Carless in Los Angeles

High Life, Sept 2013

It’s one of the most car dependent cities in the world. So what happens when you leave the motor at home? As LA Tourism launches its “Car Free in LA” campaign, Sanjiv Bhattacharya takes on the challenge.

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Photos by Noah Webb

Twenty seconds. No, ten. That’s how long it takes before the rapping starts. The kid’s maybe 18 or 19, his name’s DeSean and he clocks me as soon as I get on the bus.

“Hey wassup man! You going to the beach?” His big dorky smile suggests he doesn’t realize we’re complete strangers. I’m thinking: Learning difficulties but harmless. “I’m going to the beach to help the kids stay off drugs, uh-huh,” he says. “Because I love Jesus. I read a lot of Bibles. You like gospel rap?”

Well, I can’t say I’ve-

“Bfft, p-tsch! Bfft p-tsch!” He’s tapping his feet and nodding. “Oh Lord, almighty master, won’t you save us from this terrible disaster, we go to church but don’t listen to the pastor…”

And this is all before eleven in the morning. Normally, I’d be pulling out of my drive in a 2007 Honda, just me alone in an air conditioned capsule, joining a jostling stream of other capsules, listening to public radio and wondering whether to take the freeway.

But not today – today, I’ve decided, after 12 years in this city, to try and get about without a car for a change. LA Tourism has a “Car Free in LA” campaign so I’m going to test it out; see if I can make a loop around the city via some landmark spots. I’ve got my Tap card – a kind of Oyster version for LA, only not quite as universal. I’m ready to go.

So far, I’m loving it. It sounds daft, but the novelty of getting a 330 bus from the end of my street is kind of thrilling. In LA, the bus is another country – an almost exclusively non-white world, mostly Hispanic and low income, with Spanish language TV up at the front. Incredibly many of my friends have never ridden the bus and don’t intend to. I’ve only taken it occasionally, and it always feels like an adventure – I never know what the fare is, or what number to get. While you could ask most any New Yorker how to get from Midtown to Brooklyn on the subway, Angelenos are hopeless. Here, there are public transit people and there are drivers, and – ugly though it sounds – they’re practically split by socioeconomics, culture, class and even race. All those barriers that public transit breaks down so effectively in other cities, are magnified here. Buses are practically taboo.

But now that I’m on one again, I remember how much I miss them. I came from a carless life in Shoreditch, London, a life of nobbing around on public transport. And though I moaned about the delays and what have you, I miss rubbing shoulders with my fellow man, and feeling closer to the life and motion of a city, like we’re all in it together. Traffic is alienation – we email ourselves around a grid system like Tron, and witness our fellow travellers only through two panes of glass at least, sometimes four if you include sunglasses. On the buses, however, there’s camaraderie. Noticing a newbie flap around with his bus map, several passengers volunteer to help me out. If only I spoke Spanish, I’d understand what they were on about.

And let’s not forget DeSean. It’s been said that there’s at least one nutter on every bus in LA – some kind of citywide initiative. Well I’m all for it – his rapping is making the journey just zip along.

I get off at Venice Beach, underwhelming though it is. The home of cheap tat and aging musclemen, tourist traps and rollerbladers, it’s a place to flee and fast, not least because there’s nothing to eat here but junk, at least if you want a view of the water – Santa Monica’s the place for that, about a couple of miles up the coast. So I figure, hey – why not rent a bike from Perry’s rental in Venice, enjoy a touristy ride along the beach, and then drop the bike off at Perry’s in Santa Monica?

But the bike rental guy is a wall of “no”. He’s stuck on a loop about “all bikes must be returned”. Somehow, listening to the sea all day has made him really uptight. (In the end I manage to persuade him. It takes pleading and a call to head office, but so be it – now that I’m on foot, I’m more inclined to make the effort.) And before I know it, I’m in a convoy of tourists pedalling down the coast, wind in my hair. Oh the beach – I really ought to come out here more often.

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My next destination, however, is an altogether stiffer challenge, not just physically, but psychologically: The Bel Air Hotel.

It’s an unspoken assumption in LA that if you don’t drive it’s because you can’t afford it. And it’s true that bus people are poorer, by and large – poorer and darker. But this assumption hits home in the rich neighborhoods where buses don’t go and sidewalks have simply disappeared. Bel Air is a cocooned idyll of wealth and birdsong up in the canyons, a good mile from the bus crowd. It takes me two buses and a humbling march past all the mansions in the blazing heat to get there. Often, I’m the only pedestrian in sight. The only other people I see are the occasional gardener or construction worker, who watch bemused as I trudge past, sweating and huffing. “Hey buddy, you need a ride?” they call out, laughing.

I arrive with aching calves, a clinging shirt, and what feels like sunburn on my neck. You don’t think to pack sunscreen and water when you’re driving. Never mind, I’m in the Bel Air now. Yes, a $30 cocktail would be lovely, thank you. And a stupendous meal at Wolfgang Puck’s. Why, yes, I’ll take the $3000 suite tonight. (And other things that bus passengers never say.)

The next morning it all goes horribly wrong. I’ve bitten off much more than I can chew. Griffith Park was a terrible idea – lovely spot, with terrific views, but murder to get to without wheels. The buses quickly lose their allure when you’re waiting for eons at one sunbaked bus-stop after another. Even the nutters aren’t quite as fun as before. And then I’m hiking up hills in the merciless sun. I do this hike all the time with the dogs, but of course I drive much of the way and I have my sanctuary waiting for me when I’m done. This time, it’s just me, the canyons and the sound of my wheezing breath

But a kind of tunnel vision sets in, and I can’t stop. It’s about finishing now – making the loop, just to say I did it. God knows, I’ll never do this again. The reason LA’s such a car city is because public transport just doesn’t access all areas, and it takes too many changes to get from A to B. The city’s charm is its hills in large part, and you’d never do those on foot, unless you had a thing for pain. Even the most hardcore of the carless minority in this city would admit that they lean often on their friends who have cars. There’s just no other way.

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I bounce back down the hill to jump on the first bus heading south. Take me away from these canyons and billionaire neighborhoods – I don’t want to trudge through empty streets searching for shade trees like a stray dog. Take me to the concrete and skyscrapers, the only place in LA where being carless makes sense.

Finally, I arrive Downtown at Union station, a building that makes the spirit soar at the best of times – but after the day I’ve had, it’s an almost religious experience. This gorgeous art deco building is the only hub that LA has – here at last are the swarms of commuters, pouring up and down escalators, and flowing through the various underground tunnels, red, gold and purple. So what if the underground’s still new and strangely barren, with only scant advertising on the tunnel walls. It reminds me in some ways of Delhi’s metro system. And I’ll take it.

The thing about tunnels. They’re always in the shade.