Culture shift: Why people expect me to justify living car-free in Los Angeles, and why I shouldn’t have to.

At a recent family gathering, I found myself seated at a table with a family member who, for the purposes of this writing, we’ll call Frank. Frank and I hadn’t seen each other for a few months, so we were due for some catch up chit chat. He fired point blank:

“Are you still doing that no car thing?”

That no car thing.

Six months ago I sold my car. It was a long time coming—I’m a huge believer in walkable cities, and wanted to practice what I preached. A likeminded coworker and I used to go back and forth daring each other to ditch our cars, and we went through several rounds of “I’d totally do it if only I didn’t need to get to x/y/z place,” before finally saying screw it and just going for it. When I finally did it, I was pretty excited. I made an announcement to the family that I was going car free, and I assured them that I wasn’t crazy. I acknowledged the fact that I expected there to be challenges, but I also pointed out that they weren’t problems that a little extra effort and creative thinking couldn’t solve. Six months later, I stand by those claims. Yes, I’ve made trips that would have been significantly easier with a car, but never once have I regretted the decision. The pay-off has far-outweighed the slight and occasional inconvenience.

The next time I saw the family was a few weeks later at a cousin’s wedding in Camarillo, a relatively small city about fifty miles north of my home in Downtown Los Angeles. When I got there, everyone made sure to ask me how my trip up there was. But not in the usual way. The question was loaded. What they really meant was, “I’ll bet you regret your decision now, eh?” They were teasing me about not owning a car.

I’m not sure how people thought I’d gotten there—perhaps they expected I’d had to have borrowed a car from a friend, rented one for the day, or taken a really expensive Lyft—but I can tell you that they certainly didn’t expect the answer I gave them.

“The trip? Quite nice actually. I took the train.”

The incredulous look on their faces came not from the fact that I’d chosen to take the train, but rather from the fact that the train existed.

“There’s a train?” they’d ask, mostly rhetorically. And then I’d have to go and explain that yes, there is in fact a train, and it doesn’t just go to Camarillo either. It travels the entirety of the west coast. You could take it from San Diego to Vancouver if you wanted. (Though I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, as it would take you 37 hours and 15 minutes.)

Of course, the realization that I’d managed to get to the wedding just fine without a car was not enough to earn me a pat on the back. Most just came back with something like, “Yeah, but where’s the station? I bet you still had to walk from the station.”

In fact, I didn’t have to walk—I hitched a last-mile ride with my parents who were headed the same way—but even if I had, it’s hard to make me feel bad about being “forced” to take a Sunday stroll. That’s something I do regularly anyway, by choice.

Regardless, I should acknowledge that I’m not trying to refute the validity of the point everyone was trying to make. After all, it’s true that the train doesn’t go everywhere, and given slightly different circumstances, I could have been stuck trying to get somewhere far from a train station that would have been impossible without a car. Such circumstances are among the challenges of not owning a car. But still, I was convinced that having defended my carlessness so righteously, they would at the very least have understood that being without car in Los Angeles is far from radical. Sadly, I was wrong.

“Are you still doing that no car thing?”

When Frank dropped that question, it all clicked. I finally understood why rather than getting respect for doing a good thing and giving up my car, everyone insisted on teasing me about it. See, it’s not polite to tease someone about the person they choose to be, but that was irrelevant to them, because they never saw my decision to go car-free as a life choice. They never saw it as an investment in the future or a pledge of support for a sustainable Los Angeles. Nope. They saw it as a stunt—something I was doing as a last-ditch call for attention before I finally grew up and embraced normal, car-dependent, adult life. To them, I was like David Blaine, performing a weird test of endurance. I was holding my breath in a car-free world, hoping to impress everyone around me before I could bear it no longer and had to come up for air.

When I told Frank that yes, I still had no car, he gave me a weird look. “How do you get around?” he asked me, a little exasperated.

To him, I’d been holding my breath for so long that he was no longer amused by the magic trick; he wanted to know how it worked. I began an ernest explanation of how trains and bicycles actually do provide convenient and reliable transportation for a lot of people, but I’d barely begun before I could tell he’d zoned out. In his, and so many others’ minds, bicycles—a 19th century technology—couldn’t possibly be a real solution. They’re just that thing that we keep around so our kids have something to do before they turn 16. I probably should have just gone with “A magician never reveals his secret.”

I’ve done a lot of ruminating since that day, and—as is often the case when rumination—I’ve become more and more pissed off. At first I thought it was because I was being forced to defend my decision to make a positive life change to my family, but that wasn’t quite it. Then I thought it was because my family didn’t recognize my decision as a life choice at all. But finally, I landed on what I’m now quite sure is the real issue:

This is 2014. If you open a newspaper, pull up a website, or talk to any person on just about any given day, chances are one of: global warming, air pollution, gas prices, fossil fuel dependence, obesity, heart disease, poverty, poor quality of life, traffic, depression, or auto accidents is going to be a featured topic of discussion. Given that all of these problems can be helped by eschewing cars in favor of alternative transportation, I should not have to justify my decision not to drive. Rather, everyone else should have to justify their decision to drive.

