Los Angeles county has over 10 million residents, 67 percent of whom commute solo across 21,000 miles of roads and 527 miles of freeway. At the center of this network of transportation sits Los Angeles, which itself is jam-packed with 3.8 million people driving 2.8 million cars. Each driver averages 61 hours in traffic every year.
Those numbers are hard to comprehend, but the fact is that LA people drive a lot. Looks tend to be just as important (or more so) than rates of travel, which makes sense: from massive homes to audacious clothes, the people of LA live well beyond their means, and the greatest expressions of this stuff-centric culture are the four-wheeled identity/branding/transportation machines they drive. Leased Lambos, Bimmers and Land Rovers fill the streets of LA, embodying the "fake it 'til you make it" mentality. Don't get me wrong -- I love to see a McLaren MP4-12C when I'm in traffic, or spot a stunning 1963 Mercedes 300SL on my way into the grocery store. But we're clearly obsessed with our automobiles, and a lot of people would say we are to a fault.
Navigating this city known for its vastness and interlocking freeways without a car is akin to a New Yorker pulling his vehicle from storage to run errands in midtown for a few hours. It's crazy. It doesn't even seem like an option. But what if I made it an option? I decided to try the unthinkable: live in LA for one week while my car sat in the driveway. The goal: see just how dependent I was on my car -- and determine just how much I could buck that dependency.
Because I'm a freelancer, some days I work from home and others I'm running around to auditions, meetings, job interviews or shooting/writing/editing for various productions. I'm close to the 101 (yes, we use an article before our esteemed freeways) and live within five miles of a grocery store, various coffee shops, a huge park, a mall and a gym, which made the feat seem at least possible.
Of course, I couldn't just hoof it everywhere, and while public transportation would be helpful, I couldn't rely on it entirely. Instead I decided to enlist a few alternative modes of transportation: the Ducati Monster 796 ($10,500) motorcycle, Pedego City Commuter ($2,300) electric bicycle and the Zero DS ($14,000) electric motorcycle. After using each I logged the what, where and when of my trip along with some notes on the day's activities. It's also worth noting that I didn't force my (at the time) pregnant wife to go through this experiment with me; this was my personal challenge, and I like staying married.
First day with no car, and I'm going to ease into it. I usually work out in the morning, so instead of driving to the gym I just go for a run and take in a beautiful, quiet start of the day. Rather than sitting in traffic going to and from the gym, I'm gifted with extra time to exercise. I decide I deserve another bowl of oatmeal.
Where: L.A. Fitness
What: Staying healthy
Usual In-Car Time: 15 minutes
Alternate Means: Spirited jog for exercise instead of driving to/from the gym
Just scheduled coffee with a director friend. We need to do some brainstorming on a project. M Street Coffee Shop is chosen due to proximity and their delicious Mint Medley iced tea. Great -- I'll just hop in my car and...wait. Nope. It begins. First up: the Pedego City Commuter, which has classic lines and cool details like suspension in the seat and adjustable handlebars.
Despite heavy weights and high prices, it's easy to see why electric bikes are starting to catch on, especially for those who don't want to haul a change of clothes to work or want to meet friends for a drink close by and not worry about parking. Most e-bikes feature a Power On Demand (POD) function, which uses a throttle similar to a moped, or torque-sensing Pedal Assist (PA). The City Commuter can do both, giving you the option of taking it easy or contributing to the commute. Both options use a rear in-hub 400-watt motor to top out at 20 mph; the battery lasts up to 30 miles in POD mode and 50 miles using PA.
Utilizing a few of the 1,200 or so miles of bike paths, lanes and routes around LA, it still takes me longer to get to the coffee shop than in a car -- but not having to sweat for my miles means I arrive clean and dry. Parking is a breeze. Turns out I'm only five minutes late and my friend hasn't even arrived yet. Psh. LA people.
Where: M Street Coffee
What: Meeting director for brainstorm session
Usual In-Car Time: 10 minutes
Alternate Means – the Pedego: 15 minutes
Just found out I have a last minute audition, but luckily it's six miles away in Studio City rather than 20 away in Santa Monica. I download the LA Metro app and chart my journey based on when I want to arrive and how long I'd be willing to walk. Most of LA's 183-line bus fleet uses clean-burning compressed natural gas to carry the 1.1 million people who depend on the service on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many of those buses get caught in the same traffic as everyone else, which frequently throws off bus schedules. A stranded rider might not know if they missed their bus or if it's running really late, and waiting for an hour or longer is not uncommon. I don't have that kind of time, but I've made a commitment, dammit! I cross my fingers, find the most direct route on the app, grab some cash ($1.50/ride) and head out, expecting this to be one of the low points of my week.
