Valley Boulevard on a level that people who’ve only driven along it never will. Eventually, seven months passed where I didn’t drive the Subaru, and one day I got a notice informing me that it had been impounded in Lincoln Heights. The price of retrieving it was more than I paid for it in the first place. The Subaru, nevertheless, outlasted my relationship by more than a year.
Although I’d gone without using my car for long periods of time, I’d never not had a car at all for more than a decade, by then. I wondered if I could manage to be car-free. I knew other Angelenos who were — including a couple of cyclists from Canada and Ireland. Many seemed like they knew much more of the city than those with cars. How would I get to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, though, I wondered. I’m afraid, too, that I was (briefly) one of those people always “just putting it out there” on social media, asking if any of my friends were going to such-and-such event and might they consider taking me if I paid for gas. Luckily for me, almost none of my friends share my interests and so there was little danger of any taking me up on a request. Pretty quickly, too, I realized that Metro, whilst far from perfect (underdeveloped bus stops, bad headways, no shops or public restrooms in train stations) was reasonably good. People who presumably would never under any circumstances take a bus told me that there was no public transportation in Los Angeles. On one occasion, when I pointed out that actually, the nation’s second-largest metropolis has the second-largest mass transit system, a friend said, “well no one uses it!” Of course, not only is that not true, but no bus rider has even been unhappy to find themselves on an uncrowded bus. What’s more, Los Angeles streets were built at least as much around mass transit as the car. After being car-free for a year, a friend planning a move to New York City offered me hers for free. I was eating Thai food and had been drinking during and after a croquet match. I told her to let me think about it and get back to her when sober.
I decided to pass. A car is never really free. AAA, an agency that depends on car dependency for its existence, estimates an annual average cost of $10,773 per year for California car owners. There’s depreciation, maintenance, repairs, gas, car washes, insurance, paid parking, tickets, &c. Let that sink in. Imagine if your boss offered you a tax-free $11,000 raise, conditional on your not owning a car. Wouldn’t you take it? That’s essentially what not owning a car is.
Of course, there’s an environmental cost too — and fossil fuel burning only accounts for half — with brake dust, micro-plastics from tires, noise, and the costs of manufacturing and destroying cars to consider. Cars deform the shape cities by demanding space and causing sprawl — which makes them more car-dependent and gridlocked. There are 3.3 parking spots in Los Angeles for every car. 14% of Los Angeles County — a region larger than all of Jamaica — is devoted to storing empty cars. but there were will never be “enough” parking. Instead of landscaped medians, bike lanes, and dedicated bus lanes, we get car lanes. Instead of parklets, street trees, and bioswales, we get car storage. With parking minimums requiring the construction of costly car storage, developers are left with little choice but to charge luxury rates for housing. In other words, we have laws demanding housing for cars — while 60,000 Angelenos have no housing. In 2019, there were 236 traffic fatalities in Los Angeles and 256 homicides — but only one cause of violent death is generally deemed newsworthy.
Strictly speaking, I’m not truly car-free. While I may not own a car, I hear them hissing down the 5 freeway. My view is obscured by smog. I sweat as they turn up the hit the gas on the climate catastrophe. I also rely on them more than I’d like. My friend Mike also drives us Downtown, for the occasional urban ramble. I’d rather go by Metro but, then again, I’m not some sort of car-free purist who insists on not riding in cars when someone else is driving. Mike also often drives us to the mountains to go hiking. It’s difficult to get to the mountains without a car but it is getting easier. In 2018, a Pasadena Transit bus route was launched to connect the L Line in Pasadena to a trail in the San Gabriel Mountains. In 2019, LADOT launched a shuttle to the Griffith Park Observatory, in the Santa Monica Mountains. Only a few weeks ago, Metro launched a transit-on-demand service, Metro Micro, that offers connections between Metro lines and trailheads in the San Gabriel Mountains. I would post a map of Metro’s routes here but, more than three weeks after the agency rolled out their new routes — something they’d planned for years in advance — there’s still no current map on their website.
My partner, Una, has a car and I do occasionally borrow it — although not as often as is probably assumed. I borrowed earlier in the month to go to a party that I could’ve taken the new 182 Line to. I also borrowed it last Christmas to drop off my brother’s Christmas present. I also drive a delivery vehicle at work — although hopefully, that’s helping other people reduce their own car dependency by removing one more “butwhatabout” that people cling to when trying to justify their car dependency. Not that I blame Angelenos for driving. For decades, the car has been prioritized above all other means of transportation and in doing so, the city insures that the car will be the first choice rather than last resort of most Angelenos. Most Angelenos even say that they want to drive less but don’t feel safe biking with such car-centric infrastructure. And you’re unlikely to ever be shamed for driving everywhere. Flygskam is a thing — even in the Anglosphere — but as far as I know, there’s no driving equivalent like körskam. And there may not be a name for it, but there is shame, for reasons I don’t fully understand, in taking mass transit — at least in American cities that aren’t New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C.
Anyway, maybe start out small — give up driving for Lent or something and just see how it goes. Or, the next time you’re planning on going somewhere, see whether or nor to there’s a bus or train going that way. Or, map it with GPS and you might be surprised to find out it’s walkabley or bikeabley close. Los Angeles is sprawling but a lot of places are actually closer than they seem. If you need help figuring out how to bike or take transit somewhere, let me know and I’ll try to help out. If you, too, don’t own a car in Los Angeles — and don’t want — let me know and I’ll tell you about a project I’m working on. And finally, even if you’re an unrepentant car addict, flag all ads for cars as “scam or misleading” because we all know that no one ever tore through the empty streets of a large downtown with a smile on their face with every seat occupied except on closed set in a car commercial.