I said goodbye to my Old Red one year ago. Boy did we have good times. Bought when living in the Colorado mountains in 2006, we went everywhere together. All over the state climbing 14er's, dirt trails around my home on Independence Pass, and down to Denver to taste civility. Old Red was a trusty 1993 Jeep Wrangler and was one of the most dependable cars I ever owned. Certainly Red was the most adventurous and rugged. In and out of deep creeks, up and down dangerous mountain passes, Red was sure footed and reliably strong. Red was also a good family car, my then teenage daughter learned to drive Red on mountain dirt roads.
But when I moved to Long Beach, California in 2009 driving Red was awkward. His well worn rugged body and snagged upholstery were out of place in a town of more refined palettes. While some Angelenos appreciated his macho, trail torn torso, most opined negatively. Red's "fish out of water" demeanor clashed with their shiny BMWs, fuel sipping Priuses, and sporty Fiats. Valet parking attendants drove cars newer than Red. Sometimes they didn't even know how to shift his standard transmission!
I had moved to Long Beach in 2009 to take a position with the City as Mobility Coordinator. My passion and focus has been for creating more livable cities and communities over the past twenty-five years through growing the use of biking, walking and public transit. My job in Long Beach was to represent these alternatives to driving and move Long Beach toward a different future. Bicycling infrastructure would be designed, funded and built. Walking and transit facilities would be improved and promoted. So to "walk the walk" I moved to a home one mile from City Hall and parked Red. With the exception of weekend trips to explore California and the occasional local trip, Red rested in the driveway. My car dependent lifestyle was replaced with slower, cheaper and healthier alternatives. Red and I now had a weekend marriage. He got a little lonely.
Not all was terrible for Red in California, though. We still explored off road desert canyons around Anza-Borrego, climbed up to trailheads in the Sierras, and carved turns on mountain passes as far north as Shasta. But day to day driving around the highways of Los Angeles for appointments outside of Long Beach felt like posing. Looking around at other four wheel drive vehicles with nary a scratch, perfectly shiny with winches never used, made me feel in company with people who were virtual adventurists. These posers driving their virginal vehicles with their unused carriage clearance were just another type of cosmetic fakery SoCal is famous for. I wanted none of that. So when the transmission finally died a year ago I sold Red on craigslist and decided to do something radical. For the first time since I became old enough to drive in 1975 I adopted a car-lite lifestyle.
Living in Southern California without owning a car? Isn't that like moving to Texas and becoming a vegetarian?
Yes it is, and when you discover that you can live in Texas as a vegetarian lite and occasionally eat bacon or tasty meat substitutes, then living without expensive beef or tortured chickens is not such a bad deal. Related to driving in SoCal, over the past year I learned some things that changed my relationship with cars and driving that have made me healthier, wealthier and wiser.
Driving in Southern California ain't what it use to be. The thrill is gone. Routine traffic jams are world class in Los Angeles. Those with choices avoid them completely because there are few things more soul sucking than the expectation of driving highway speeds but living the reality of inching along a twelve lane highway behind a wall of quasi parked cars driven by equally frustrated commuting fools.
When I first moved to Long Beach I was invited to a dinner party in Pasadena on a Friday night. Naively I left at 5pm allowing two hours during rush hour to go approximately 25 miles. By 7pm I was still 10 miles away from Pasadena and hardly moving so I jumped off the highway onto local streets to beat the traffic. Using a smart phone map with directions I found myself at the address an hour later. Unfortunately the street address was exactly the same as one in Los Angeles, not Pasadena. I was still 5 miles from my destination. By 9pm I arrived to the party to enjoy leftovers and condolences from new friends with similar experiences. Never again would I attempt such a foolish endeavor.
Let's consider what happened in most of America in the last 40 years. Driving cars became the dominate way of moving around because our communities were designed to accommodate motorists conveniently. The alternative travel modes of biking, walking and public transit were sidelined, marginalized, stigmatized and defunded. In the late 70's bicycling became sport and recreation, never considered for transportation unless you couldn't afford a car, and who couldn't afford a car? Walking and transit wasn't taken seriously by community leaders because of the distances involved and time taken to get there. And of course there was the low social status of those who chose these options.
Our love affair with cars was enabled by traffic engineers trained to make traffic flow like water through pipes without concern for its impact on adjacent neighborhoods or business districts. Our car infrastructure was subsidized beyond what drivers were paying in gas taxes with general revenue hidden in local, state and federal transportation budgets. And all of this was supported by cheerleaders in the car selling business and motorist lobbying organizations. Not unlike a drug junkie, our love affair with cars has become an expensive dependency.
