Can Ditching Your Car Make You Feel More Free?

Angelenos talk about how getting rid of a car changed their relationship with the city.

Los Angeles once showed the world that the car equaled freedom. Our vast parking lots and spacious two-car garages offered the utmost convenience. Even our roads were named after the idea—freeways—that automobiles provided this feeling of independence as a personal transportation experience. It worked for awhile. That is, until those painted lanes choked with Sigalerts and gas nosed towards $5.00 per gallon.

"The freeways are not so nice!" howls Eddie Solis, frontman for the metal band It's Casual. In his song "The Red Line," Solis opines about how our freeways have morphed from the promise of the open road into soul-crushing prisons. And Solis, a resident of Boyle Heights, on the east side of Los Angeles, has become somewhat of a local spokesperson for the small but growing group of Angelenos who are choosing not to drive a car, and swearing that their lives are better for it.

"I have friends and family in all walks of life. Even the ones that are doing well are complaining about their cars in traffic and gas prices," says Solis. "I always put out there that I make car-free music, I'm not bound to anything. There's no car insurance, there's no gas or oil, there are no tickets, no stress. My music is hard core, but it's car-free."

Solis ditched his car for financial reasons but quickly started to see that living car-free offered a new creative outlet for his music. "Just through sitting on the bus or subway, I'd see the city from a new perspective, that of a bus rider, as a public transportation advocate. I was seeing different walks of life come on and off [the buses], and I would go through neighborhoods that I didn't think had anything I was interested in, and I started getting inspired." His most recent album, The New Los Angeles, is all about that idea of freedom that he started to feel. "For the people I hear who have to commute by car, it's always a chore," he says. "And I'm just freely moving back and forth, seven days a week. I'm very happy about it, and it's a huge inspiration to me."

I wasn't able to find any definitive studies on how many Angelenos are choosing to live car-free. Just looking at car ownership isn't a good indicator, as there are, of course, thousands of Angelenos who would prefer to have a car, and can't afford one. But as someone who surrendered her own vehicle five years ago, I hear a lot of stories. And anecdotally, I can say that I'm hearing a lot more stories like that of Peter Zellner, a Venice-based architect, who swapped his two vintage diesel Mercedes Benzes earlier this year for a 1974 Schwinn beach cruiser and a single-speed racing bike. He says not driving is a better fit for his personality. "I have become a cycling fanatic," says Zellner. "I love my bike, it's like an extension of me, maybe more so than a car ever was."

The effects have been more than just the financial boost that comes with shedding a problematic vehicle—Zellner has seen serious health benefits. Now, instead of sitting on the 10 for two hours a day, Zellner swaps time at the gym for his hour-and-15-minute ride from downtown's SCI-Arc, where he teaches, to his home and studio in Venice. "In short order I stopped driving, stopped smoking and then stopped drinking!" he says. "I have lost 15 pounds since I started cycling everywhere, I have more time to read and think when I am on the bus and I am never stressed out by traffic."

The stress-free life also appealed to Aunny de la Rosa, communications director for deviantART, an online community of artists. The L.A. native still owns a car, but decided to wean herself off driving three years ago after a trip to Europe. "My overall mental health dramatically changes when I know that I don't have to drive," she says. "Any opportunity to reduce anxiety without a prescription is great by me!"

Although de la Rosa also points to the financial factor as a big reason for her switch—"Spending $70 to fill up my gas tank every other week compared to the $20 TAP card I need to replenish is a no-brainer," she says—it's also about slowing down and restructuring her day. "You have to take a different approach to planning your activities," she says. "When you rely on transit-bike-walk lifestyle your everyday activities like going to work, grocery shopping, and visiting friends takes a little more effort and planning."

But all that extra effort can also be a burden, says Edie Kahlua Pereira, a Santa Monica-based creative and curator who just surrendered her 14-year-old vehicle last week. Although Pereira has walked and biked extensively even with a car, she's apprehensive. "This coming week, I will be unable to attend two events I want to do because of the time it would take me to get there via public transportation," she says. "I see this type of situation being an ongoing issue as many events happen east. Missing events that contribute positively to my life does not make me happy."

Zellner also worried about not being able to change itineraries and jet across town at a moment's notice. But he's discovered a challenge to live more locally, and to stop and experience what his neighborhood has to offer. "Generally speaking I have more freedom on my local daily trips," he says. In the same way, Pereira's positive that the overall benefits of living car-free will appeal to her, especially the part that allows her to wander off her route, something that's less easy in a car. "If I'm not worried about time and getting some place is more or less direct, I welcome the little adventures of walking streets and neighborhoods to get to the next place."

When it all works, the feeling of plotting your bike route on Google Maps, answering emails on your phone while soaring on the 720 bus across town, and walking 20 minutes to the grocery store instead of spending 20 minutes in a Trader Joe's parking lot can produce a true sense of feeling untethered in Los Angeles—maybe something like what those freeway designers originally had in mind. But there's something different about this car-free freedom. It's not convenience, it's community.

Again, there's no study for this, but I can offer more anecdotal evidence. Most people I speak to who voluntarily choose not to drive describe developing an intense connection with their city which they haven't had before. And that's something you just can't get from behind the wheel of a car. "Experiencing L.A. from the lens that riding my bike or the bus affords, allows me to enjoy the scenery," says de la Rosa. "I grew up in L.A., I went to college here, I've lived in over 10 neighborhoods throughout, but my connection to this city has only grown stronger from my seat on the bus, bike and train."

Image via (cc) Flickr user srd515

What would you do on a car-free day in L.A.? Elizabeth Gallaro won $500 to make her idea, Explore LA's Urban Wilderness, come to life as part of our LA/2B GOOD Maker Challenge. Check out her multi-modal itinerary that includes biking, light-rail riding, and ascending a spiral staircase at a freeway interchange. Thanks to all who submitted and voted!

This post is the third in a series exploring transportation issues in Los Angeles sponsored by LA/2B, an ongoing collaboration between the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LA DOT) and GOOD/Corps, an affiliate of GOOD, that provides an opportunity for people in Los Angeles to discuss the future of our streets and transportation.