They Couldn’t Car Less

As you know (maybe), for environmental (both local and global) and other reasons I’m not a fan of routine unnecessary car trips, and so I walk, bike, and use public transport a lot. My car is mostly only used on the weekend. This sort of declaration usually results in blank stares, subsequent treatment as a leper (or worse, in many LA circles, – poor!!), serious inquiries as to whether I was convicted of DUI, comments that this is impossible in LA, admissions from locals who’ve lived here for umpteen years that they’d no idea that there was a subway (that has changed slightly in the lastmelba_thorn_by_diane_meyer few years… now at least they know, but typically they’ve no idea where the stops are), and so on and so forth. I will admit to getting annoyed when I see announcements for events and locations that go to lots of trouble to give driving and parking instructions and never mention the subway stop or bus lines that might work for some as well. (Right: Artist Melba Thorn, photo by Diane Meyer for an exhibition on the issue, to be discussed below. Ironically, (at the time of writing) the exhibiting gallery also only gives driving and parking directions on their site. Isn’t that rich?)

Anyway…. you know all this from reading the blog. Check the archives for posts and discussions on a variety of aspects. Here’s part of the executive summary of my main point, and then information about a new exhibit follows after:

Yes, I know it won’t work for all trips, and for all people and locations. But have you really thought it through? Are you just conveniently assuming that it does not apply to you? Is having bought a Prius (good decision as that was) really the only effort worth making or is it just a convenient way for some of buying a shiny badge that says you care about the environment without really trying? Is there really never occasion when you can just leave the car, or try to combine several errands into fewer car trips…? Sure it might add some time to your commute to use public transport, but how bad is that really? The time you add you get back in being able to read, think, talk to people, live life less frantically and with less abuse to and from other drivers…

This lengthy preamble was to highlight another group who is of similar mind to me, but are a step beyond where I am. They have no car in Los Angeles at all. (I imagine screams of horror echoing all over the city as this is read…) Yes. People do that. It is possible, and quite comfortably possible too. There’s a new exhibition by Diane Meyer opening up at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, highlighting 100 Angelenos who are car-less in LA. “Without a Car in the World”. The opening reception is today at 6:00pm. Here is some of what Diane has up on the website there:

The people that I am photographing are attempting to lead normal lives in this Contemporary West where the automobile functions as the ultimate promise of freedom. I am hoping to ultimately photograph and interview 100 Carless Angelenos. Through the images and text from the interviews, the project will address how car culture has shaped psychological, spatial and geographic perceptions of the city. The subjects I am photographing have given up their cars for a variety of reasons ranging from ideological, financial or health-related situations, anxiety after traumatic car accidents, environmental activism, or a simple disinterest in car culture. By bringing together these various voices through the images and text, the project will ultimately address transportation alternatives. It will also provide a voice to a group of individuals often perceived to be disenfranchised in some way for not having an automobile.

My good friend Christine Louise Berry (yes, she of all those wonderful SmartGals events around the city that I’ve told you about before – e.g. here and here -) will be one of the featured Angelenos.

Oh, a side note: I’m usually mixed up with the “no-car” group since many people think my own (very mild) position on non-car options for transport is some form of fundamentalist/extremist campaign, to the point where if I show up to something in a car, people express shock or surprise or even emit an “AHA!” – as though they caught a vegetarian secretly chowing down on a juicy steak – or some other odd reaction. I don’t understand why people think I am anti-car. I am not anti-car and I do not hate cars. (I suspect the same is true of many of those featured in the exhibition.) I love cars. I love driving. You should see me (if you can catch me 🙂 ) on the roads and freeways on the weekends when I do decide to drive – freeways being wonderful inventions for fun classic LA driving and moving great distances quickly (especially later at night when they are clear). I simply find myself ill at the thought of doing what the generic Los Angeles resident does instinctively, as though they are attached to their cars by an umbilical cord – popping into it every time they run even the most trivial errand or move from one part of the city to another, walking even a few blocks or more being a last resort… I can’t do that in all good conscience when there is a pretty good public transport system that serves me reasonably well if I make the effort to connect to it (hence walking and/or bike as well). It just seems wrong to me.

Now will someone please mention to the 18th Street Arts Center the irony that they don’t have any public transport mention in their website, only parking directions? Come on folks, let’s have some joined-up thinking (as they used to say in the UK a while back).


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11 Responses to They Couldn’t Car Less

  1. Carol says:

    Good post, as usual, Clifford. I love to drive, and I love my car, but I avoid driving when I can because it’s a big hassle, other benefits notwithstanding. My work commute has gotten to be so ridiculous (rush hour has extended so much — both morning and evening) that I will probably move closer to a Metra stop in the near future so I can take the train and avoid the stress. Used to take the train when I worked in LA county, and I LOVED being able to read on the way to work.

  2. Jude says:

    In my little town, I spent a few underemployed years stealing gravel from one over-graveled parking lot and spreading it on trails where kids (and I) walked to school. It seems as though once kids get a driver’s license, they forget the joys of walking or biking so that when they become adults they ignore the muddy trails where their children walk to school. This summer, I walked all those trails with a friend’s husky, 3 miles every morning around town (mostly in the dark, since I’m agoraphobic). I’m teaching my son to drive and I have a story for every road that the husky and I walked on. You don’t see the raccoon in the tree when you drive. Walking and biking are part of living consciously.

