As a kid, one of the very first things I learned about L.A. came from the back of a Snapple lid: “The city of Los Angeles has three times more automobiles than people.” It sounds outrageous and is most likely untrue, but it sums up the L.A. stereotype as a smog-ridden, car-dominated sprawling metropolis. It’s a stereotype that seems to have taken root as fact even in the minds of people who have never visited the city. Whenever I mentioned that Los Angeles was on my itinerary it was often met with slightly incredulous responses. People who had never visited the city assured me that without a car, visiting would be impossible and a waste of time.
But Los Angeles does have a public transportation system, and even if it doesn’t get much love or media attention, there is a metro! I’ve read transportation planner Nathan Landau’s book, Car-Free Los Angeles and Southern California, which helps break down the public transit system to beginners and debunk the myth that it is crazy or impossible to explore LA without a car.
Nicknamed the City of Angels, Los Angeles has become a hugely influential global center from entertainment to finance. Ranked the second most populous city in the U.S. and one of the most ethnically diverse in the country, the common consensus is that its impossible to think you’ve seen the most of LA in any trip you’ve taken; you could live a lifetime in the city and still have only scratched the surface.
The city of Los Angeles stretches far and wide, bordered by mountain ranges, valleys, forests, the Pacific Ocean and nearby desert; it’s easy to see the appeal of owning a car when you live just a quick drive from such a great diversity of landscapes.
Aside from public transit, landscape architects also “labor in anonymity.” As Laurie Olin puts it:
“But one of the problems in Los Angeles is there’s this wonderful tradition of lush private space and absolutely squalid public space. Private splendor, public squalor. There are a lot of rich people in Los Angeles and a lot of money sloshing around that’s never been very civic. I can’t think of another city that has so much money yet has so few patrons of the public realm and of public art. I’m astonished. The movie industry. Those people spend vast fortunes on themselves on silly stuff, and yet they could do it so easily. I’ve always been troubled by that aspect of Los Angeles.” — (Q+A> Laurie Olin)
And after just wrapping up two weeks in Los Angeles, I’ll have to agree that L.A. is takes a frustratingly long time to get around without a car, although it is certainly possible, don’t expect to get most places on time. The city is so large and sprawling, that as someone who hails from the dense east coast, I grappled with the concept of L.A. as a city. Sprawling strip malls that I would normally associate with suburban regions still fall within L.A. city boundaries, which seem to stretch so wide that even its citizens disagree on where the city lines begin and end. A fortnight in L.A. was barely introduction enough for me to even begin to wrap my head around the city.
My stay in L.A. began with a weeklong stay with a friend in Cerritos, CA, a suburban-like area an hour’s drive from downtown LA followed by two short stays in Santa Monica, CA and Pasadena, CA.
And although I can’t picture myself living in L.A. because of the lack of density, within the sprawl there are many walkable pockets of interest, from neighborhoods such as Echo Park and Silver Lake to gorgeous cultural attractions like The Getty Center and Huntington Gardens. Still, looking back, L.A. just seems like a giant, colorful blur in my head. I feel like I had a good time (the best carnitas burrito of my life balanced out some unexpectedly crummy weather) but I’m still confused about the city since I can’t judge it as a whole.
There are only textured scraps and pieces, scents and colors that make up my memory of L.A.: walking down Melrose Avenue, eating bento in Little Tokyo, exploring the Museum of Jurassic Technology, strolling down the canals of Venice at night, randomly sampling sweets and snacks in Little India, watching Korean dramas, cravings for In-N-Out burgers, reciting at a Buddhist study meeting, basking in awe of the Huntington Gardens, lingering at the steps of the Bradbury Building, eating local oysters at the Santa Monica farmer’s market…the list goes on and yet nothing seems cohesive, just an amalgam of parts. This string of memories mirror my experience of moving through the city–since everything is so spread apart, these colorful destinations are rarely linked together, rather they swim in a sprawling, dull, and unattractive sea, from strip malls to ghettos to that lull of sitting in traffic.