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 go without owning a car for at least three months (from November through January) in the car capital of the world, Los Angeles. I figured that with the new Expo Line train, Uber, and my love of biking, going three months would be a piece of cake! Here’s what happened, along with some tips I learned along the way.
Buses Aren’t As Bad As I Thought
The first thing I had to do is learn how to use the bus, because being a true Los Angelino, I had never used one before.
My biggest fear was not knowing how to pay. I was afraid of holding up the line, not knowing how much to pay, not having exact change, and so forth.
Also like almost everyone in L.A., I had a very low opinion of buses. I viewed them as slow, lumbering behemoths which clogged LA traffic.
But, the first time I used the bus, I was really impressed! It was clean, air-conditioned, and surprisingly fast and convenient! The bus on Wilshire was actually faster than driving in rush hour due to the dedicated bus lane, as long as not too many morons were blocking the bus lane! I became a fan!
Here are my top three tips for using the bus:
1. Get a TAP Card
The solution to the payment problem is to use a TAP card. 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 a lot of other Los Angeles buses. Simply tap your card on the payment panel on the bus, 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 if you register your card online and lose it, you can regain the value with a small fee. Built-in insurance!
2. 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!
3. Use the Transit App
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. Using this, I minimized waiting time, most of the time. I learned the hard way though, that buses sometimes arrive a minute or two early, so leave a little margin.
But, Buses Have Limitations
Of course, for longer trips, buses are usually slower than driving. And, if there is a bus connection involved… well, I just avoided those all together. Buses don’t go everywhere, so other forms of transport are sometimes required.
Also, there were more than a few times I got unlucky and got to the bus stop just as it was pulling away. This added another 15 minutes or sometimes up to a half an hour to a trip that would have taken 5 minutes by car. Even worse, sometimes buses are delayed and don’t show up at their advertised intervals. Frustrating to an impatient person like myself.
Carrying a lot of groceries is also a pain on the bus. I guess I could Uber to the grocery store, but for some reason that seemed silly. I ended up shopping at the much more expensive, but closer, Whole Foods which I could walk to, instead of the Ralphs that I would usually drive to.
Having lived on the East Coast for a while, I jumped for joy when the Metro finally came to Santa Monica. I rode it the day it opened and loved it.
I used it a few times during my experiment, but the problem was that I lived almost a mile from the closest Metro station. The walk was worth it to go to Culver City or Downtown LA, but for closer destinations, it was easier to take the bus most of the time. But, I still love riding on the train when I can.
Bird and Lime
Since I wrote this article, Bird and Lime have introduced motorized scooters to Santa Monica, and I love them. For me, it solves the “last mile” problem that I have of getting to and from 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).
Uber / Lyft
These ride sharing services are great, especially when parking is expensive or if you are going out and plan to drink. But they can get expensive if used all of the time.
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.
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.
The other thing I did was carpool, or more accurately, mooch rides from other people. 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!
The downside was that I didn’t want to be a ride moocher all of the time. I felt guilty letting friends drive me around too much, so sometimes I’d cheat and borrow my mom’s car and offer rides to them.
I had always loved to bike to get places because Santa Monica is pretty bike-friendly. If it was under two miles away, I’d pretty much bike there. I loved getting a workout while commuting.
Oddly enough, once I discovered the bus though, I found myself using the bus for some of the trips that I would have previously biked to. Interesting.
Social Events Killed My Experiment
Since I was doing my experiment during the beginning of the holidays, I had a few Christmas parties to go to. I didn’t use the bus because they required too many connections to reach residential areas. Plus, I often had to carry hot food and maybe a bottle of wine, which just seemed like a pain on a bus.
I could have used an Uber, but some of these places were kind of far, so it would have been expensive. I didn’t want to deal with Uber pool. So, I broke down and borrowed my mom’s car for these parties.
There were other social events that I wanted to go to that went really late, after the buses stopped running as often. The idea of riding a bus at 1AM just didn’t appeal to me, especially with some of the shady characters I’d seen on the bus during the day. I ended up borrowing my mom’s car yet again.
The other difficulty was dating without a car. At first, it was fine, because I’d just use the bus to meet my date at a restaurant which I picked and which was close to a bus line. No problemo!!!
But, at the end of the evening, she’d always ask, “where’d you park?”, and I’d have to explain that my car was totaled an I was doing this “no car” experiment. My dates were always understanding. Often, my date would even offer to give me a ride. It was great to have more quality time, but after doing this for a while, I felt really bad having my date drive me home! It was on one of these dates I decided that I probably wouldn’t last the three months without a car of my own. Not being able to drive on a date was a show-stopper.
So after cheating multiple times by borrowing my mom’s car, I decided to throw in the towel and just buy my own car after just a month and a half. I admit, I wimped out pretty easily. Most of the time, other modes of transportation worked, but about 5% of the time, not having a car was a real pain, especially when going to social events like dates and holiday parties.
Of course, you can live in Los Angeles without a car if you have to. Many people do it. It’s just not something I would choose to do for a long period of time.
When I got my own car, I felt liberated. I could go anywhere anytime! But, my experiment was a failure.
But All Was Not Lost
But maybe it wasn’t a complete failure. I discovered that the bus can be useful, even when you have a car. I’ve actually used it more than a few times since I bought my car, just for the convenience of not having to find parking in downtown Santa Monica. I’d say learning to use the bus was the biggest take-away from the experiment for me.
And, now I try to carpool more often when going to social events. It makes things much more fun!
In the end, although I did not eliminate driving solo, I was able to cut down on it big time and use other commuting options as a result of my experiment.
Do you live without a car in Los Angeles? What are your tips for getting around? – Brian