How Losing My Car Saved My Life
It will surprise some readers to know that, in a not too distant past, before Path Less Pedaled, before Epicurean Cyclist, and before I was the bicycling photographer of Long Beach, I didn’t ride bikes, buses or trains. It’s almost embarrassing to admit, especially to our very astute bikey readers, but these things barely registered on my radar. I only relay these not-so-pretty details now to hopefully show others what is possible… just because you have one lifestyle now, doesn’t mean you are doomed to live it until the very end.
So yes, dear readers, I drove and drove a lot. I was younger, freshly graduated from college, subsisting on the poor man’s diet of hotdogs and a pack of cigarettes a day. I was working as a graphic designer. Most of my day was spent sitting in front a computer, pushing a mouse around. The rest of it was spent sitting in traffic. Lots of it. This was Los Angeles, the sort of place where you could fill a whole evening’s conversation with the question, “so what freeways did you take to get here?”
My life, in short, was fairly typical for a Los Angelean. I had resigned myself to commuting about 35 miles one way from Long Beach to Culver City. A childhood of sitting in the back of a car to go everywhere conditioned me to believe that there was just no other option. So, as an adult, I merely accepted my fate. This is what people do. On an average day, my commute took 45 minutes in one direction. On a hellish day, it could be upwards of an hour and a half to two hours in ONE direction. I did this for a couple of years and shudder now to think of all the time I’ve lost staring at someone’s brake lights in front of me. But at that point of my life, I didn’t know there was any other way.
One fateful evening, I was driving back from the San Fernando Valley after visiting my family. I was on the 405 and was near the Getty Center, perched up on the hill. I wasn’t quite over the Sepulveda Pass when my truck made the most god-awful racket I had ever heard come from a car. It sounded like ten rabid monkeys with wrenches were banging from the inside of the engine, trying to break free. I merged to the exit lane and pulled over on the surface street, wondering what to do. I was no mechanic, but from the sound the truck was making, I knew it was toast. Little did I know that night would change my life.
I was faced with the decision of whether I should fix or replace the truck. Fortunately, at that point of my career, I was still doing graphic design, but had taken a job where I was telecommuting to a firm in the Bay Area. For the first time, in all my years, I envisioned life without a car. It was simultaneously exciting and frightening. Although I didn’t actually have to drive to work anymore, how would I get to everywhere else? How would I do groceries? Go out? Buy stuff? See my friends? Would I just wither away in solitude with my hotdogs and cigarettes?
The whole undertaking was so daunting. I felt helpless and vulnerable. I didn’t know anyone that didn’t own a car. You see, to not have a car in Los Angeles meant one of two things: 1) you were destitute and couldn’t afford one, otherwise why would you do without? or 2) you had a DUI and had your license taken away. To be categorized as either was far from flattering.
And yet, I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn’t really want a car anymore. All those endless hours I spent sitting in traffic had sucked any fun out of driving. A car, for me, wasn’t a symbol of freedom but one of servitude. But I also had no clue how to get around without one. To keep my sanity, I decided to frame everything as an “experiment.” I was going to do a self-study to see how I could get along in Los Angeles without an automobile. By doing a little creative distancing, I gave myself the permission to try to live without a car without viewing myself as a failure. Whenever someone would ask, I would tell them that I was just “conducting a little experiment.” It gave me an out. I didn’t declare that I was going to be carfree ad infinitum on that first day, I was just testing the waters.
At first, things were hard. Instead of walking thirty feet to sit down again and magically transport myself to the supermarket, I had to walk. A lot. Things were not automatic or easy or convenient. I head to learn how to read bus schedules and figure out how to get around town. I know it sounds silly to say this all now, because it’s so second nature, but back then it was new, unexplored territory. In the process of all the walking, I also became more aware of my body, or more specifically, how unhealthy I had become. I could feel my lungs strain and hurt at the little exercise I was getting, and it scared me. Even then, I was aware of how precious and unique life was and how fortunate I was to be alive in the United States with all my body parts functioning. So about a week before September 11th, I quit smoking and started eating healthier. I only remember this because there was nothing more that I wanted to do than light up after watching the towers fall.
It was hard, but I kept at it. At this point, I still hadn’t discovered the bicycle. On a whim, I borrowed my neighbor’s rollerblades and was instantly hooked. Something about the speed and the balance and the feeling like you were gliding across the ground was invigorating. If you talked to my old neighbors now, they’d probably vaguely remember some slightly overweight asian kid skating around the block hundreds of times a day hacking up phlegm. It wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t care. It was the first time in a long time that I felt alive, that I was fully present, mentally and physically. In about a month, I got my own pair of inline skates. Two months later, I had a pair of carbon fiber speed skates. Soon after, I signed up to skate the Long Beach Marathon and, a few months after that, I flew to Tahiti to skate an inline marathon there (that’s a strange tale of its own).
