Is it even possible to not have a car in LA?
So, I relocated to LA from NYC in February to pursue a new opportunity. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d only been to California once before and ended up with a broken leg. Everyone warned me, moving to Los Angeles without a car is impossible. “You HAVE to get one,” they’d say. Are the rumors true? Is it possible to survive the LA life without owning a vehicle? Or, do you have to get one just to keep up? Are there benefits to not having a car in Los Angeles? Short answer: Yes. With a little flexibility, openness, and maybe even creativity, it is definitely doable.
Getting into the finer details, let’s start with a general analysis of your likely options and alternatives to having a car in LA (I’ll exclude horseback riding, unicycling, hover boarding, and other normal commuting methods for the sake of brevity):
So I’ll admit, outside of seeing the occasional bus pass by on the street, I thought that public transportation in LA was a myth. It isn’t a topic that’s often talked about in LA, especially if you are coming from a place where your life depends on it. As a New York transplant to LA, I was a bit of a snob to the public transit in Los Angeles at first. It just wasn’t convenient as things used to be… However, there is a public transportation system in LA, it just might not help you at all. With respect to the trains specifically, the thing about transit in LA is that it has a few select routes and if you aren’t on them, the system really doesn’t apply. That said, if you’re office and home happen to both be near a station, then you may be in luck.
There is an extensive network of buses that travel around the city. If you are traveling along on one of the major routes through LA then the bus could actually do you a lot of good. That is to say, it can be a great ally and supplement to your life in LA without a car. After discovering the bus system, I was pleasantly surprised and it was not only cheaper (~$1.75/ride, you will need exact change), but quicker than my ride share commute. The downside to LA’s buses is that if you are needing to travel long distances and the path is not straight, you are likely to be in for a much longer ride.
If you decide to depend heavily on the bus or metro system in LA, then you will probably want to get a Tap card so you don’t have to keep $1.75 with you. The Tap card (seen below) costs $1 initially, then $1 is deducted from you card balance monthly. You can refill your Tap card by visiting one of the fill locations, metro station, or online. Check their website for finding locations and the latest on fares.
Ride sharing apps/transportation networks
So here is where it is important to be a little open and flexible. Also known as Lyft and Uber, ride-sharing apps have forever changed commuting in the same way that Tinder has forever changed meeting people. These have been my life-savers since moving to the city. I’ve heavily depended on a combination of Lyft and Uber to get me all over the city, from Long Beach to Venice to Pasadena to Downtown.
If you are patient, somewhat flexible on your time, and open to sharing a ride with other people, I can recommend Lyft Line and Uber Pool as two economical options for traveling big distances in the city. You’d be pleasantly surprised about how inexpensive it can be. Every once in a while you will end up getting a private ride in these as well. Though in these situations I always end up tipping a little extra since the driver didn’t have anyone else. From my perspective, I can give you a few quick pros to ride shares: (1) affordable (2) generally pretty fast and reliable (not always, but most of the time) (3) potential to meet really new people (big plus if you are moving to the city and don’t know anyone – I could share a few stories of drivers or riders that I met, but it could take up a whole article) (4) good way to learn a lot about the city in a relatively short period by listening and talking with others (5) lastly, it just makes sense to share a ride.
I’ve made no secrets to my reasoning for loving to walk. I’m a pro-walking whenever possible. You just experience so much more in life. You see things up close and personal. Your senses just come alive and it is ultimately a great way to find the best local places. The real question: is LA a walkable city? The answer, depends on what you consider to be walkable. Are there walking paths? Yes. Is it convenient to walk everywhere? Not really. That is unless you live an area where you also play and aren’t that far from work. I’d say, if you can live in a decent neighborhood that’s less than 2 miles from where you work, then you may be able to walk fairly easily. If your commute is more than 2 miles, then your chances of depending on your feet reduce drastically as the distance increases. I live around 2.5 miles from where I work and often walk home. It takes me about 35-40 minutes in the evenings. I don’t think that most people would be really excited to do that though.
If you decide to walk, just mind the cars. There are lots of them.
Though I have gotten more into biking at the gym, biking in real-life is still not something I’d regularly do. There are people who choose a bike as their commute method of choice. Though some streets have bike lanes and drivers are generally respectful in keeping a distance, there are many streets that don’t have a bike lane at all. It definitely seems like a viable option and could be one for you if you don’t have to travel too far. A side added benefit is to combine biking with another method such as the city bus, which has bike racks on the front for passengers. You could effectively make them both work together for you.