It’s amazing how little guilt people feel when they step into their cars. As I mentioned in a previous article about cycling in Los Angeles, my girlfriend recently moved here from Vancouver, and has been generally shocked by our behavior on the streets. Her early observations (though frustrating) didn’t surprise me. Things like our habit of making left turns after a light has already turned red, passing on the right, and refusing to let people merge into a lane were all things that surprised her, but that were par-the-course for me. But as her sense for the city was honed, her insights became more profound. One time she caught me off guard.

“It’s amazing how little respect you get here if you’re not in a car.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

She told me about how in Vancouver, people’s behavior is reversed. Cyclists and pedestrians get the most respect, and people in cars behave humbly around them, yielding right of way, never honking, never threatening. I asked her why she thought that was, and she seemed confused as to how the answer wasn’t blatantly obvious.

“Because they know the people on bikes are better than them. They’re being better citizens, making better choices. They feel bad about it. They feel guilty driving their cars.”

She was right: that should have been obvious. Driving a car does so much more harm than it does good, so how is it that we in Los Angeles don’t feel the slightest bit bad about doing it?

Angelenos are pretty good at collectively shaming people out of doing things we know are bad for society. For example, we know that drinking and driving is dangerous, so we shame people out of trying it. Most people in this city wouldn’t dare admit to doing it for fear of losing the respect of their friends and family. It does still happen, but far less often than it would if that culture of shame didn’t exist, as in the case in places like Louisiana, where not only do they tolerate drinking and driving, they’ve gone so far as to sell liquor at drive-thru’s. (Not kidding. It’s called a go-cup. Look it up.)

More topically, we also know that wasting water during a drought is a serious problem, and we shame people out of that as well. The number of spouting sprinklers I’ve seen around town has dramatically decreased as a result, and water usage has correspondingly decreased over 10% this September compared to last year.

In both of the above cases, it would have been a lot easier to just ignore the problem than commit to fixing it. We’d never have to worry about designated drivers or cab fares when drinking, and we’d be able to keep our lush green lawns, long showers, and epic slip ‘n slides. But instead, despite the inconvenience to us, we chose to attack the problem head on out of respect for our community. So why then, do we treat driving a car so differently? We tackled drunk driving because it causes traffic accidents. We frown on water waste because it damges the natural environment. But despite the fact that driving a car causes both of those things and so much more, we continue to collectively pretend the problem doesn’t even exist.

It’s impossible to explain exactly why that is, but I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that we’re a lot less in control of our own decision making process than we think we are. We like to think that as humans, we can rationalize our way through complicated decision-making, but having spoken to LA drivers about their decision to drive, I’m not convinced that’s the case at all. After all, when faced with the threat of global warming, choosing to perpetuate the problem by making zero changes to our driving habits whatsoever is pretty much the exact opposite of a productive response. But we do it anyway.

Shaming people out of their bad habits works because shame comes from having to accept the blame for the negative consequences of a bad choice. If someone chooses to wastefully water his front lawn during a drought, he becomes the focal point of such blame. If everyone in the community worked hard to change their habits and they feel their efforts are being offset by someone who doesn’t care, that person becomes increasingly condemned, bearing a greater and greater share of the blame for the problem. And if news came out, for example, that we were still not saving enough water, everyone would blame that guy. No one wants to be that guy. The threat of that kind of reputation damage is usually enough to keep people from making bad decisions.

But unfortunately, this only works when there is already a critical mass of people who have changed their habits. Without that, the focus of the blame becomes far too blurry for it to have any impact on an individual level. In today’s Los Angeles, we’re far from that critical mass when it comes to driving. 84% of people here still rely on a car to get them to and from work every day, which means it’s way too easy for drivers to hop on the road, guilt free. In fact, we actually endorse each other’s bad habits.

Humans have a natural tendency to blindly assume that the decisions made by large groups of people must be correct. Even if we have no idea why people are behaving a certain way, the sheer fact that they are is usually enough for us to assume there must be a reason, and to follow their lead. In the context of driving, this means that in addition to being able to avoid the blame for our bad decisions, sometimes we’re even able to entirely forget that they’re bad decisions at all.

I remember when An Inconvenient Truth first came out. I saw it in the theaters with some friends, and I remember them leaving that night feeling disgusted with themselves for contributing so directly to the demise of our planet. Everyone was thinking the same thing: “How can we fix this?”

You’d think they would have channeled that disgust into making major life changes, but that didn’t happen. By the time a couple months had passed, most of my friends, and even I, had simply moved on. The memory of the movie’s message—that something terrible is happening to the planet and we need to fix it—was still there, but daily life had become so far-removed from that message that it felt almost unrelated.

Here’s what happened. Everyone who saw the movie got up the next morning and got ready for work or school as usual. Then they walked over to their car and they hesitated, because, though they probably didn’t have much choice in the way of an alternative, for a brief moment, they felt pretty bad about getting into a car. After a few seconds though, they realized, “Hey, I’m not the only one doing this. Everyone else does it too. They do it every day. If it were really that bad, they would have stopped. Somebody would have told me to stop. I’ll stop doing it when everyone else begins to stop too.”

