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Car Free and Carefree: Santa Monica Exhibit on Carless Angelenos

December 4, 2009

Car Free - Image Temporarily Unavailable

If you haven’t already noticed, I devote a big chunk of this blog to covering transportation issues, with a particular interest in making the city less car-oriented. And apparently, I’m not the only one interested in this: for the past month, the 18th street art gallery in Santa Monica has featured an exhibit on 100 car-free Angelenos.

The exhibit is by Diane Meyer, who has this to say about its creation:

I live in Los Angeles and I ride the bus. I’ve been taking the bus since January 2008 when I did what most Angelenos would consider unthinkable: I got rid of my car…

The people that I am photographing are attempting to lead normal lives in this Contemporary West where the automobile functions as the ultimate promise of freedom. I am hoping to ultimately photograph and interview 100 Carless Angelenos. Through the images and text from the interviews, the project will address how car culture has shaped psychological, spatial and geographic perceptions of the city. The subjects I am photographing have given up their cars for a variety of reasons ranging from ideological, financial or health-related situations, anxiety after traumatic car accidents, environmental activism, or a simple disinterest in car culture. By bringing together these various voices through the images and text, the project will ultimately address transportation alternatives. It will also provide a voice to a group of individuals often perceived to be disenfranchised in some way for not having an automobile.

Hmm. While the quality of the exhibit’s photos might suggest a degree of enthusiasm, an urge to bestow a sense of optimism on the initially challenging act of living without a car, this introduction seems uncharacteristically resigned. And there are plenty of people in the exhibit who aren’t exactly happy to be car-free; one gentleman wishes he owned a vehicle because “you can have sex in a car”. But despite all this, there are various examples of people to whom not owning a car is not a bad thing. Moreover, these eternal optimists point out factors which may one day relieve Los Angeles of its ignominious “car centric” status.

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As with most American cities, car-oriented transportation is the status quo in for most Angelenos (who Meyer mistakenly refers to as “Angelinos”). I was disheartened to see one LA transplant making the claim that “native Angelenos are the most car centric people here”. I credit my childhood here for my profound apathy toward cars and a desire to see other modes of transport made more viable. Nonetheless, car travel will be the norm for years to come. Before that begins to change at all, we’re going to need a train system that is fast and has stations almost everywhere; most people are just so used to driving that they’re not going to stop unless train and bus travel is convenient.

LA’s buses carry 1.2 million people per day, yet riding a bus in LA is considered a mark of the lower class – no respectable person would associate with a bus rider. The exhibit featured plenty of people dissatisfied with Metro and BBB bus service, but the most prevalent complaint by far was the stigma placed on bus and transit riders in the city. One man tells of how he would never allow himself to be seen at a bus stop near where he was applying for a job; employers frequently discriminate against car free individuals. There were plenty of horror stories of having to wait hours for a bus to arrive, and an older gentleman lamented the difficulty of dating without a car, being car free made him “less manly”. It’s going to take a long time to fully uproot this nasty cultural bias, but the best thing transit riders can do to change this is not to fit the stereotype. Living without a car doesn’t make you helpless, and you still have good options. One of which is bicycling, which oddly enough doesn’t receive the same bad reputation as bus riding.

Much as inertia and irrational social phobias may keep car centrism in place for some time, there is growing discontent with the car in Los Angeles. The myriad upkeep costs, parking hassles, registration, and increasing inconvenience of driving as the city becomes more dense is leading to a slow disenchantment with the automobile. Fred Camino, (formerly) of Metro Rider LA, gave up his car because it was simply too much trouble. As cars become more and more unwieldy, people may slowly migrate to trains and buses.

But perhaps the best way to get people out of cars is not with sticks but carrots. I find it somewhat telling that the same people who incessantly gripe about LA are the same ones who never set foot out of a car. It is possible to exist without a car here, and though traveling around town by train, bus or bike may occasionally lead to unpleasant experiences, it just as often leads to the discovery of something new, unique, or wonderful. It takes a while to realize this, but once you do, the whole city will seem a bit friendlier.

Diane Meyer has skillfully balanced the resentment of some car free Angelenos with the hope of others, the ultimate effect being a tempered yet positive message. Maybe one day this city will see trains, buses, bikers, and pedestrians assume their rightful place as equals to the car.

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