With its iconic scenery and seemingly always perfect weather, SoCal seems like the perfect place to ride a scooter or a motorcycle. While that’s true and I’d love to ride one through some of the back roads and hills, I am not sure if I would personally want to ride a scooter around the city. There are just too many big cars and people who aren’t the most attentive while driving. Personally, I’ve seen one too many people texting and driving through traffic to make me feel comfortable in the city. That said, if one is able to ride through less busy streets or you’d be in a quieter area of the city, then it could completely work for you. It would also yield nice savings on gas.
Car rentals in LA are on par with being some of the cheaper rates in the country. I’m not sure if it is due to the high volume of car ownership that leads to less demand or another reason, but they are definitely affordable. As a simple search looking at prices for an Economy car in Miami, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington D.C. LA ranks in the middle to lower end. In comparison with NYC, the rates for renting a car during the same period are less than half. Car rentals are a big win for LA.
Though something I am not overly familiar with, leasing may be an alternative option to purchasing a car. It may be worth costing out to see if it would work.
Carpooling is not something I commonly hear about in LA, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t groups that do it. In fact, the LA county website has information on ride sharing and carpooling in LA. Though I haven’t used any of these, a quick Google search would lead you to Carpool World, Ride Match, and a new service by Waze among others.
Pros and Cons of car ownership in LA
Pros of having a car
There are definitely benefits to having a car in Los Angeles. It isn’t all bad.
General convenience. This isn’t really a tangible or easily quantifiable metric, but having a car is convenient. If you want to go, you go. Some refer to car ownership as one of the great individual liberties.
Save money on commutes. In my opinion, the savings from owning a car are only realized in a handful of situations: (1) you own a car already, (2) or, you have the opportunity to buy a reliable car cheaply, (3) or, you definitely plan to stay in the city for a longer term (say 2 years<). If those situations don’t apply, then it can easily turn into a con. If they do, then you can factor in the amount that you would be saving on your transport network apps and your annual car rentals, then deduct that as straight savings. Money.
You’ll fit in easier. LA is a socially strange place. I’ll save my opinions on that for another blog post. However, if you are into keeping up with your peers, then having a car is likely a must. Not having one makes you abnormal to the status quo in Los Angeles. If you end up not getting one, just make sure you’re ok with that.
Cons of having a car
Depending on your current situation owning a vehicle in LA may come with its share of challenges.
Parking. Hands down one of the more annoying things about LA is finding a place to park. If you are one of the lucky ones who has, or would have, a parking space tied to where you live, then this may not apply to you. However, for the majority of the the city’s residents, parking is not the most exciting daily activity. Most places have a form of street parking, but finding one usual is the result of luck and timing. If you do park, then be mindful of the meters and signs. Parking tickets can be quite expensive.
Traffic. You’ve heard long before this blog post. Traffic in LA can be no joke. At peak traffic times, one can wait a significantly disproportionate amount of time to travel a relatively short distance. If you bring a car here, you’ll be spending at least a portion of your life in traffic jams. Not that you wouldn’t spend time in traffic with a ride share, but in those situations, you wouldn’t have to navigate through the traffic.
Costs. This isn’t a con specific to LA, but if you are thinking of buying a car your incurred costs will be fairly high for a depreciating asset. If you breakdown the numbers with a cost-benefit analysis, make sure that the payout and convenience of getting a car is worth the difference to you financially. If you already have a car, this may not be as relevant. Think of insurance, gas, parking, TICKETS, maintenance, and the actual cost of the car.
Smog contribution. Even though your vehicle, would have to pass the smog test, do we really need more cars on the road in LA? The smog situation and air quality in Los Angeles isn’t a joke. I didn’t think much of it before moving here, but you can really see the smog as you attempt to look across the city. At its worst moments, things that you should be able to see in detail end up being hazy shadows not too far away.
Potential vandalism or theft. I have heard multiple stories just from a few months about cars of friends being stolen and have seen pictures of rims/tires being stolen while leaving the car on blocks. Hopefully this wouldn’t happen, but it is a real concern in LA. You have to be mindful of where you park.
I hope this has provided you with some helpful insight to what life is like on the ground for the everyday Angeleno without a car. Having a car is one of those convenience things. The decision to own or not to own is a personal choice and will depend on many factors. If you are a person who values convenience and likes frequent weekend excursions then you’ll likely eventually either want to get a car or it will make financial sense to do so. I’ve lived here for more than half a year so far without one and haven’t really felt the need to get one. I do live relatively close to work and in a central location, which I think are two considerations you may want to have on your mind if you are going to brave the city of angels without wheels. It’s doable; just depends what you are looking for.