The Rise of the Bus-Riding Celebrity?

Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser rides public transit in Los Angeles and does not own a car. Why don't more eco-minded celebrities take the bus?

Why don't more eco-minded celebrities in Los Angeles take public transit?

In the weekend Style section of The New York Times, there's a column called "A Night With" that usually follows an emerging star (and his entourage) out to some throbbing Sunset Strip nightclub. But this week's profilee, Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the smarmy Pete Campbell on Mad Men, used his night out a bit differently: The actor, who lives in Los Angeles and does not own a car, took reporter Tricia Romano on a public transit adventure.

A brief story in the Hufflingon Post a few weeks ago mentioned Kartheiser's car-free status (as well as the fact that, at the time, he did not own a toilet, although it appears Kartheiser has moved into a fully-equipped Hollywood apartment). But what's amazing about this weekend's story is that the article focuses almost completely on how Kartheiser moves around the city without a car: He tells Romano how he takes the subway or two buses to the Mad Men set while he works on crossword puzzles or practices his lines, thinks it's easy to navigate the various bus routes, and changes into his clothes when he arrives at auditions to stay fresh. He even utters some pretty memorable lines about how much he enjoys being part of the 10% of L.A.'s population that's transit-dependent:

“It’s wonderful,” he tells the reporter. “Instead of driving and being stressed out about traffic, you can work your scene, you can do your exercises or whatever on the bus. Everyone’s got their own deal.”

“I like that my life slows down when I go places,” he said. “I have all these interactions with the human race and I can watch people living their life and not just in their car.”


There's also a remarkable moment when he encounters a fan at an Echo Park bar who admits to taking public transit for the first time in L.A. Kartheiser reveals some encouraging statistics to his fellow rider: “They’ve done a study and they’ve found that people under 30 no longer view cars as status symbols or even positive things. They look at them as pollutants.”

Which got me thinking: Celebrities put their visibility behind so many environmental causes, from raising awareness about climate change to raging at the government about oil spills. Yet they all still drive. Where are the celebrity public transit advocates?

Judging from this article, a car-free member of the L.A. entertainment industry is still such a novel concept that a new rider would surely get attention in the media. Privacy shouldn't be an issue: In New York, of course, celebs of all stripes take the subway. And if you think about it, it's no more or less of a public place than a grocery store—Kartheiser says he never gets recognized, even when a Mad Men ad was plastered on the side of the bus. Besides, could you imagine TMZ waiting at subway stops and chasing down buses to snap shots of celebs? (Actually, I'd really like to see that.) It almost seems like a better way to go incognito, slipping onto the Red Line to go downtown, unnoticed.

Of course Kartheiser certainly isn't the only celeb famous for riding the rails: Actor Ed Begley Jr. is as well-known for his environmental activism as he is for his acting roles. I spoke to Begley about his use of public transit in a story for Dwell, and how he once showed up to an awards show on a bike, in a tux. Begley, who also drives an electric car, told me that the shift would take more drastic lifestyle changes for his fellow celebs, who are used to living in low-density neighborhoods atop L.A.'s hills, which require driving (or a hefty hike).

But I know that some celebs are moving into walkable neighborhoods like Hollywood and downtown. And I know that celebrity backing for causes can move product and change perception. If more celebs rode transit and talked about its benefits, I think it would get some starry-eyed followers to get on board. Plus their endorsement of proposed rail lines to higher-income areas like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills could help garner local support. And perhaps these pro-transit celebs will produce more pro-transit entertainment, reversing the trend Tom Vanderbilt recently noticed in films: Carless characters are usually losers.

So where are the other celebrities who talk about eschewing their wheels for walking? Surely a few of the New York transplants who have never gotten their license would be willing to try the bus. In fitness-crazed L.A. there's sure to be at least a few celebrities who get around exclusively using bikes. Right?

Until then, it looks like Kartheiser is the unofficial car-free transit advocate on behalf of Hollywood. On last night's Mad Men, there was even a possible wink to Kartheiser's carless existence. A rival ad man hopes to entice Kartheiser's character to join his firm by mentioning their newest client, Italian automaker Alfa Romero. Kartheiser looks at him blankly, and says, with deep conviction, "I don't drive."

Julian Meehan

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