Without a Car

IMAGINING THE ICONIC CITY of American car culture without automobiles is akin to imagining Times Square without pedestrians, or Venice without gondolas. A dubious beneficiary of postwar affluence and the corresponding boom in cheap oil that fueled a freeway-building frenzy, Los Angeles was one of the first cities to be designed around four wheels instead of two feet.

In LA as elsewhere, personal freedom has come to be defined by automobiles, even though such primitive logic translates into appalling air quality and dreadfully long commutes. Angelenos hop into their cars to drive even embarrassingly short distances that could easily be reached without an automobile. As a result, the city itself remains elusive — a fragmented series of images framed by windshields and rearview mirrors.

But those who navigate this city more slowly by foot, bike, or bus — a typically anonymous bunch — reap the rewards of human-scale glimpses amid the sprawl: diverse neighborhoods reveal distinct personalities, strangers become individuals, and small pleasures abound, like the smell of jacaranda trees in spring. Yet access to transportation remains a significant concern in this horizontal megalopolis connected by freeways, where jobs can be scattered across a vast region. Mobility is symbolic of more than a muddled sense of individual freedom; it embodies the very real desire — and ability — to earn a living and maintain a sense of safety in a city that treats pedestrianism as archaic and even futile.

Residents who race past in the comfort of their glass and steel cages often perceive those who travel without the benefit of four wheels as disenfranchised. But as the profiles here suggest, citizens can maintain and even improve their lifestyles without the expense and stress of car ownership.

Diane Meyer is an assistant professor of photography at Loyola Marymount University. Her project in this issue was sponsored in part by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities’ California Story Fund.