On She Goes

No Wheels, No Problem: How to Experience Los Angeles without a Car

Don’t let guide books fool you: You don’t need a car to enjoy L.A.

Andrea Gutierrez
Andrea Gutierrez
August 16, 2017
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I hate driving. It’s not just the traffic or the amount of money I’ve sunk into the most basic upkeep of owning a car—I hate the act of driving. And yet I drive every day, usually alone, through clogged streets and freeways, another lone driver in a car she both loathes and depends on. There are days when I miss experiencing Los Angeles without a car, as I did right after college—days when I am tired and want someone to drive me while I read, days when I want to feel the wind on my face while I bike and remember what it was like to feel a little freer. This might be a strange thing to hear from someone who was born and raised in Southern California, the supposed Car Capital of the World.

Don’t let guide books fool you: You don’t need a car to enjoy L.A. As a visitor, you have more options for other modes of transportation than getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and they are often more interesting. Millions of Angelenos manage without a car—they go to work, take their children to school and daycare, run errands, and are able to explore everything from the mountains to the sea. It’s not always easy or the most convenient, but with some planning and an open mind, you’ll get around just fine.

Los Angeles Metro subway.
photo by Yuself El-Mansouri / Shutterstock

Bus & Rail

The TAP Card—the universal fare card for 26 transit agencies in Los Angeles County, including Antelope Valley Transit, Long Beach Transit, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, and Foothill Transit—will be essential on your public transit journey. The card itself costs $1 and can be reloaded online and at train station fare machines.

Although it’s enticing to limit yourself to the Metro rail lines (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) that have proliferated in recent years, there will be times that the bus will get you to your destination faster, thanks in part to the Bus Riders Union, an organization whose tireless efforts for better bus service and lower fares have long been a thorn in Metro’s side. If I want to get from Northeast L.A. to the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, I can take three different rail lines or board the 81 bus, which goes directly to my destination. Visitors might also consider some of the express bus lines, such as Metro Rapid (numbers 700–799), which take riders across wide swaths of L.A. My favorite line is the Metro 720, going from East L.A. to Santa Monica and passing through Downtown, MacArthur Park, and Koreatown, by LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), the Hammer Museum, and UCLA.

Bike rentals by the beach.
photo by Supannee Hickman / Shutterstock

Biking

Biking in Los Angeles has gotten safer in the last decade, but it still requires some guts and patience. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and Multicultural Communities for Mobility have worked hard to advocate for increased visibility, health, and safety for biking. Bike lanes, though available throughout L.A., have been a sore subject for many longtime residents who see the proliferation of a bicycle infrastructure as part of the gentrification gnawing away at neighborhoods of color at a steady clip. Thousands of Angelenos take to the streets with their bikes several times a year at CicLAvia, a popular event where streets along a predetermined route are closed to car traffic, and folks on foot, bikes, skates, and skateboards hit the pavement for a day without cars. Los Angeles, along with neighboring cities Santa Monica and Long Beach, is finally home to bike shares, used by visitors and locals alike for daily, monthly, or per-ride fees. Visitors might enjoy rides along such popular bike paths as the Los Angeles River bike path, Arroyo Seco Trail, or the L.A. Beach Bike Path that runs along the sand from Santa Monica to Redondo Beach. In addition to bike shares, rentals may be available at bike shops and co-ops. 

Union Station
photo by Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Union Station

Tackling the expansiveness of Los Angeles and its suburbs without a car is less daunting when you think of it in terms of a central station that’s connected to different transportation options and routes. Union Station, the home of Metro, serves as the most connected hub, with bus and rail lines from all over Southern California passing through. Bikes are allowed on most buses and trains, with bike parking and lockers available at the station. Other transit hubs include 7th Street/Metro Center station, Western/Wilshire station, North Hollywood station, and Culver City station, among others.

Union Station is a destination in itself. Built in the 1930s and considered by many to be the “Last of the Great Railway Stations,” the location replaced L.A.’s original Chinatown. The old ticketing hall has been featured in countless films, ads, and TV shows, and serves as an impressive venue for arts events throughout the year. Snap a selfie in the high-backed seats of the waiting hall, but be quick—only ticketed passengers are allowed to sit there, a controversial measure taken by Metro in 2013 to discourage people experiencing homelessness from accessing this public space. Union Station also connects to the LAX FlyAway, an inexpensive option for airport transfers; the Dodger Stadium Express, a free shuttle to Dodger Stadium; and intercity bus companies traveling to popular destinations like San Francisco, Oakland, and Las Vegas.

Several sights are within walking distance of Union Station. La Placita Olvera, or Olvera Street, is near the site of the original Tongva village, and later the Spanish settlement that would become Los Angeles, and hosts numerous community events throughout the year. Nearby are the Chinese American Museum, housed in the oldest and last surviving structure of L.A.’s original Chinatown, and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a cultural center that celebrates the Chicanx experience in Los Angeles.