  3. I’m pleased that most venues still give “nearest train station” information in the UK, and usually a list of bus routes too (depending on the kind of transport system that city has). Soon, Edinburgh may even have a tram system, but that’s another, less cheerful, story…


  4. Jude says:

    Here’s a topical post from London Daily Photo about a store which provides clothing for cycling.

  5. David Levine says:

    Thanks for posting these clear-headed thoughts on transportation. Isn’t it true that the bicycle was at some point awarded the status of being the most efficient means of transporting a human?

  6. Jataun says:

    I would love to be car free, but I would have to live in Manhattan.

  7. Clifford says:


    I’ve heard that, but I don’t know if it is true…. or even what exactly it means. Either way, it is always on my short list of one of the best _ever_ inventions!


  8. Pope Maledict XVI says:

    While I fully sympathise, there is one thing that you [and most other academics] can [even more easily] do that would have a far greater impact on your carbon footprint than using your car less: travel to conferences a lot less.

    Maybe you can put your hand on your heart and really swear that your research just would not be possible without conferences. But for me, and I strongly suspect for most academics, conferences are an absolutely *enormous* waste of resources. I’m sure that many academics spew more CO2 into the atmosphere in this way than the typical Ferrari driver. The arXiv has rendered nearly all conferences totally superfluous. Time to stop.

  9. Clifford says:

    Thanks. An important point, if oddly made – Why make it seem like it one or the other? Why not cut down in several areas at once? Why not encourage many overlapping approaches instead of pouring scorn on one in favour of your preferred “solution”?

    You should know that academics are not the uniform group you seem to think we are. Actually, several people I can think of – myself included – have consciously cut down on a lot of conference travel in favour of more effective use of the time and other resources, for a variety of reasons. I am happy to say that I go to only a few conferences and opt instead for one or two longer more valuable (to me) workshops during the year. I do not agree with you that conferences and other meetings are superfluous – there is huge value in face to face conversation for the kind of creative thinking we must do, and sharing of ideas and collective brainstorming that the ArXiv cannot replace – but yes there are probably too many conferences (especially the short kind). Many people have thought this, and for some time now. Also, many people do more video-conferencing these days in place of travel too. So we can do all of that *and* cut down on other waste too.

    This will only continue to get better. The stopping has already begun. It won’t happen overnight.


  10. Pope Maledict XVI says:

    I’m sorry if I gave the impression of heaping scorn on anything — I *did* say, “I sympathise”. Sure we should all walk and cycle more — I’d love to see cycle lanes in my town, and I’d gladly cycle the 10 km to work if it were not suicidal to do so [as it is at present].

    But perspective is important. I don’t believe that most of the academics I talk to [I’m one myself] really think about how wasteful and pointless most conferences are. I’m glad to hear that you find them useful, but I suspect that you don’t quite grasp that many many of your fellow conference goers are there for all the wrong reasons — primarily because they want to get something onto their cvs. The talks are nearly always about old stuff that has been on the arXiv for months, and at least 80% of them are so badly delivered as to be either incomprehensible or [worse] so boring that watching paint dry seems like bungee jumping by comparison. Sure, if you have a lot of friends in the community, or [like you] are a well-known person, I can imagine that you might get involved in a productive discussion, but if you observe carefully you will see that a lot of “discussions” are of the “please remember me so that I can persuade you to write a tenure letter” variety, and things like that. You’ll also observe that most of the participants in discussions don’t really understand most of what is being said. I’m not talking about travelling to meet collaborators here. Have you really gotten an idea for a paper out of attending a conference? I haven’t.

    Anyway, my comments were aimed at those people [and I strongly believe they are a majority] who go to conferences because everyone else does, or because their bosses would ask too many questions if they didn’t, and not because they really benefit. For those people, abstaining from conferences is quite possibly the most important way to cut back on CO2. I’m guessing that it would utterly swamp the effects of getting a Prius for example!

    Sure it will take time, but one way to start is for senior people to let the younger ones know that it’s perfectly ok not to go to conferences, and to ask some sharp questions if someone proposes to hold a conference locally. I’d be saying, “You want to push that amount of CO2 out, you better have a really good reason to hold this thing!”.

  11. Clifford says:

    “Have you really gotten an idea for a paper out of attending a conference? I haven’t”

    Yes. A thousand times yes. The fact that you have not (sorry to hear that) does not make them bad things.

    Also, there is nothing wrong with being in a discussion where you don’t understand a good portion of what is being said. This is way we learn.

    I think you’re saying something quite sensible but these things won’t stop overnight. Conferences and workshops do have their uses… I think there are too many, but that is not the same as saying they are pointless. We need to cut down, yes, but it will happen gradually and as other things that replace the function of the conference move into place and become part of the culture and general usage (video conferencing, for example)… It won’t happen overnight, just like it won’t happen overnight that everyone will cut down on driving their cars everywhere.

    I’m glad you raised the point. Thanks.