We’re pitifully prone to mistaking large groups of people for authority figures. It actually kind of makes sense evolutionarily. For example, consider the efficacy of the “ask the audience” lifeline vs “phone a friend” in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The likelihood of one single person being highly knowledgeable on one single subject is pretty low, but the collective knowledge of the entire audience is, in almost every circumstance, of much higher quality, and we therefor trust the group over the individual. This instinctive respect for the actions of the masses is an ancient one. Simply put, it comes from the fact that the people in that group are, well, still alive. 50,000 years ago, if a large group of people all made the same decision and came out alive, you were probably going to want to make that decision too. But 50,000 years ago, we were dealing with things like hungry predators scarce food, and harsh weather. If you made the wrong choice, you might well have died from it, sometimes instantly.

Things are a bit different now though, and applying that same instinct in a modern context doesn’t make sense. Modern day threats like global warming aren’t putting our lives in immediate danger, and our decisions for how to deal with them don’t have immediate consequences. Global warming doesn’t directly affect our livelihood the way that, say, a hungry tiger does, but unfortunately, our instincts don’t know that, and we end up using the same decision-making techniques—following the choices of the crowd—that we always have, despite the fact that they’re leading us astray.

Now, if people were dropping dead left and right as a result of choosing to drive in spite of global warming, it’d be a different story. But they’re not. The consequences of poor decision-making in the context of global warming are so far removed from the decisions themselves that instead of feeling regret, we feel validated:.

I’m following everyone else’s lead, and so far, it’s working fine; I must be making the right decision.

The result of all of this is that Angelenos are stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of not only not shaming each other for their bad decisions, but also unknowingly pacifying each others’ concerns over issues that we really should be concerned about. If Jim thinks it’s okay to drive because Jane is doing it, and Jane thinks it’s okay because Jim is doing it, there’s seemingly no way to break the cycle. Achieving the critical mass for change is impossible.

But wait. What about the drought / drunk driving shaming that we did so well? How did we reach the critical mass necessary to break the cycle of endorsement and turn on the shame machine in those instances?

While both of the above problems require extra effort and willingness to tough out an inconvenience, they’re different from giving up a car in one huge way. Everyone has the power to avoid drinking and driving. Sure, it can be more expensive, but the option is there. And if they can’t afford it, the choice to simply not enter a situation that would require drinking and driving is also on the table. Similarly, outside of drinking, eating, and basic household needs, anyone can give up water. Having a beautiful lawn is a wonderful addition to a home, but it’s not a necessity, and the power to turn the faucet off is within everyone’s grasp. But, when it comes to transportation without a car, a huge portion of Angelenos simply don’t have an alternative. They can’t participate, even if they want to.

It only takes a few people to start a movement if people have proper access to the tools of change. When that’s the case, such movements are contagious, and reaching that critical mass is easy. But in the case of driving, the pool of people who have the tools available to use an alternative is tiny, which is why reaching critical mass will be really, really hard. In order for any kind of a cultural shift in mentality to take place in this city, we need everyone we can get.

It’s impossible to ask everyone in every corner of Los Angeles to give up their car. Shaming the people who truly don’t have the ability to do anything different is never going to accomplish anything. However, if you live in Los Angeles, in an area that doesn’t necessitate a car, but you still choose to drive one anyway, you are the problem, and you deserve to be shamed.

I’m sick of feeling being treated like a freak for making a healthy decision. I want that to end. Living without a car should be acceptable and normal.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. If you have the ability to use your car less, do it. Don’t assume that because other people are driving, it’s okay for you to drive too. Remember, not everyone has a choice like you do.
  2. If you don’t have the luxury of living near transit but would still like to be part of the solution, you have a lot of leverage against people that have the option, but choose not to take advantage of it. When you talk to those people, ask them why they’re making that decision, and remind them that it’s selfish. Ask them to justify it, not just to you, but to themselves. Driving a car when they don’t have to should make them feel uncomfortable. And make sure they know that your driving isn’t a choice, and doesn’t excuse theirs.

Somebody in a comment thread on BikingInLA today assured me that:

[Bringing proper bike infrastructure] to the US will never work. The culture will have to change, and I don’t see that happening in our lifetimes.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for sure, and if we don’t start taking the wins where we can get them, he might be right. But I believe in Los Angeles. And I believe we’re capable of a fundamental change. One that will create a culture of respect instead of disdain for those who go out of their way to make responsible choices. One that will spawn enthusiasm for the things that our city has the potential to be instead of for maintaining what it already is. One where our peers validate our positive decisions, not our negative ones. And most importantly, one where going car-free doesn’t require justification, but driving a car does.

Next time you hop in your car, ask yourself, “Why am I choosing to drive right now? Do I have any alternatives? Am I going somewhere less than a couple miles from here? Could I ride a bike? Could I take transit?,” and most importantly, “Is this decision justified?”