Los Angeles is the “car capital” of the world, but it’s been getting easier to get around without one
In 2016, I was hit by a drunk driver and my car was totaled. After I recovered, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to do an experiment: to live in Los Angeles without a car for a while. After doing it for a few months and learning a lot, here are my suggestions for getting around Los Angeles without a car!
1. Try the bus: It’s better than you think
Like almost everyone in L.A., I had a very low opinion of buses. I viewed them as slow, lumbering behemoths that clogged LA traffic. But, the bus turned out to be a cornerstone of my new transportation portfolio since I lived very close to a bus stop.
The first thing I had to do is learn how to pay the bus fare because being a true Los Angelino, I had never ridden the bus before. The best way is to get a TAP card (or phone app), which is a pre-paid card that works on buses and trains in Los Angeles. It makes paying for the bus trivially easy! Just tap it on the onboard kiosk when you board. You can order it online or buy it at some stations and vending locations.
By the way, the bus is dirt cheap. I can go all the way across town from Santa Monica to Downtown LA for $1.75.
The first time I used the bus, I was really impressed! It was clean, air-conditioned, and surprisingly fast and convenient! Not all are this nice, granted.
Amazingly, the Santa Monica Blue Bus on Wilshire Blvd. was actually faster than driving during rush hour due to the dedicated bus lane.
The bus is great if you live near a stop, and it goes where you want to go. But, the bus might not be viable if you live far from the bus stop. There were also some times on more obscure routes where the bus was delayed, so it’s not great if you’re in a huge hurry. The bus also isn’t great if you need to carry big things, or if it doesn’t go where you need it to go. In those times, I fall back to other transportation methods listed below.
And yes, you’ll encounter a mentally unstable person riding the bus every so often. Other than that, you’ll find mostly Latino workers, students, the elderly, and some tourists (and me!)
Here are my top three tips for using the bus in Los Angeles:
A. Get a TAP card (or phone app) to pay
If you plan to use any public transportation in L.A., get a TAP card or even better, their phone app. I got a TAP card so I could use the Expo Line train, but I found out it also works on the Big Blue Bus and all other Los Angeles buses. I now use the Tap app.
Simply tap your card or phone on the payment panel on the bus, wait for the beep, and the fare is automatically deducted. I strongly urge you to get one of these! It’s better than cash not only for convenience but also because if you register your card online and lose it, you can regain the value with a small fee. Built-in insurance!
B. Use Google Maps to find bus routes
My second problem with using the bus was not knowing which bus to take. The official websites for this will overwhelm you with huge bus schedules and maps. Instead, enter your destination on Google Maps and click the public transport button (between the car and person icons) to see which buses to take. So much easier!
C. Use the Transit App to check bus schedules
The next issue to tackle was the bus schedule. How often would they arrive, and how could I minimize my waiting time? Of course, you can use the convoluted Metro website, but apps are so much more convenient. I chose the Transit app (available for iOS and Android). This tells you down to the minute when buses will arrive. it’s fantastic! Highly recommended.
2. The Metro (Light Rail / Subway)
Having lived on the East Coast for a while where trains are plentiful, I jumped for joy when the Metro light rail finally came to Santa Monica. I rode it the day it opened and loved it, even though I had a car at that time.
If the Metro goes to where you want to go, for example, downtown LA, and you’re close to a station, the Metro is awesome!! Check out these maps for coverage area. Or, just use Google Maps and select
The Metro is better than the bus for long distances. I’ve ridden from Santa Monica to Pasadena using the Metro. It also can be faster than driving during rush hour.
You pay for the Metro using the aforementioned TAP card, the same card that gets you on the bus. Be sure to tap the card at the kiosk before boarding – there are no turnstiles, but there are transit police who check occasionally and will give tickets.
The downside of the Metro is that there are a lot of places that it doesn’t go to. To get you to the “final mile”, you can rely on scooters or a ridesharing service.
3. Dockless electric scooters
Since I first wrote this article, various companies such as Bird have introduced motorized scooters and bikes to Santa Monica, Venice, Long Beach, and Los Angeles. I love them! For me, these solve the “last mile” problem of getting to the Expo line from my house. I also use them to run errands, and when I need to go somewhere without my bike (i.e., when I’m meeting someone with a car who can drive me home).
You’ll need to get the mobile app to ride. Bird costs $1 to start and $0.39 per minute with a $3.50 minimum.
Other parts of town have different electric scooter services. A few rules to abide by:
- Don’t ride on sidewalks or else you could get a ticket, and you’ll definitely piss pedestrians off. Find bike lanes, or ride to the right of traffic in the street.
- By law, you’re supposed to wear a helmet when riding scooters. Many people don’t, but for your safety, you should.
- When done, be sure to park your scooter in a way that doesn’t block the sidewalk or other busy walkways.
- Scooters are banned in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, as well as on the Strand (the concrete beach trail that runs through Santa Monica to the South Bay).
Note that scooters are available in high-pedestrian traffic areas such as downtown areas and tourist attractions, and not so much in residential areas.
4. Biking / bike-sharing
Los Angeles has never been known as a bike-friendly city, but the situation is improving, with communities like Santa Monica putting a real emphasis on adding more bike lines, some of them fully protected from traffic!
Google Maps has a bike button that lets you see the best bike route to your destination.
If you don’t own a bike, or you’re a visitor, many LA-area municipalities including Santa Monica, Culver City, and LA proper offer rental bike-share programs. You can find the bikes on many street corners in special docking stations. You can pay using your TAP card!
In Santa Monica, Lyft offers bikes that cost $1 to start and $0.34 per minute. Other parts of town have different bike rental services.
5. Uber / Lyft ride-sharing
These app-based ride-sharing services are great. If you use them all of the time, they can get expensive, but they are way cheaper than cabs, and sometimes are the best alternative if the train doesn’t go where you need it to go, or if you need to go further than you’d want to scooter to.
To mitigate the cost, you can use Uber Pool, where they pick up other passengers going the same direction. But, the commute time can explode if you’re unlucky. I found that I would get mildly car-sick sitting in the tiny back seat of an Uber for too long, so I tended to avoid Uber pool.
Uber also now offers Express Pool, another way to save money by having set pickup points. You’ll need to do a little walking, but you save money as a result.
What I would often do is combine different transportation methods. For example, I might take Uber to a business meeting, then take the bus back to save money.
Since I live in the area, it was often easy for me to hitch rides with friends and family. If you do this, I recommend giving something back though, like paying for parking or gas.
There was a huge side benefit to this: I got to spend quality time with people (a rare thing in Los Angeles). Sometimes I got rides from friends and was able to catch up, a great use of otherwise wasted driving time. Other times, I got a ride back from an event or dinner from someone I had just met, so I got to know someone new! This was a very cool side-effect of sharing rides!
As you can see, it’s never been easier to get around Los Angeles, the “car capital of the world”, without a car.
Yes, there are still some cases where having a car is ideal, but Lyft and Uber can take care of many of those.
If you’re a visitor to Los Angeles, check out my other site with my favorite fun things to do in L.A.! – Brian