LAX: How I gave up my car (yes, in LA!)

Taking transit to UCLA to talk about transit, wearing a--yes!--transit-themed dress.

Today I’m posting my story that’s featured as a video in the current exhibition Rethink LA: Perspectives on a Future City. The show closes at the A+D Museum this Sunday, so if you’d like to see the video in person, head over there to see it!

In my mind, it was Kenny Loggins who finally convinced me to get rid of my car. But it may actually have been the sultry stylings of Diana Krall. It’s possible it was the eclectic sounds of Mexico City-based quartet Café Tacuba. It might have even been more of a collaborative effort, like Sing-a-long Sound of Music or Sing-a-long Grease or Sing-a-long Star Wars (Just Make Up the Words).

The truth is it could have been anyone who headlined the Hollywood Bowl that summer.

For three years I lived three blocks from nine white concentric circles which have echoed with the screeching hysteria of Beatlemania and the unsmiling approval of Pavarottimania. During the summer, six nights a week, 17,376 ticketholders would be required to drive past my house to claim their box seats for events such as the Daryl Hall & John Oates Fireworks Spectacular. All of whom, it appeared, were arriving in their own cars.

The demand for Hollywood Bowl parking was so great that the hilly chaparral around it had been carefully cultivated into fields of asphalt, which, as far as I could tell, were only used between the summer solstice and Labor Day. On the intersection where I lived, a block from the Kodak Theatre where the Oscars were now held, two out of four corners had, against all real estate odds, remained vacant lots. Not even paved parking lots—dirt-floored, dust-swirling squares of property. The rumor was that the Hollywood Bowl parking season was more lucrative than any price a developer could name for his little slice of the Sahara.

Sure, there were shuttle buses that ostensibly brought eco-minded and possibly heavily-drinking fans from a dozen locations across the city. But that was not enough to alleviate the veins of red neon I’d watch growing from my bathroom window each summer evening, the gridlock ribboning out in four directions towards the horizon, a severe case of cultural arterial blockage.

While most people would magnet the Bowl’s schedule to their fridge as a jubilant guide to summer fun, I used it as a reverse social calendar. The days the LA Philharmonic played a three-day Dvořák marathon were three days when I’d be held prisoner in my own home. If a friend called to meet for dinner just before An Evening with Willie Nelson, I would not be on the road again.

It wasn’t just the Bowl either. At a Halloween party I hosted in a detail-perfect Scientologist costume (complete with a copy of Dianetics that I had purchased at the Scientology Center—another story for another time), I watched gallons of pumpkin gelato go uneaten as the texts rolled in: “We tried, traffic was too bad,” “Gave up after a half hour :( sorry.”

The good news about all this, of course, is that thanks to Kenny Loggins, or perhaps the kind of people who pay actual money to see Kenny Loggins, I started to realize how many places I could actually get to without my car.

For those of you who are reading this from a place where subways have existed for more than a decade—possibly on an actual subway!—you are looking at me right now like someone who would pay actual money to see Kenny Loggins. But you have to understand the mentality of someone who lived in L.A. at the time. I had always loved to walk, I had even walked long distances in Los Angeles, wrangling my friend John into an epic Hollywood-to-Santa Monica trek a few years before, in fact. But walking was always just for fun, or for exercise, or for ignoring exercise by going to the Powerhouse for happy hour. The thought that I could not drive to work, all the years I commuted an hour each way to Venice, never occurred to me—not once. Transit was invisible. You had a car, you drove. Don’t ask questions. Please return to your regularly-scheduled complaints about the 405.

So when I started examining my non-car options, it required a fair amount of research—which turned it into a kind of game. Using the deductive reasoning skills of Google Maps and a young Yelp.com, every time I left the house, I could determine if my needs could be met by walking instead. My first moment of clarity came when I realized I could walk to a grocery store that I was certain was halfway to Westwood. Thanks to the programmers in Mountain View, it was now only eleven blocks away.

My services were relocated. A drug store nearby got my prescription business; the dry cleaner at the bottom of my street would work just fine. I walked to the West Hollywood Target in the time it had previously taken to negotiate its parking structure. I reasoned that I didn’t really need to drive to the farmers’ market ten blocks away—and once I almost died carrying a watermelon home, just to prove it.

It was right around the time of the melon near-hernia that something else happened. I had always taken long runs in the curvy roads of the hills above me, but now during my free time I headed south into the dense grid of Hollywood, camera in hand, to go back and document all the things I had noticed as I walked by them.

I fervently started posting photos to a Flickr account just so I could put them somewhere. As evidence.

My photos told the story of the push-and-pull of Hollywood’s gentrification. Plywood-encrusted construction sites. Graffiti splattered across parking garages. Parkways mysteriously planted with drought-tolerant succulents. Empty motels with gashes torn in their fences. Silky fluorescent wigs glowing in dusty windows. Stars on the Walk of Fame crumbling into sparkly terrazzo gravel. Was anyone else seeing these things happening? Stop! Stop! I wanted to stay to people flying by on four wheels. You’re missing it!

Los Angeles, once seen only as a two-dimensional screen slipping by my car window, had snapped into 3D. I was living in an Imax-sized alternate universe. A secret underground level of a video game. Hollywood: The True Hollywood Story!

When an entire week had gone by and my car hadn’t moved once, I quite ambivalently realized that it could go for good. It wasn’t a decision that had anything to do with saving gas or saving money or saving planets. It was because leaving home without it was so much more fun.

I had taken the subway dozens of times; the station was just a block from my house. But my very first trip on the bus was actually to drop off the car that I was saying goodbye to. My sister, who had been living in Colorado, was flying in to drive it back home with her, and I had to take it to North Hollywood to get it serviced for the journey.

Again, people with lifetime Metrocard memberships and turnstile scars on your hips, bear with me here. The anxiousness of taking a bus for the first time, in any city, is like the first day of school.

Using Google Maps, and now Metro’s Trip Planner, I did my carefully rehearsed walk from the service station to the bus stop. And then waited on the wrong side for about 15 minutes.

The bus came. I had the correct change but I didn’t know you had to at the time. I stood there waiting for the driver to give me a ticket (which they don’t).

I played it really cool and didn’t talk to anyone because that’s what experienced riders do.

I was terrified when the bus started to track far to the east instead of the more westerly route I had imagined.

And then it was over. A single bus delivered me from car-full to car-less.

As I walked back to my house, I noticed there was a bus stop right across the street. After living there for over a year, I had never seen it, not once.

I ran inside to figure out where it went.

I’m celebrating ten years in LA with ten days of LA stories. Go here for more LAX.

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