Of Being A Sensible-Shoed Contessa: Car-Less and Carefree in LA Courtney Barnett

The reaction is one of two things when I tell people I live in Los Angeles and don’t have a car. 1) Eh, well, DUI’s happen. 2) That must be awful! How do even get around?!

I’ve never had a DUI, but thank you, the few that have said this to me, for assuming I’m some sort of carefree youthful daredevil. The truth is, I’m 24 and have never owned a car. I can go into detail as to why that is; a divorce that left my mother and I with a whittled-down income just as I turned 16, college in a bike and bus-friendly city and a lack of funds post-grad to even consider a vehicle, on top of loans and affording rent. Of course, I didn’t have to move to Los Angeles. Some have even assumed that I don’t own a car because I’m a New Yorker, which is always enough to make me beam a little bit even though I have no attachment to the city, besides the romanticism we all feel for it. Everyone knows LA is an obnoxiously car-heavy town, so why in the world would someone go there if they knew they’d be jumping into the shark tank without a wetsuit? Well, I was just a 22-year-old fresh out of college who figured if I didn’t make the move right then and there, I was going to become immersed in whatever else that distracts a person and never make it happen. So I did. And the second I moved to Los Angeles, I got a monthly bus pass.

My first place included three other girls I went to college with, so it’s not like I was some nomadic traveler woman with no access to a vehicle whatsoever, but I would of course have to venture off my own when it came to job interviews and general alone time and map out how I would go about my day. Of course, the disadvantages immediately showed. It generally takes me longer to get places, I’m more limited on how far I can travel out into certain areas, buses and people smell weird, cat-calling is a persistent nuisance, and your journey is in someone else’s hands, so, ya, the bus isn’t always on time. But I’ve become to used to it and appreciate it for the strange and amusing environment it is.

When it comes to a traffic-heavy city like LA, the first bonus must be quite obvious;

1. No Road Rage

I’m more than aware of my temper when I’m pushed to that level, and I feel it even as a passenger in the car with friends. I’m usually known as the one that will scream out what the driver is thinking, amusing all aboard that the one not even behind the wheel is getting so heated. You can see why I wouldn’t like to see myself when I actually have to navigate around the negligent texter-drivers and shoddy signal-users. Instead, I get to sit perched in my window seat with my headphones in and watch it play out in other cars like my own personalized reality show.

2. Money, Money, Money

Car payments. Car insurance. Smog checks. Gas. Maintenance. Parking aaanywhere. Permit parking. Parking tickets. Speeding tickets. Running red lights. Break-ins.

It’s absurd how much it racks up when it comes to owning a car in Los Angeles. Long gone are the days of huge open parking lots outside of Wal-Mart, and here come fights for spots at Trader Joe’s. I don’t have to worry about any of this. I spend a grand total of $75 a month for my Metro card and the occasional gas money I throw at friends when we carpool about town on the weekends. I can’t express what a relief it is that I don’t have to pay $10 to circle parking structures for an hour and get rear-ended in the process.

3. Taking In The Sights

Having to navigate my way through the city from the sidewalk meant I was quickly forced to learn the area or risk being stranded. I realized how much better I was with directions than some of my driving friends because I didn’t have a talking GPS to guide my way, but my own freaked out mind that screamed, “learn these streets or you’ll never make it out alive!”. Fortunately, this also allowed me to explore more of the easily overlooked things about Los Angeles. Popping into small stores and restaurants that I would’ve never bothered with in a car because the street parking would’ve been too much of a hassle. Taking in street art, meeting various dogs, window-shopping funny t-shirts, and running into familiar faces aren’t as attainable from behind the wheel.

4. Keeping Active

I keep myself centralized in Hollywood because of my car limitations, but this also means that I’m really close to a lot of fun antics and shenanigans. Having so many things walking distance means it’s easy to force myself to actually walk places, and for the workout-avoider that I am, it’s the one main thing that keeps me relatively in shape. I’m no buff goddess like most of the stereotypical yogi gals of LA, but I’ve got way fiercer calves than I did three years ago, and that’s what counts.