Eccentricity isn't easy. Riding a bike to work at city hall, walking everywhere and using buses and trains to go places beyond a few miles in SoCal marks one as different. Maybe crazy, or certainly a little off. My colleagues were suspicious and asked questions. Why would a middle aged, middle class, perfectly healthy man ride a bike to work every day when it would be so much easier to drive? It didn't compute for them. Some were suspicious and even threatened. By rejecting driving around town I was rejecting them. Could it be that their very identity was linked to their car dependent lifestyle?
But again I've been at this for twenty-five years. I've got thick skin and I knew I was on the leading edge of where we need to go with mobility in cities if we want healthier, more vibrant lives. And financially I was way ahead. AAA of SoCal calculates a typical driver making payments on a newer small car plus insurance, fuel and maintenance pays $600/month for the privilege, and $1,000/month for an SUV or luxury car. Since Red was paid off, and I was avoiding commuting and routine errand expenses, I was saving roughly $200/month in fuel alone. During the last year of being car free, I have been emancipated from insurance, registration, fuel, maintenance and parking expenses.
Five significant improvements have emerged in SoCal that make living car free or car-lite attractive for me. First is that transit facilities have expanded and are reliable, reaching almost all parts of Los Angeles County. The Blue line train takes me to downtown Los Angeles in about 50 minutes which is comparable to rush hour driving. And it costs $1.75 each way. Buses reach almost every neighborhood and city within the county and combined with walking or biking gets me everywhere I need and want to go. Sometimes it is not as fast as driving, but then I can't read a book while driving.
The Los Angeles area generally has walking facilities, sidewalks and crosswalks, that accommodate this healthy middle aged man comfortably. Compared to many sunbelt cities that haven't bothered with pedestrian access, contrary to their reputations most California cities do.
Third, bicycling in Long Beach is easy and convenient. This city is flatter than Amsterdam and the climate is year round room temperature. Santa Monica and Pasadena are included as bike progressive cities in Los Angeles County and the city of LA is catching up fast. Protected bike lanes, bike boulevards, trails and other facilities have become de rigueur. Transit agencies are embracing biking to support their first mile/last mile strategies. Virtually all trains and buses accommodate bikes and bike share systems are on the horizon in several cities. Bike friendly has become an economic development differentiator for progressive SoCal cities.
Fourth, auto ownership is unnecessary in the world of Enterprise Rent a Car, Uber, and friends with cars. I use rental cars when going out of town for a day or more, usually spending about $35/day for the car with full insurance. While I have never used Uber or other car ride services, I know they are available and relatively cheap. I do occasionally borrow a friend's car and she is happy to see more gas in the tank each time I return it.
Fifth, the stigma of not owning a car is dying. Status of car ownership isn't what it use to be and young people are leading the way. Recent reports indicate 25% of California Millennials are not bothering to get driver's licenses. They would rather spend more money living in more urban, vibrant places than buying cars and living car dependent suburban lifestyles. Their status is defined by where they live and who they live with, not by what they drive. This is why Ford Motor Company and others are rethinking their futures as mobility companies instead of car companies. Car share systems and autonomous vehicles are emerging in their projections.
Since Red died and went away a year ago I became an eccentric, middle aged, misunderstood, car-lite guy. And based on my learning I will continue to use cars when it is the right choice. But I doubt that I will ever own a car again.
About Charlie Gandy
Charlie is a nationally recognized expert in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, Charlie is a popular consultant and speaker known for sparking innovation. Charlie founded Bike Texas, created the Thunderhead Alliance retreat for biking and walking advocates and originated and developed the Bike Friendly Business Districts program in collaboration with Bike Long Beach.
As a program facilitator he has organized trainings in all fifty states and played a role in launching more than 30 biking and walking advocacy organizations around the U.S. including the California Bicycle Coalition, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Recently he's been on KPCC’s Bike Curious and Air Talk shows and featured in the Los Angeles Times for his leadership in bike advocacy. He is the Vice President of the California Bicycle Coalition's board and regularly takes professional organizations, civic leaders, media and others passionate about creating great cities on tours of Long Beach both by biking and walking. Image by Allan Crawford. Contact him here for a media interview or set up a biking or walking tour of Long Beach.