DOWNTOWN — In the satirical romantic comedy “L.A. Story,” there’s a scene where Steve Martin’s lovestruck weather man crumbles to the ground, overcome by laughter at the thought of actually taking a walk in Los Angeles. Here’s a character who jumps in his car to travel to his next-door neighbor’s house.
It’s a hysterical scene for anyone who calls Southern California home because it’s so true, and it’s not really our fault. Detroit might be known for building cars, but here in Southern California, we’re known for driving them. The region is so spread out — and the public transit infrastructure is subpar — that it is often said one cannot survive in L.A. without a car.
But, for the last five years, I have. This is my story of living without a car on the Westside.
I really didn’t have much of a choice, and I suspect others who give up their wheels do so because of factors that are outside of their control, such as rising gas prices or the inability to keep up with payments or repairs. For me, it was theft.
I had a 2001 Ford Focus that took a turn for the worse. Instead of dumping more cash into it, I decided to donate it to the Red Cross of Santa Monica, an organization that I admire for all the help it provides others. Plus, it was a great tax write-off. I then took out a small loan and bought a Saab convertible from a family friend. It was a sweet ride. I drove it for only a few months before, on a Father’s Day weekend, some inferior human decided to steal it from right in front of my apartment on Stewart Street. The thief completely stripped it, going so far as to remove the gas tank. The sight of my beautiful baby all mangled, sitting lifeless in a Torrance, Calif. tow yard, left me defeated. Paying $100 for the tow and storage was another low blow.
After that, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy another car, so biking seemed to be the next best option. I lived close to my office and Santa Monica is relatively flat with lots of bike lanes and a mild climate. I also thought of all the money I would save, helping me pay off those student loans and plan for the future, as well as the ability to reduce my carbon footprint. (Yes, I have taken a few sips of Santa Monica’s sustainable-flavored Kool-Aid.)
I also needed to lose some weight.
So, I went with my publisher to Bike Attack on Main Street and got a great deal on a new road bike, a Mongoose Kaldi Single. It has a nice saddle and plenty of gears to make riding up those hills a little more tolerable. (Tip: Never, ever take Ocean Park Boulevard east, even if it means going a few blocks out of your way. That hill is brutal.)
Ever since I’ve been riding on two wheels, walking, bussing it or joining ride-share programs like ZipCar just in case it rains or I need to show up looking fresh, say for a date or business function. Along the way I’ve broken an arm (watch for potholes at night); been cut off or cursed out by drivers; met some interesting characters (and been subject to some foul smells) on the Big Blue Bus; lost 30 or so pounds; saved hours from bypassing rush-hour traffic; missed out on a few cool social functions; deposited thousands in my savings account and then spent a lot of it; and found a new appreciation for driving.
As the powers that be in the city by the sea push forward with their social engineering, enacting policies that make it more difficult and costly to drive and find affordable parking, there are those who are fighting back, saying they would never give up their rides. I’m here to tell you that you can make a fulfilling life for yourself without being attached to your steel coffin, especially in a smaller city like Santa Monica, but it will take sacrifices and compromise.
One of the most difficult aspects to adjust to wasn’t the physical grind of riding nearly every day to nearly every appointment. That being said, it is still a struggle hauling those heavy grocery bags (don’t ever buy melons if you plan on stocking up on other necessities; the water weight is just too much) and carting my dry cleaning.
What I found to be the hardest part was accepting that even more of my time was no longer mine to spend. I have to set aside extra minutes or hours for travel. I have to sit and wait, and wait some more, for buses that are late or family or friends who have graciously offered rides, but, of course, on their schedule, not mine. (Another challenging aspect is coping with feelings that you are a burden to others or telling your new girlfriend that you don’t have a car.)
To get through it, I just think of the greenbacks I’m saving for other pleasures, like great craft beer or artisanal food. A great playlist also helps. Just remember to bring your cellphone charger — and deodorant, a fresh pair of socks, a towel, and pretty much anything else you may need if, for some reason, you find yourself far from home later in the day. In addition to a helmet, the first accessory I purchased was a good backpack to haul my necessities — and some bright lights so that I was in compliance with the vehicle code. (You should also register your bike with the Santa Monica Police Department so if stolen you have a better chance of getting it back.)
I quickly got the hang of it, making sure to have a checklist before leaving the house so I didn’t forget anything — and plenty of change in case I needed to bus it for some reason, like a stolen front tire. (I’m still heated about that one. I mean, who steals a front tire, or just a bicycle seat?)
Being a cyclist can be scary at times, with cars zooming inches by you or oblivious drivers throwing open their doors without first checking to see if a cyclist is riding by. Just this week morning a raised truck with off-road tires didn’t give me the proper room and grazed my left arm.
And for those who are wondering, yes, I do stop at stop signs — when there’s traffic in sight. Hey, it’s tiring to have to get back up to speed from a dead stop, especially if you are doing more than 5 miles a day, every day. It does take its toll. However, I have made sure to never run stop lights, change lanes without signaling, block right-turn lanes, or any of the other bad habits that drive drivers nuts.
Now, biking isn’t for everybody. It can be rough on the knees and the back. I’m lucky enough to not have children that need to get to soccer practice or recitals. I’m young enough to still have the energy to bike 14 miles daily, and I’m fortunate that I have a job that’s located relatively close to my home and a gym with showers and towel service.
That being said, I am in the market for a new car. I know, after all that I’m going to go back to riding on four wheels. Well, I think I’ve earned it. I still plan to ride to work pretty much every day because of the health benefits, the cost savings and because I enjoy it. But I would like to own a car so that I can visit relatives in Orange County when I want without having to reserve a car, or head to Downtown Los Angeles on a whim for a late night sushi run and to explore my old haunts from those college days.
There are also those moments when I just want to hop in the car, turn on my favorite song and cruise north along PCH while the sun sets to my left. After all, I was born and raised in Los Angeles in what feels like the car capital of the world. I still have that motor oil coursing through my veins.
But at least now I have a greater appreciation for driving and for those who choose not too, and will always give them 3 feet before passing. I believe if you are physically able, you should hop on the cycle at least a few days a week to experience your neighborhood from a different perspective. You’ll notice the trees more, discover little businesses you normally passed by at 45 mph, and improve your health at the same time.
It’s going to take a while before more people decide to ditch their rides in favor of bikes, but I believe it will happen as gas prices, parking rates and insurance climb and more bike lanes and public transit options are put in place. Will people give up their cars entirely? I doubt it, especially in Southern California. But I do believe there is room for a cycle in your life, or some other alternative form of transportation. You just have to be willing to give it a try. Hopefully it will be by your own volition and not because someone stole your car.