5. People-Watching At Its Finest

Man, aren’t people just the whackiest?! I’ve had enough creepy/hilarious/scary/downright absurd experiences on the bus I could write an encyclopedia, but unfortunately no one buys encyclopedias anymore. Needless to say, whatever kind of people you imagine yourself around when taking the bus, yes, they are exactly it. Completely. But I’d take a crying baby and guy eating sunflower seeds right next to me over having to navigate rush hour where the 405 Sepulveda Pass.

6. The Reassurance That I May Be Broke, But At Least I’m Eco-Friendly

As much as I have my moments where I long to be a car by myself with the music blaring and no funky smells besides the ones I’ve created on my own, the thought of my low carbon footprint provides a comfortable do-gooder gloat. Hey, you see all that smog? Wasn’t me! Blame that guy! *Chugs from reusable coffee thermos while simultaneously recycling someone else’s Starbucks cup*.

7. Feigning a New York/Any International City Lifestyle

NYC has their subway system, LA has street parking restriction signs that are basically word problems pulled straight from the SATs. Who wants to live like that? I barely passed math and I’ve moved on from that dark time in my life! It’s honestly tragic that in such a densely populated city, we don’t have a better public transportation system or more people that take it, especially since the weather is perfectly suited for it. Blame it on history. Los Angeles used to have a great electric street car system in the its old Hollywood heyday, but in a move to push the sales of personal automobiles, GM strategically bought out the lines and shut them down so we could all live the smoggy American dream. Yet, go to any other major city in the world and people are hopping on and off the metro like ants traveling up your cabinetry. I admire the social interaction that obviously doesn’t happen from the driver’s side window, no matter how crazy it can get sometimes. Where else would I be able to give attractive, map-wielding Swedish boys directions to Santa Monica beach?

I’ll eventually get a car if I plan on staying in LA, or most places for that matter, but for the time being I have to embrace my almost wanderer-like lifestyle. Sure, it has it moments of frustration, vulnerability, and questionable odors, but so does an IHOP, and we still all love IHOP. If Los Angeles could strengthen its public transportation system to the point that alleviates its traffic migraines, those of us who live here would all be better off and more stress-free because of it, and turning more horn-happy Angelenos into bus-riders would be a pretty decent start.

Featured image courtesy of Everyday Dutch Oven

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  1. I love this! I am carfree and hope to stay that way for a loooong time.

  2. I live in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia and being carfree right now is not an option for me (though I didn’t learn to drive until I was 23 because I was so scared of killing somebody on the road) and I honestly believe that I lived in a city with decent access to public transport (again, in the suburbs of Sydney, not really an option) I will happily go car free. My road rage is actually terrifying.

  3. Oh my god, thank you so much for writing this! I just moved to the Gold Coast in Australia which is a sprawled out city which spans the coast-line and I had a car accident on my first day up here where my car was written off. I now take the bus everywhere, and walk a lot of places and it’s made me feel so much better about it knowing that others are in the same, car-less boat as me, and you have reminded me of the benefits of such a lifestyle. Thank you!

  4. Oh my god, I feel like I wrote this.

  5. I live in NYC and if I had to drive a car every day in the city I’d probably die of panic attacks. I love that I don’t have to worry about how to get home if I’m out at a party in Brooklyn. The MTA is my DD (even though they can be a reeeeeal hooker sometimes).

  6. I’m new to Pittsburgh and I love not having a car. Biking up and down hills is exhilarating and terrifying. My smartphone tells me when and where to catch the bus. Everyday’s a new adventure with the wacky locals and crazy terrain.

  7. I’ve been in LA for 3 1/2 years and am carless. I get around on a scooter though and I looove it! No dealing with weird people on the bus, no sitting in traffic, $7 a week on gas…..best decision ever.

  8. I live in LA and recently gave up on my dear old Honda because there was just too much going wrong with it. I thought I’d try being car free for a while and I feel so free! However, I must admit, I do borrow my husband’s car a lot!

  9. Oddly, I heard a story about the L.A. Red Car on my local NPR station not that long ago that explored the GM takeover myth. I found it fascinating and though I would share.
    http://99percentinvisible.org/post/40268956148/episode-70-the-great-red-car-conspiracy

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