Op-Ed

I live in L.A. and I don't own a car

The California political class almost uniformly accepts the argument that residents must drive less if the state has any chance of meeting its tough climate-change goals. When I was in the Assembly, I heard dozens of politicians and celebrities urge Californians to take their cars off the road.

Although I nodded my head in agreement, I didn’t follow through until, one night, a tipsy friend half-jokingly dared me to stop driving. Of course he didn’t really think I’d take him up on the challenge, because he didn’t really think it was possible for a busy professional living in the hills to survive Los Angeles without a car.

But I couldn’t resist the possibility of proving him wrong. Plus, hypocrisy really bothers me. So when the lease on my car expired in 2012, I didn’t replace it. Buying an environmentally friendly car wasn’t good enough. Even a Prius takes fossil fuels to manufacture and gasoline to run. Even a small Fiat becomes part of our big traffic problem. I would live the way politicians say we should.

All in all, my experiment has been a success. Getting around Los Angeles without a car isn’t even that hard.

While I was still in office I walked to events or—if that was impractical—hitched a ride with staff.

Plus I should admit that my wife owns a car, which I use when it’s my turn to take our children to doctors’ appointments and that sort of thing. On a daily basis, however, she uses her car for work, and I don’t have access to it.

“Nobody walks in LA?” I do. But more often I ride my bike, and I’m healthier for it. I’ve also mastered the art of cycling while in a suit. If I have a truly fancy political function to attend across town, I take Uber. The ubiquity of drivers and the convenience of the app has made our metropolis a much smaller place than when I was growing up in Silver Lake.

I’ve saved money – the lack of a car payment, gas and maintenance costs, and parking expenses easily compensate for the occasional Uber fee. I feel unburdened, even liberated, and sometimes joyful, because navigating a city without a car still brings to mind European or Manhattan vacations.

Now that I work as a lawyer, I don’t always inform strangers or clients that I don’t have a car. I politely request meetings that are centrally located and accessible by bike or public transit. I suppose I’m lucky that the downtown courthouses are pretty close to my home, so I’m never late. Most people are pretty accommodating, and then even more so if I disclose my carless state. (It’s like when someone tells you she’s gluten-intolerant; you don’t serve pasta if she comes over for dinner.)

Somewhat surprisingly, not owning a car has increased my productivity. Whether I go somewhere by public transit, on foot, or using a ride-sharing app, I can almost always use the time to return phone calls (without sweating the details of whatever new hands-free law Sacramento just passed). When I take Metro, I pass the time reading or catching up on paperwork. It’s a remarkably efficient lifestyle.

A car-free life isn’t without its annoyances. I methodically plan errands in advance to make sure my destinations are clustered together. If I need to carry something heavy, I improvise. (There was that time I borrowed my kids’ razor scooter to transport luggage down a hill…) Weather can be a challenge. Once I was cycling to an interview for a podcast and an unexpected heavy downpour soaked through my clothing. But this is Los Angeles after all, where it’s close to “72 and sunny” most of the time.

Has it been worth it? Yes. One less car on the road. One stubborn mission, accomplished.

Mike Gatto served four terms in the California Assembly. He is an attorney and Legislator in Residence at USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics.

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