I've lived in L.A. for three years, and I still don't own, need, or really want a car. It can be done.
I started this post on the 217 in Mid-City Los Angeles on my way to work. Even my fellow Angelenos might not realize that number doesn't represent a freeway, since most three-digit numbers here do. Instead, it's a bus line. I take it to and from my office twice a week, the same way I've navigated L.A. for the three years I've lived here.
I would probably do the same in any city. I carried a TAP card in the days of paper tickets and boarded the Expo line on its opening day in 2012. Sometimes I subtly shame friends for wasting gas to drive to one another's apartments, because we're all in college and live at most two miles from one another. But my friends unfailingly reply to my jabs with some version of, "Come on, this is Los Angeles. I'd take public transit in a second if we were in ______," which they fill with Chicago, San Francisco, or Boston.
L.A. had a seriously cool streetcar system 80 years ago, and there are tunnels left over from subway digging in the 1950s, but the vast majority of the city's infrastructure was built for car travel. We're such drivers that we close a freeway for a day and call it "Carmageddon." It's no wonder our buses routes are constantly evolving—they're built to address a city that, frankly, doesn't want them.
But there's a growing community of those of us who do. L.A. is not New York or D.C., and it doesn't purport to be. It's the largest metro area in the country. We brag about visiting the mountains and the beach on the same day, forgetting sometimes that they're 40 miles apart. But Angelenos love this city—at least, I think we do—because every neighborhood is special and every street so different.
Practically, from Downtown, you can get to almost any point in the city in less than 90 minutes. Yes, I realize that's 90 minutes—but it's not uncommon to wait as long in traffic, and that time allows for an astounding amount of reading, emailing and thinking. During the day, most buses run at 10-to-15-minute intervals, meaning you won't wait longer than 15 minutes and usually less than 10. After dark, when routes slow down to one-hour circulation, Google Maps' transit function pretty accurately predicts pick-up times.
And presently, there's a crowd of high school kids in the back of my bus rapping along to someone's iPod. A grandmotherly woman toting fruit from the Russian markets in Hollywood just sat down beside me. A group of men have perched on the front four seats, leaning forward to chat with our bus driver about gun control. If I weren't writing this, I'd be reading a book, sending an email, scanning Twitter, or maybe calling my dad. It's surprisingly peaceful, despite the noise. Today was long. It's nice to sit back and realize that I don't have to fight through my own commute.
Living without a car requires planning. It takes patience. I keep my eyes open and my headphones tucked away after dark, because I'm a woman traveling alone and I understand that things happen. I wait to run errands until I have a full-blown shopping list and always carry a book. I renew my Metro pass every six months, and I have a Zipcar membership for moving and taking friends to the airport.
But that's a small price to pay for everything transit offers me. I don't pay for parking. I'm seldom late. I've come to know streets quite well and can navigate for friends without ever entering a freeway. Plus, the bus gives me a valuable space for reflection rather than road rage. It forces me to interact with my city in a way I might normally avoid and reminds me about the incredible diversity of this place, which is one of the things that drew me here, even without my car.
I've considered a car upon graduation, but I want a few more months without one before I decide. Public transit is hardly unbearable—in fact, it's pretty pleasant, and more importantly, it's possible. The more I ride, the easier it gets. As more of us start riding, we'll see more buses, more rail lines, and less traffic. L.A. can change. And it's important that we change with it.
This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Take Public Transportation. Follow along and join the conversation at good.is/citizenship and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.