Car-Free in L.A.

How I Joined Downtown's Elite 11.3% of Transit Users

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Published April 4, 2007 by Downtown News 
By Kathryn Maese 

Los Angeles — I joined the ranks of the carless last week.

 
 

It didn't come easy, though. In fact, it was downright scary as I reluctantly handed over the pink slip to the new owner. What would I do if I had a last-minute appointment? Would I want to hassle with walking or taking the bus after a long day? What if I had errands to run or needed to meet someone at a restaurant?

The panic quickly dissipated when I took the A DASH the next day to a breakfast meeting in the Arts District. The trip took all of eight minutes and cost 25 cents, dropping me a block from Café Metropol.

It's not like public transit is new to me. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I went three years without a car. The metro system was efficient and I walked everywhere without a second thought. It was a natural part of that city's psyche. But in L.A., people without cars are second-class citizens.

As I've said before, Downtown requires a pared down lifestyle. For a while I'd been weighing getting rid of my ride (a paid off '97 green Jeep Cherokee on its last leg, or wheel) and relying on Downtown's network of public transportation. After all, I can walk to work in about 15 minutes, or 10 if I take the bus and bypass the calf-killing incline on Grand Avenue to Bunker Hill.

I admit feeling a bit guilty that I drove everywhere despite living Downtown, arguably the city's most usable transportation hub. The feeling was exacerbated a few weeks ago when a reader wrote to this paper pointing out that very few of Downtown's new residents actually use the available transportation – something like 53 local bus routes, three subway lines and all the other trains and commuter lines streaming in and out of Union Station.

The reader was referring to a recent demographic study by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, which found that a paltry 11.3% of residents take public transportation and only 17.2% walk or bike to work. Overall, 61.4% of respondents said they rarely or never use the transit system.

Those numbers provided an extra bit of prompting. So I put my car up for sale and got a buyer the next day. Then I immediately went into research mode to see just how doable this public transit thing would be.

I picked up a DASH schedule and jotted down a few key bus and Metro lines. The tricky thing is that I don't work in the center of Downtown, but instead on the western edge near First and Beaudry – which requires a few extra connections.

I tested a few routes. What would happen, for example, if I needed to get groceries after work at Ralphs when it opens this summer? I'd need to walk three blocks to the LAUSD headquarters where I could catch the F DASH, which would drop me off a half block from Ralphs at Ninth and Flower.

 
 

Not bad. But what about getting to the gym at Seventh and Olive after work? I walked half a block to the #14 bus and got off at Seventh and Grand (near a soon to open whiskey bar, by the way). From there I hoofed it a block to the L.A. Athletic Club.

On Tuesday I was running late to work and decided to take the grimy but mercifully flat Third Street tunnel. A friend who walks to work says I'll get used to the creepy, narrow passage. I'm not so sure.

Still, it helps to look at the perks. Selling my car means I have eliminated insurance and an $80 parking space rental. Plus I don't have to pay for $3-a-gallon gas, $12 parking garages or $30 tickets for meters that fail.

In all I figure I'll save $300 a month by living car-free. That's no chump change. In just five years I'll have $18,000 – a small down payment for a rental property, a chunk to pay off debt or a financial cushion if I invest it right.

Recently author Chris Balish came out with an interesting book titled How to Live Well Without Owning a Car. He estimates that the average American spends about $700 a month to own a vehicle. But, if you invest that money over 30 years, at an annual 8% return, you'd be a millionaire. Or in the short term, say five years, you'd have more than $50,000. Whether you're doing it for financial or environmental reasons, it just seems to make sense.

To put it into perspective, my transportation costs for the entire week cost as much as a gallon of premium gas.

Of course, being without wheels requires more efficient planning. If I have an appointment, I need to set aside extra time to get there or figure out how to accommodate last-minute plans. I'm considering a Flexcar membership (flexcar.com), which offers about 20 Downtown locations where I can pick up a car and pay $7-$12 an hour to run errands and go to meetings (the price includes gas, insurance, etc.).

When I think about it, I didn't use my car all that much apart from going to work and shopping. I can walk almost anywhere Downtown, which is part of the beauty of living and working in an urban area.

To be honest, I won't be completely without a car. My husband still has his, so he can chauffer me around on weekends if needed (he has a stick shift, which I can't drive).

The thought of losing some measure of independence was a concern at first, but the process has actually been pretty liberating and a bit of an adventure. I know it won't always be easy and will certainly require a few lifestyle changes. But the first week has run pretty smoothly.

Except for the fact that it just started raining, hard. And I forgot my umbrella.

Contact Kathryn Maese at kathryn@downtownnews.com.