I Am Car-Less in Los Angeles
By Vivian Liao, February 21, 2013
I gave up my car last July. Yes, you read that right. About a week before it happened, I gazed upon the supposed reward (that would be my first semi-monthly paycheck as a full-time employee) for the previous two years of hard work (that would be graduate school and interning) and proceeded to throw a fit for the next nine hours. I had subconsciously been dreaming about this day for a long time, and the number in my bank account just didn't live up to my imagination. Obviously, I had known what the exact amount of my annual salary was; I just neglected to take into account things like Social Security and MediCare and 401K -- you know, all those things for which other adults had been responsible for years.
Not that I was planning on living super large or anything, but, after two years of subsisting on student loans, I'll admit I did not want to feel strapped in by a financial straitjacket anymore. And, by that statement, I don't mean "makin' it rain" at Nordstrom's or shopping for a condo or anything like that, but, you know, like buy a pair of work shoes without experiencing heart palpitations. The reality was, after responsibly paying off necessities like rent and food and loan payments and retirement savings, there was pitifully little left to be psyched about. Yes, Readers, please feel free to call me spoiled. I know I should have been grateful enough that I was able to afford all those aforementioned expenses, especially in today's economic climate. And I'd be the first in line to express my thanks to whichever god bestowed upon me a full-time job right out of school. But, alas, a lot of the previous two years sucked and, to my childish mind, I needed to justify that misery somehow.
Something had to give in my budget, and it became clear to me what it had to be. Once the apple of my eye, my silver Prius had become a symbol of an activity I despise (that would be driving) as well as all of its associated annoyances. Since I stopped making the drive to school after graduation, I did not need to get into my car on a constant basis (I was/am fortunate enough to be able to bike/walk/bus to work). Often the only driving I did do during the work week was to move the thing for street cleaning (on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Post-Its and cell phone alerts and Google Calendar littered my life with constant reminders to "MOVE CAR!!!"). And then I was constantly asking myself -- as I've had to do for as long as I've lived in Santa Monica -- if I remembered to hang up my residential parking permit (I don't really know if this is a ridiculous practice or not, but I would often run back to the car, after I had already entered my apartment, to make certain I displayed my permit).
Finally, there were: the $400 car payment I forked over at the beginning of every month for the privilege of driving in L.A., gas money (though this became progressively less), DMV registration fees (which I always failed to pay on time), insurance, random maintenance costs for problems I didn't care to understand, parking fees, parking permit fees, parking violation fines, moving violation fines (very occasionally), and blah and blah and blah. All for something I could not stand doing and didn't need to do on a daily basis anymore. The more I thought I about it, the more shocking it became that I didn't try to quit this addiction sooner.
Which revealed an interesting mentality that I believe is uniquely American: cars are a huge part of our culture as well as personal identity. I certainly remember feeling surprised (and a little uncomfortable), in my twenties, when I'd find out that someone I knew didn't drive. And that reaction didn't even have to do with the status symbol quality automobiles have acquired; it was just that I didn't think it was possible to live in this country without one. As a newly immigrated child to the U.S. in the '90s, I actually became quite enamored with cars and always imagined that a Mazda Miata would complete my grown-up life. I always figured I would be attached to cars for my entire existence and generally deemed them a permanent and necessary item on my budget.
Thus, it was not without a good amount of hesitation that I eventually bit the bullet. Many concerns flashed through my mind -- some legitimate, many absurd: what if there was a giant flood/earthquake/epidemic/War of the Worlds-style alien invasion and I needed to flee ASAP? What if a loved one needed me at 2:05 a.m.? What if my job moved to a non-bus-able/bikable/walkable location? What if I wanted to treat myself to a shopping spree at Ikea? What if my cat/dog needed to get to the vet urgently, what if everyone I knew was gathering at a magical beach picnic in Malibu? Would my mom think I've gone insane (completely moot question: she already did), etc. etc.
Ultimately, none of them justified the amount of cash I was hemorrhaging per month. For me, my once-beloved Prius had become a luxury item. And, to be honest, there was a solution for almost all of those what-ifs above that didn't involve a monthly payment. In no particular order, I could always: call a taxi, rent a car, take a bus, get delivery, or beg for rides. Not to mention, with the proliferation of fabulous peer-to-peer car-sharing companies such as ZipCar, Getaround, and RelayRides, I may eventually have a car at my disposal, when I want, anyway. (And, in the event of an alien invasion, a boat or a drill for digging a hole underground may actually prove more helpful.)
So, on July 5, 2012, I did it. Got the Prius appraised at CarMax, signed some papers, and pocketed a small but unexpected payoff. I actually rented a car from Enterprise to help me do all this and still get back home. I was instantly a fan. I got to drive a brand-new whip and got picked up and dropped off before and after.
It's been seven months of car-less bliss since that fateful day. I continue to bike/bus/walk/hitch rides to get around. As an infrequent last resort, I rent a car, usually from Enterprise because of their pickup service. I will plainly concede that such lifestyle is not for everyone. It has worked for me so far because I innately despise driving and I live with someone who doesn't mind chauffering me around when necessary. And I would never rule out the possibility of having to crawl back to the car dealership with my tail tucked between my legs and, consequently, having to take this blog post down so as to not appear a fool. For the time being, though, it feels awesome to lovingly caress my newly rescued Benjamins (ok just kidding) while not worrying about whether it is street cleaning day and not paying any attention whatsoever to car/auto insurance/auto accident attorney commercials or gas prices.