It was around this physical awakening that I experienced an occupational one as well. I was less and less satisfied with being a design monkey, spending hours a day pushing a mouse and tapping keys. So I started delving into photography. It had the same things I liked about design – dealing with visual aesthetics, balance, color, composition – but it happened in real time in the REAL physical world. I bought cameras (everything from 35mm to 4×5 sheet film) and built a darkroom with the new-found cash I had from not owning a car. This was another big revelation. I could afford the toys I wanted because I was no longer paying for gas, parking tickets, insurance, repairs, etc. I don’t think I could have indulged my photography hobby (which eventually became my next career) if I had a car. While I did design during the day, my nights were spent making a mess in the bathroom trying to teach myself how to develop film and make prints.
As I got more serious with photography, I was learning that skating around with several thousand dollars of camera gear on your back was not very prudent. So, on another whim, I borrowed a neighbor’s bike (a different neighbor). I had that same giddy feeling I had when I first hopped on skates, except this time it was different. It just felt right. It was more efficient. Not to say that it was easy. I had to relearn how to ride a bike. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid and, back then, I only rode on the sidewalk. So I did some research and found that I could ride in the street, and I essentially went about the work of teaching myself how to commute by bike. I had no mentors, just bicycle forums. Back then, bike commuting blogs were few and far between, so learning was slow.
I spent most of my early months riding around the block (my neighbors must have thought I was nuts), then mostly on the bike path going back and forth. Just like with the rollerblades, within a month I bought my own bike at a flea market. Of course, I knew nothing about bikes and bought it solely on its looks. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the bike that got me so excited was a bright yellow Schwinn Varsity. Perhaps the heaviest bike known to man. And it was too big. But what did I know about bikes? I just knew I wanted to ride one, so I bought it.
At that point, I wasn’t the bike aficionado I am today. I didn’t know my bike sucked. I just rode it everywhere. It was the first bike I rode over 20 miles on. I’d walk it proudly into bike shops as I shopped for accessories, not knowing at the time that I was probably getting pegged as a clown or Fred. That is why I have a special place in my heart for people that are riding the “wrong” bike – because I’ve been there! And I know that, if someone had said something disparaging and crushed my enthusiasm at that early stage of cycling, I could have thrown in the towel. Today, I bristle when I see the snobbishness that some bicyclists and bike shops have toward beginning commuters. We’re so often unaware of what those fleeting sleights will do, what butterfly effect they could have on someone’s future love or hate for bicycling.
Needless to say, I discovered panniers at some point, and that was another revelation. Not only could I get somewhere with my bicycle, but I could bring things with me. It felt fun and subversive to be able to do everything I could do with my car with a bicycle. I was hooked. In the following years, I would experiment with everything from a Bike Friday to a fixed gear, a three speed, a Trek 520, an Xtracycle, a trailer, Bilenky cargo bike, etc. I met Laura in this transitional period of mine, and she too started bike commuting, and we both discovered bike touring together.
At some point, my “experiment” with getting around in Los Angeles without a car had ended, and my life as a car-free bicyclist began. I don’t remember exactly when that was, but I do remember the feeling I had when I knew that I would no longer own a car any more, and it wasn’t dread and it wasn’t fear – it was relief. I felt free from a system that I thought was inescapable. I had liberated myself from an entire matrix of seductive commercials, glossy ads, high payments, predatory loans, parking tickets, insurance payments, maintenance, worrying if the mechanic who was only suppose to be changing my oil wasn’t doing something else as well. In short, in one fell swoop I had cut out a giant chunk of human stress and expense by opting out of the car and everything it involved.
The longer I went without driving, the stranger I found how the car – this assemblage of nuts and bolts and metal – could have such strong power over us. It defines our politics, it shapes our cities, it determines how we interact and how we view ourselves. All that for just a few pieces of metal and rubber, put together in a certain fashion.
I read a post recently on an automobile blog that stated, in semi-horror, that Millennials (the 20-30 somethings of today) no longer view the automobile as a symbol of independence and freedom, but as just an appliance. But hasn’t it always just been an appliance? And why would that somehow be an insult? I love my bikes, but I see them as tools and appliances as well.
So that is my origin story as a cyclist. I was not born a cyclist. I came to it late in life. There was nothing in my childhood that would have predicted that I would grow up to love bikes. In fact, by all accounts, I should be just another stuck car on the 405 (main arterial freeway in Los Angeles). But one fateful evening, my car died. It felt like a bit of a tragedy at the time, but little did I know that a better life was in store and finally beginning.
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