The bus is packed and arrives late. Great. I'm starting to worry about my audition time and quickly become that guy who keeps checking upcoming stops and looking at my phone for traffic info. I arrive a few minutes late but don't have to worry about parking and meter money. After the audition I find if I walk a few blocks I'm able to catch a different bus that cuts down my layover time between lines and reduces the transfers I need to make. Maybe I'm starting to get the hang of this.
Where: ASG Casting
Usual In-Car Time: 20 minutes
Alternate Means - Bus + 1/3 mile walk: 55 minutes there; 35 minutes back
Wanting to give the bus another chance, I decide to find a way to the gym. I run a few blocks (maximize my workout time) to the closest bus line, which takes me to the Orange line and drops me at LA Fitness in 25 minutes. During the ride home I can finish some emails (rather than the usual fight against traffic that comes with driving), but I do smell pretty bad. I'd like to apologize to the cute businesswoman across the aisle from me -- no deodorant or extra shirt was a rookie mistake. In total it cost $1.50 per bus/leg, which came out to $6 round-trip. I realize I should have purchased a $5 all-day pass on the way to the audition earlier: another rookie mistake.
Where: LA Fitness
Usual In-Car Time: 15 minutes
Alternate Means- Bus: 25 minutes
Just took delivery of an electric motorcycle called the Zero DS (Dual Sport), and I'm super excited. This thing has tough looks, and the off-road option allows for hopping sidewalks and cruising dirt paths, making all of LA feel accessible. Having a motorcycle in LA makes plenty of sense: you can lane split and get ahead of traffic, the price is right, there's great fuel economy and parking is easy. Of course, there are downsides. Other than the obvious "it's not if you wreck, but when" expression, riders have to worry about the smelly disheveled look they get after sweating in all their gear during the summer months. It's only made worse by the fact that they're sitting atop an extremely hot engine.
An advantage to the Zero, however, is that you don't straddle an engine; it's electric, remember? That means no burning your legs on the exhaust pipes and no cooking your manliness. There are no gears, a benefit particularly useful during the otherwise clutch, shift, clutch, shift, brake, stop, repeat of LA stop-and-start traffic. The larger 11.4 kWh battery pack gives you 126 miles of city range, 61 miles if you are maxing out the 54 hp motor at 70 mph on the freeway -- just enough speed for a relatively inexperienced rider among LA's crazy drivers. Plug it in the wall to fully charge in about eight hours or add a quick-charge accessory to your electrical system at home and fill up in four.
I decide to head to The Coffee Roasters for hand-roasted cold-pressed iced coffee and a blueberry bar and to do some editing and test this new bike out. Sure, I have to gear up in a helmet, jacket, boots and pants, but the bike is a joy to ride. Motorcycle purists will cry foul because the Zero is silent and "loud pipes save lives", but I really love the gobs of electric torque right off the line and that it pairs with my iPhone to give me instant battery stats, speed, GPS and power output as well as regenerative braking levels. Pretty futuristic stuff.
My brain is fried from editing and I need to pick up food for a dinner of stuffed bell peppers. I gear up and head to Trader Joe's to get whatever will fit in my backpack. Admittedly, the wife and I had to take the car back later than night for a full grocery run because ice cream and (ahem) multiple bottles of wine are hard to safely transport in a little backpack.
Where: Trader Joe’s
What: Small grocery run
Usual In-Car Time: 10 minutes
Alternate Means – Zero DS: 13 minutes (including gearing up)
I head to breakfast with a friend at Steampunk Kitchen, because how can you start a day without buttermilk fried chicken between syrup-infused waffles? He picks me up because the restaurant is on his way. I don't count this as cheating because it isn't MY car. My friend thinks I'm crazy for the car-less week, but as I explain the different modes of transport I'd used he seems enlightened. Then I inform him of my next task: the LA Subway.
