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Car-Free Society Is Driving Ambition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jay Laessi generally avoids leaving town.

When he wants to eat in a restaurant, he picks one near here. Most of the women he dates are locals, and the clients his property management business serves are almost always within walking distance of a bus stop.

There’s a practical reason for the small radius of this man’s wanderings. Four years ago, he gave up his car.

“My life is up and down the 89 corridor,” says Laessi, referring to the bus route that runs through Laguna Beach, Corona del Mar and Newport Beach. “Everything I need is there.”

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When he isn’t waiting for buses, Laessi, 41, leads a group called Auto Free Orange County. It’s purpose is to persuade others to follow his example. Californians, he says, “have created a lifestyle in which your status and your worth is based on your hood ornament. We are offering an alternative.”

Founded a year ago, the group has 96 members, about half of whom don’t own cars, according to Laessi. The idea, he said, grew out of the protest against construction of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, the 15-mile toll road that now cuts through Laguna Canyon.

“A few of us realized how hypocritical it was to have a car and drive to the toll road protests,” Laessi said. “We were part of the problem.”

To change that, Laessi sold his 1986 Suzuki Samarai and began taking the bus. Last year, he and another former toll road protester, Mark Petersen, started Auto-Free Orange County, envisioning a Southern California with cleaner air, fewer dead animals and more natural scenery in place of roads.

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While members don’t expect the automobile to disappear completely, Laessi said, they believe it is possible to have a good life without one. Among the advantages, they argue, are greater fitness from more walking, significant savings in gas, maintenance, insurance and registration, fewer pollution-related diseases and increased productivity and relaxation from the time spent on buses and trains.

“I’ve seen a side of Los Angeles that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen,” said Petersen, 28, who lives in Long Beach and commutes by train to work in Los Angeles and by bus to Auto-Free meetings in Orange County.

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For dues of $18 a year, club members receive a book showing Orange County’s bus lines, a Laguna Beach bus schedule with a ticket for one free ride and a color map of the county’s bike trails. In addition, they are entitled to use the club’s auto-free lifestyle counseling and vacation-planning services, in which experienced members offer advice and instructions by telephone.

Monthly meetings feature updates and discussions on local transportation issues, as well as opportunities for members to exchange tips.

And the club has a bimonthly newsletter with articles profiling local communities conducive to auto-free lifestyles and offering rewards to members with the best ideas for weaning people from their cars.

“We realize that this isn’t for everyone,” Laessi says. “I feel that it’s a concept that’s 20 years ahead of its time.”

Not everyone agrees.

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Bill Ward, chairman of Drivers for Highway Safety, which supports building freeways as the best way of getting people around, believes the organization’s efforts are misguided.

“I think it’s silly,” he said of giving up your car. “They have every right to propose that, but I don’t think it’s very practical, and I don’t think they’re going to get very far. We don’t have freeways and cars because we’re prosperous. We’re prosperous because we have freeways and cars.”

Auto-free members say they regularly get condescending comments from friends who assume that they would drive if they could. “There’s a lot of stigma attached,” said Jane Reifer of Fullerton, who has never had a driver’s license.

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All that seemed far away, however, during a recent meeting of the group attended by nine people, only three of whom had come without cars.

Jean Bellinger of Irvine, a certified public accountant, said she and her husband had reduced the use of their car by about 80% in the last three years. “We don’t like driving,” she said.

George Gallagher, an Irvine planning commissioner, said his goal is to become a one-car family. Driving that extra car, he said, is like “burning your money in fire.”

Reifer, 32, said she has managed to get along quite happily without driving. “I wangled out of drivers’ education in high school because I didn’t want to contribute to how cities are planned around cars,” she said.

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Still, Reifer travels daily as far as the San Fernando Valley for the personal organizing service she operates from her Fullerton home. Commuting mostly by bus and by train, she takes as long as three hours. But she doesn’t mind the commute, Reifer says, because she makes good use of the time.

“I use every kind of public transit I can think of,” she said, “and when I’m stranded, I take a cab. I have, like, a mobile office.”

She sees lots of advantages in her auto-free lifestyle.

“I’m the first person to say it’s not convenient,” Reifer said. “On the other hand, I don’t get gas on my hands, don’t have to worry about parking and never get stuck in freeway jams.”

Oh yes, and one other thing. “I can use my garage to store all my stuff,” she said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Take It Off the Streets

* Organization: Auto-Free Orange County

* Purpose: Encourage people to drive less or not at all

* Benefits: Newsletter, auto-free lifestyle counseling, auto-free vacation planning

* Meetings: First Wednesday of every month, 6 p.m., Club Laguna clubhouse, 150 The Club Drive, Laguna Beach.

* Information: (714) 452-1393

Source: Auto-Free Orange County; Researched by DAVID HALDANE / Los Angeles Times


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