Most U.S. residents live in a household with at least one car. But millions of U.S. residents do not. In this series, How I Live Car Free, Motherboard speaks to some of the people living car free, either by choice or necessity, in places without robust public transportation options like New York City and parts of Washington, D.C. and Boston.
In this edition, Motherboard speaks to Eric Brightwell, a 47 year old who lives in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. He moved to Los Angeles from Iowa and has been car free for 11 years. When his car broke down, he realized he didn’t need one anymore and never replaced it. He writes about walking around LA and makes maps of the city. To help pay the bills, he works as a grocery delivery worker where, ironically, his employer provides a car (he doesn’t use it for personal errands, so he still qualifies as car-free).
Motherboard spoke to Brightwell about living car free while he was walking home from the grocery store. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Do you live car free in the U.S. somewhere other than New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston? Would you be willing to tell Motherboard about your experience? Please fill out this form.
Would you say your decision to go car free was by choice or by necessity?
It was my choice. I come from Iowa where we were loading hogs to be slaughtered and baling hay. It got to 40 degrees below zero my last winter in Iowa. So a cargo bike isn’t an option out there. And there is no public transit.
But I’m not doing those things in Los Angeles. LA is famously sprawling, but also most people don’t regularly drive from one end to the other. A lot of the things you end up doing are actually a lot closer than you think.
So how do you get around?
Walking number one, biking number two, taking the bus number three. When I moved to this apartment I wasn’t even thinking about living near a train station. And when I moved here the network was much smaller than it is now.
Sometimes I’ll tell people I take public transit places and they’ll say something like well the LA Metro doesn’t go anywhere, or that nobody takes it. That speaks volumes to me. I’ve never been on a bus and been sad that there aren’t enough people on it.
Do you feel safe walking and biking around?
Somewhat. There aren’t enough bike lanes. And the lack of infrastructure means you have to have, like, a samurai mentality to get on a bike. Like, oh well, I’m already dead. But it hardly ever rains here. For the most part, people’s homes and work are in fairly flat areas. It should be easy to get around on a bike. Yet it feels very hostile.
And the lack of infrastructure means you have to have, like, a samurai mentality to get on a bike. Like, oh well, I’m already dead.
It doesn’t feel that much better walking. A lot of places have shaved away the sidewalks to accommodate more cars. While we were on this call, I had to step off the sidewalk because there are telephone poles in the middle of these shaved away sidewalks that are so narrow you can’t actually stay on them.
What’s your commute like?
It’s about three miles. I’ll bike. There aren’t bike lanes all the way, but mostly it’s fairly easy. I’ll go a slightly longer but more pleasant route. It adds maybe five minutes.
How do you get groceries?
I live within walking distance of three groceries. I go almost every day because I love to cook. I’ve had neighbors say, you walked to the grocery store? And I’m like, yeah, how do you get there? And they’re like, I drive, it’s too far. We live two blocks away. The only way it could be less far is if we lived on top of it.
What are the most common questions you get when people find out you don’t have a car?
I was once at a party in Highland Park. I took the bus. Someone I wasn’t even talking to overheard me say I took Metro to get there and this guy, like, got mad at me. And this is not the only time this has happened. He asked, like, how would you get to Culver City in 15 minutes if there was an emergency? I was like, you couldn’t get to Culver City in a jetpack at any time of day from Highland Park in 15 minutes. And if a friend called me and was like there’s an emergency in Culver City I’d be like fucking hang up the phone and call 911.
Or sometimes people say things like what if you have to buy a couch? I buy a couch maybe once every 20 years. And it gets delivered. Or I can rent a UHaul.
It’s a little bit like being a vegan. Everyone knows it’s better for the planet. But if you say it, people get defensive because it feels like you’re accusing them of being lazy or something.
But I don’t identify as a cyclist or anything. I don’t know what kind of bike I have. It’s not a part of my identity. It just makes more sense to get places on a bike than it does to drive.
Do you ever feel like there are things you can’t do or places you can’t go?
I love to hike, but that’s basically impossible without a car. I have a friend with a car, so sometimes we’ll go together. I also like to go on road trips and when I do I’ll rent a car.
I actually love to drive. But I like an open highway or like going through small towns in the middle of nowhere, not circling around trying to find a parking spot for an hour.
There’s no driving in Los Angeles. There’s idling and crawling and honking and it sucks.
Did anything surprise you about LA once you went car free?
Yes! I’m surprised at how much closer so many things are than I thought. My neighbor and I walked to another neighborhood recently, and he said he didn’t know he could walk there. It was like 20 minutes. And driving there would probably take 15.
What do you wish more people living in LA or the U.S. more broadly knew about car free life?
It does take a little bit more planning to catch the bus or whatever, but it’s probably not as hard as you think.