SCREECH (the sound of my friend's brakes). LA has a subway? Yep. And you'd be surprised at how clean and beautifully designed many of the stations are. Most offer Park And Ride programs to take account for LA's sprawl; some even have bike lockers. In 20 years LA has added 88 miles of railway to its six lines, which are used by more than 360,000 passengers every day. You can go from North Hollywood to LAX (28 miles) in about an hour -- which is often much faster than taking a car. Sure, most middle-class white people don't ride it, but that's a shame. It really is an easy process, and once onboard you get the chance to meet some amazing characters including a guy I saw speak to his pet mice that were running up and down his arms like they were some sort of playground. But let's not judge; we've all been there from time to time.
My friend drops me at the Universal City station and I head down to Pershing Square right in the middle of downtown, mostly to photograph the subway but also because downtown LA is a hidden gem: an oft-forgotten spot full of art walks, amazing food, museums, concert halls and tons of LA architectural character including Union Station. Completed in 1939, this beautiful example of art deco is on the National Register of Historic Places and doubles as the central connector for bus, rail and subway lines.
Where: Downtown L.A.
What: Photography trip
Usual In-Car Time: Ranges from 35 minutes to an hour depending on traffic, plus parking is scant and expensive
Alternate Means – Subway: 20 minutes
These past few days I have personally reduced our dependence on foreign oil (take that, Canada), but I am giving myself a treat today. I open the front door to see the Ducati Monster 796 being off-loaded from a transport truck and a huge grin comes across my face. This bad-ass bike is beautiful in all the best, most Italian ways: that is, attitude and curves. The Monster has Ducati's signature L-Twin 803cc motor with two cylinders, outputting 87 horsepower through its six gears. Lightweight aluminum alloy wheels, a red tubular steel Trellis frame and an aluminum sub frame with a single-side swingarm add to its impressive performance specs. It’s worth noting the 796 is considerably more expensive than other bikes with similar specs -- but is there really a price tag on street cred?
I need to run to the post office to mail a package and return some shoes (I love Zappos) so I tap the freshly gassed-up Monster for the task and decide I'll run to the more distant post office to get some more seat time -- and what a time it is. I've installed a Sena Low Profile handsfree device in my helmet; it took about a day to figure out how to properly velcro it in, but eventually it works like magic. I can listen to music on my phone, get GPS directions and take calls using voice prompts, which keeps my hands on the wheel...er...handlebars, a nice addition to the ride.
Where: Van Nuys Post Office
What: Mailing a package
Usual In-Car Time: 20 minutes
Alternate Means – Ducati Monster 796: 20 minutes (I choose not to lane split or out-drive myself)
One of my friends has offered to be my camera car for the Ducati review video I'm shooting, so I head to his place and then off to Balboa Park to shoot as the sun is setting. As I pull up he remarks that I look a lot cooler on this bike. I agree. I feel cooler on this Monster; maybe I am cooler. I get lost in my thoughts of how different college could have been with this kind of street cred and bad boy image...then I stall the bike. Smooth. I start it back up and head out to the park to be wooed by the high-revving engine with a distinctly Ducati sound. Then I'm reminded of the nut-crushing engine braking that occurs when you let off the accelerator even the slightest. I guess I'll just have to keep driving fast in order to avoid it. Damn.
Where: Balboa Park
What: Production shoot of the Ducati
Usual In-Car Time: 30 minutes
Alternate Means – Ducati Monster 796: 25 minutes (see above note re: driving style)
It's the end of my car-less journey. I sit gazing at my vehicle gathering some LA grit in my driveway and realize I haven't totally missed it. I am looking forward to driving again, however, even if that means LA traffic. This week has been like a crazy juice fast that only makes sense for a limited time. You can't keep asking restaurants to make an off-menu kale shake or carry your Vego-matic 3000 everywhere; it's impractical and annoying.
When I sit back and think about this week and how much harder it's been to get around LA without a car, I can't help but think what might have been the most incredibly connected, navigable metropolis in the country had it not been for the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, which claims a group of large companies bought up the streetcars in most major cities in America in order to destroy them and make way for cars. Thus the walls of freeways and disconnectedness that characterize LA began. We've been fighting our commutes ever since.
Luckily, bike-share and car-share programs like Zip Car are popping up across the city. A light rail that will connect Santa Monica to downtown is getting closer to completion, and new carpool lanes are being built every day on major freeways. There's been a 4.7 percent increase in ridership on buses and trains over the past two years as well as 28,000 fewer registered passenger cars, which leads one to believe there actually is hope for a more efficient and multi-modal transportation future for this great city. After this week, that's the kind of progress I respect and appreciate.