Carless in Los Angeles

by Michael Bateman

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I'm not like most people in Los Angeles. That's what I tell the folks back in suburban New York. No, it's not because I'm not writing a screenplay (I am), nor because I don't own an answering machine (I do). I break the third rule of survival: Despite the fact that I am college educated with above average income, I do not own, in fact, I have never owned, a car.

If I don't mention this, they might hear me tell of my beautiful commute along the sand, the surf and the palm trees through which I often see dolphin and seal. They might actually hear a report from Los Angeles that is remarkably similar to what is portrayed in the movies.

It is widely held, among the people of this fair city, that those who do not own cars are either stupid or poor. Well, I'm not poor, and I'm not, well, I'll let you decide if I'm stupid.

My most often asked question is simply: "How do you get around?" Let's start with work. Usually I ride a bicycle. I live in Venice and work in Culver City. My favorite route is the South Bay Bicycle Trail through Marina Del Rey where it connects with the Ballona Creek Bicycle Path, which leads all the way to Culver City (See sidebar for more details on Los Angeles bicycle trails). The trip is gorgeous, especially on the way home in the evenings with orange skies splashed behind silhouetted palm trees and ship masts. In the morning, if I take the time to look, I often see dolphin playing in the surf not fifty yards from shore. Ballona Creek is virtually a freeway for bicycles. There are on-ramps and off-ramps, and it is uninterrupted by cross traffic. These eight miles take me anywhere from thirty to forty minutes, depending on which way the wind is blowing. When I require a less scenic view, Venice Boulevard has a bicycle lane, as do many surface streets in Los Angeles. L.A. is more bicycle friendly than you may know.

"What do you do when it actually rains in Los Angeles?" is usually my next question to which I answer, "I get wet, of course". While this is true, it is only by choice. Public transportation is a real option for me, and I often use it even on sunny days when I feel like reading a newspaper on my way to work. If I time it right I can get there in forty minutes on the Culver CityBus system. This compares to twenty to twenty-five minutes by car, depending on traffic. This is pretty good, considering the time you spend on the bus isuseful.. Don't knock public transportation until you try it!

Being an eligible bachelor, I am often asked: "How do you date?" To this I usually respond by reminding the person that the entire People's Republic of China, home to more than one billion dating, mating and bearing people, share amongst them all of three cars. Three cars! One billion people! Our species has survived over forty thousand years without cars, why should it be so difficult to imagine courting without them? On a more practical level, I add that 1) It's the nineties, women can drive, 2) bicycle dates are very cool (more on this later), and when absolutely necessary, you can rent a car for crying out loud! Think of the possibilities. The rental of an exotic car for a first date can be justified with the money you save not owning a car to begin with. Then if you can keep it a secret until the second date you can show up with a different exotic car, and really knock her socks off. It can get complicated, though. At what point do you let her know you don't own any car at all? And what if she notices that your key chain is from Zippy Rent-A-Car?

If you have a bicycle, $5.00 and are single, you can meet similarly equipped people through the Westside Singles Cycling Club (310-364-4616). They organize rides each weekend for cyclists ranging from beginner to advanced in ability.

My friends with cars tell me they can easily spend $600.00 per month on payments, insurance, repairs, gas, and all that. Think of the lifestyle you can afford with that kind of spare cash every month! For $600.00, I could rent a Ferrari, drive to Vegas, lose $200.00 and still have cash left for a hotel.

How do you shop? Groceries are easy. For one thing, it is a little known fact that you can have them delivered for a small fee. Pavilions for example has an entire catalog and an 800 number set up to accept orders (800-756-6225). You can even use your Visa or MasterCard. Other than that, I generally wait until I have enough errands that require a car, or until I plan a trip that requires one, and I take care of everything then. When I go grocery shopping I generally buy three or four months worth of non-perishables. Then I pick up fruit, milk and other perishables on my bicycle on my way home from work. The residue of this strategy is that I am by default prepared when disasters strike. I have plenty of "emergency" food on hand.

I was better prepared for the riots than most people. I remember the Thursday after the verdict when things started getting really bad. Many kind people in our office that were concerned for my safety offered to give me a ride home. I refused all of them, suspecting that the streets would be clogged with people trying to get home or get to the few stores that remained open. Sure enough, when I went home that Thursday, my bicycle and I slipped passed miles of stalled, bumper to bumper traffic to my home in Venice. None of us knew how bad things were going to get. I remember being afraid we would be asked to evacuate the city, and calculating that it would take me twenty hours to get to Mexico on my bicycle, no matter what the traffic.

The real reason I forsake a car in Los Angeles has nothing to do with surviving the riots, preserving the environment, staying in shape, or any of that. It has to do with quality of life. I was on a subway in New York City recently when a young woman sitting to my left asked how many stops it would be to Port Authority. I couldn't help her, but the man to my right overheard and answered her. He even pointed out a map on the wall and showed us both where we were in relation to the passing landmarks. A lengthy discussion ensued in which I learned the woman was Canadian and returning home from a year in Asia. The man was a carpenter who had quit smoking twenty-five years ago. Before our thirty minute ride was over, I knew more about these two people than some of my closest neighbors in Los Angeles.

Think about it. The only unifying cultural institution in Los Angeles are the freeways. And everyone yells and shoots at each other on them. One stands about the same chance of meeting someone new in Los Angeles, outside of their chosen career, as they do in getting into a wreck, or perhaps getting on Mark and Brian's "Freeway Love Connection".

For me, getting around in Los Angeles with a car would be like taking a shower with a raincoat on. It just wouldn't be the same.

Like the time while in school when my good friend married a rich woman and had the reception at her Bel Air mansion. Being a starving student, I had not even a bicycle to my name. Busses just don't go through those neighborhoods and I couldn't bear the thought of being seen walking up Bel Air Road to the party. So I took busses as far as I could, and then called a cab. It took me to the valet right outside the doorstep, and I arrived in style. When it was time to go, I called another cab, and after making sure everyone saw me get in, I instructed the flustered driver to drop me off at the end of the road where I sat and waited for a bus.

I have since lost whatever respect I ever had for people who judge others by what they drive. I can remember getting into an argument with the valet attendant outside the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills over my bicycle in the presence of a contingent of Jaguars and Mercedes convertibles. I had paid $200.00 to attend a symposium sponsored by the L.A. County Bar Association and had called ahead and was assured that the attendants would be able to direct me to a location where I could lock my bicycle. I unflinchingly went toe to toe with the little twit for 2 minutes before eyeing a parking meter across the street. These handy little devices are everywhere in this city, and with the right kind of lock, work nicely for securing a bicycle. The snot got no tip from me.

Los Angeles is a city with problems, many of which are auto related: Pollution, gridlock, street parking, car / stereo theft, and of course, the exploding cost of auto insurance which I happen to think is a scam, and I take some pride in my ability to thumb my nose at them. There will always be people who will judge me by what I drive. I wear their scorn proudly.

Michael Bateman, September 23, 1992, Venice Beach, CA

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Copyright ©1992 Michael Bateman, All Rights Reserved