Car-less in California

LA isn’t a city, it’s a collection of small towns.

What an interesting two weeks it’s been. I returned from my trip to Dubai to land in Los Angeles. Considering my love for urbanism, it’s definitely not the first place I would have expected to end up. But I landed here and I’m out of money, I have family and friends here, the weather is lovely and there are more employment options in this region than most others in the country. So I might as well stay put until I come up with a plan. What I didn’t count on is the new appreciation I have for Los Angeles as a polycentric city. That is, a city with many beautiful and individually vibrant urban cores. Some of the towns here have fantastic centers!

Yes, I studied LA at the 2006 CNU, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience it as a resident. And certainly never as a car-less resident! That’s right folks… LA, no car. Give it a shot sometime, it’s not what you’d expect. In a strange way it reminds me of living in Bogen, Germany (Bavaria) [which I did for nearly a month at the tender young age of 15]. At the moment, I’m splitting time between the two respectably urban neighborhoods of Pasadena and West Hollywood. My daily needs can be met by foot or bicycle but what’s remarkable is that the transit system here (while slow) actually can get you to most places you’d want to go. The problem is that it stops running long before the bars close, making it completely impractical to leave your neighborhood to work late or socialize unless you plan on driving. In Bogen, I had a similar experience. Despite my age and inability to drive at the time, I was able to take day trips by train to Straubing or Munich, but at night was limited to the social scene exclusively within walking or bicycling distance.

As a corollary concept, and I may be wrong about this, my impression is that people here are more isolated than they are in NYC, or on the east coast in general. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I say that, but there seem to be several imperceptible social differences that scream “I’M ISOLATED!” My theory for at least one cause is this; people are trapped inside a relatively small neighborhood social scene, and their only means of escape, aside from becoming friends with the locals, is to sit alone in a car for 30-45 minutes each direction. It’s sort of like living in Lincoln, NE but instead of being surrounded by cornfields you’re surrounded by similarly sized cities. Each one has everything necessary for life, but individually they lack the depth of larger cities.

But the symptoms are what I can’t quite figure out. Is the built environment affecting people’s behavior? If so how? My buddy Demetre suggested that the Hollywood culture has something to do with it too. I can feel a certain distance in interactions here compared with the Northeast, but I haven’t figured out how to identify or name the elements yet. Any helpful comments or suggestions?