A traffic jam in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo via Flickr user Michael Loke)
The look on the receptionist's face told me I had said something wrong. It was a maternal expression, like that of an elderly woman who has found her grandkid outside in the cold with a runny nose but no jacket. There was genuine concern in her eyes, but her pursed lips suggested a certain annoyed disbelief: 'Just what were you thinking, if you were thinking at all?'
“You don't have a car?” she asked, accusingly.
“I don't have a car,” I replied.
It was my first day at a new job, and I had taken the bus that morning. That bus took me to a subway – a futuristic train that goes underneath Los Angeles in order to get from one place to another – so I didn’t need a car, just like I didn’t need the people's history of the local parking situation she had graciously given me. Seriously, the subway is, like, right over there.
She nodded her head and forced a smile the way tourists do when they don't understand a word you are saying.
This happens almost daily; we, the car-less of Los Angeles, must confess our lack of an automobile as if it were a character defect on par with betting on dogfighting. You risk being judged not only at your workplace but at the supermarket, where the teenage bagger asks if you need any help carrying those boxes of generic cereal out to your four-wheeled expression of self. Having a car shows that you have the financial means to own a car. Not having a car makes people assume you live at home and have an unhealthy relationship with your mother – and as sexy local singles say, that's a deal-breaker.
So it’s a bit heretical when I say I like not having a car. It's actually rather nice to leave the driving to someone else and not have to worry about steering your personal air-conditioned death box at 70 miles an hour on a freeway full of idiots – and hundreds of thousands of people in the LA metro region agree with me on this. Sure, it takes a bit longer to get somewhere – 30 minutes instead of 15 – but you also don't have to spend 20 minutes circling the block for parking whenever you go out. And there are buses and trains that go almost anywhere, and by taking them you free yourself from worry about car payments, parking tickets and DUIs.
You also don’t need to worry about getting mutilated in a horrific car accident. According to the US government, more than 2.3 million people were injured and 33,500 died on America’s roads in 2012. For people in the US between the ages of one and 44, motor vehicles are the leading cause of death. Avoid driving on a freeway and you significantly reduce your chance of being injured or killed on one.
Just take the bus. (Photo via Flickr user adrian8_8)
Public transit has another important thing going for it: community, the idea that while things may not always be going great – and yes, that man sitting in the back is not just scratching himself – we're all in this commute together. Cars encourage the individual operators of the mobile social isolation chambers to compete for position in traffic, at the petrol station, while exiting the motorway – the roads are fundamentally capitalistic in that cooperation is possible but not encouraged. People may generally be good on the inside, but traffic brings out the worst in the best of us. And if you think humanity is fundamentally garbage, at least on a bus the person glaring at you over some perceived slight isn't manoeuvring 2,500 pounds of potential murder.
We've all seen what cars do. Take the most quality person you know – the one with the most gentle soul, the one you would call if you were in real trouble – and put them behind the wheel and they become rage-fuelled monsters ready to go off at the slightest provocation. A lazy Sunday drive down the Pacific Coast Highway can easily turn into your brother-in-law screaming at you to “get the fucking gun!” you didn't know was under the seat, all because some asshole didn't use a turn signal. Is this any way to live?
I cast this stone not as somone who has never shouted profanity at a terrified family in a Dodge Caravan (kids, your daddy should not have been in that lane) but as a sinner. I have been there myself. Twenty minutes after getting in a car, I lose all concern for those outside of it. On my own two legs, I have the usual amount human empathy, cooing at your baby and signing petitions demanding justice for a pit bull named Sally; on four wheels, I'm thinking the lady with a stroller better not start crossing that street, for I am making this turn.
In a car, we have the chance to act decisively and unilaterally for the only time in our lives. We have no power over whether our jobs will be eliminated tomorrow (if we even have a job) or whether our homes will be washed away by mudslides, but driving a vehicle gives us control over a machine that has power to kill. That's maybe the reason even the most wilted of flowers turn into full-grown alpha males behind the wheel. And in a country where the masculine ideal is a vigilante with anger issues, that's potentially lethal.
Everyone gets frustrated and pissed off behind the wheel of a car. (Photo via Flickr user Jared and Corin)
“Oh, come on, you liberal prick,” I hear the reader say. “Because peace will come if everyone just buys a bus pass, right? Some people have jobs – real ones, not some bullshit writing thing – and they need a car to get to them and, hey, that doesn't make them bad people. Please call your mother. Love, Dad.”
OK, some people do need cars to get to their jobs because our cities are set up in such a way that jobs are sometimes far away from residential areas. Fine. But for most, buses and trains are already a viable alternative to the personal automobile, even in those cities that represent the worst in car culture. LA once had a world-class electrified streetcar system, but city planners allowed it to be torn apart – GO WATCH ROGER RABBIT, NOT JOKING – believing the future to be thousands of stupid gas-powered cars all stupidly going to the same stupid place. But even in this town, which is decades behind in its development of public transit, you can get all the way from Skid Row in downtown to the beach in Santa Monica in about an hour, or less time than it takes to get from Brooklyn to the Bronx. After the city finishes extending the subway, which will supposedly happen by the end of next year, that trip will take about half the time, which is to say: Watch out, yuppies, we're coming.
Still, despite all the benefits that public transit offers in the form of reduced aggravation, pollution and fatalities, officials in LA are considering more than doubling fares over the next eight years, which will only discourage people from using buses and trains. Most transportation funding goes towards subsidising the use of private transportation, so while there's always more money for freeways, the public transit system has a projected $225 million (£133 million) budget shortfall over the next decade, and riders are the ones expected to cover it.
Now, maybe owning a car in a city shouldn't be banned outright – I'm undecided – but even with a second-tier public-transit system, driving one is some damn foolishness, and those who choose to engage in such a dangerous, harmful activity should have to subsidise my bus fare. Ideally, this would come in the form of tolls or a carbon tax or direct transfers of wealth from those who have cars to those who have not, but rich people and their politicians aren't going to do any of that anytime soon. So maybe the next time some smug car owner asks me how I get by taking the bus with all those people, I just might have to take a direct action and slash his tires.
Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by Al Jazeera, Inter Press Service, the New Inquiry and Salon.