Being the true confessions of a solo driver in L.A.
I’m a Bay Area native who has about evenly divided my adult life between San Francisco and Los Angeles. So, I have a schizophrenic relationship to driving. Which is to say, I have the same kind of relationship that California as a whole has to driving.
Here’s what I’ve learned during my intra-state sojourns: my transportation habits have very little to do with how environmentally conscious I am as a person, and have a lot to do with parking spots.
When I lived in San Francisco, my daily life was 90% car-free. I owned a car but aside from moving it on street sweeping days (or trying to remember to), I barely thought about the thing unless I was leaving for a weekend trip. My bike, my feet, the bus, BART and the transbay ferries were my chariots. Some of it had to do with the city’s human-scaled streets and efficient public transit. But mostly, it was just too damn time-consuming–or expensive–to find a parking spot most of the places I wanted to go. I couldn’t be bothered to drive.
When I moved to L.A., nothing about my core being changed (despite what my Bay Area friends feared), but now my daily life is about 90% car-full. I drive to work alone, where I park in the free parking space my company provides me. (Even though my partner works in the same office as I do, I confess we do not carpool.) I drive to the grocery store, where I park in the free parking space the shopping center provides me. I drive to my exercise class and, yes, park in the free lot out back. I drive pretty much everyplace except one: the airport. Parking costs too much at LAX, so I take the city shuttle.
My Jekyll & Hyde habits come as no surprise to UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking. Ample, free parking works like a “fertility drug for cars,” he argues. “Driving becomes the natural way to get anywhere” in a place like Los Angeles. When he looks at a traffic jam in L.A., “I think, how many of these people are driving to a free parking space?” Count me as one of them.
It turns out my different lives in L.A. and San Francisco, and my different parking options, are no accident. They’re based on different approaches the places take to parking. According to a RAND study from 2007, in San Francisco there is “a deliberate effort by planners to reduce private vehicle use” which “limits the number of parking spaces that may be included in a new development.” In contrast, across most of L.A., developers are required to provide a certain number of parking spaces, “ensuring that parking will remain cheap and abundant and reinforcing auto-dependency.”
How cities deal with parking is one of those invisible choices that change the way we live. For those of us who use cars a lot, which now includes me, our habits are often described in psychological terms. Love affair. Dependence. Addiction. But that gives cars too much power, argues Harvey Molotch, a professor at NYU (who splits his time in Santa Barbara, so he, too gets a glimpse of life on both sides of the transportation spectrum). We’re not addicted to cars he says, “We’re addicted to going home.” It’s about the inertia of life, he says. Filling a tank with gas is interconnected “with all the other things we do in our lives… going to work, going to school, and all the rest.” And how much time, or money, it will cost to park influences those micro-decisions we make.
A few weeks ago, my partner’s car broke down, and we’ve been sharing mine ever since. We keep different work schedules, so sometimes one of us spends the day carless, and I’ve discovered the bus is actually a pretty convenient way to work (Despite LA’s reputation, the city has a pretty extensive public bus system). And though there are no bike lanes, it’s only 20-minute ride on my bicycle. These are discoveries I didn’t need to make until now–with all the free parking, I never needed to.
See and hear our entire series, Miles to Go, on the many challenges to reducing our transportation footprint.