Drive another day

The car’s the star in Los An­ge­les but why not walk, cy­cle or take the bus?

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SAN­JIV BHATTACHARYA THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

TWENTY sec­onds. No, 10. That’s how long it takes be­fore the rap­ping starts. The kid’s maybe 18 or 19, his name’s Deshawn and he clocks me as soon as I get on the bus. ‘‘Hey, was­sup man! You go­ing to the beach?’’

His big, dorky smile sug­gests he doesn’t re­alise we’re com­plete strangers. I’m think­ing: not the sharpest tool in the box but harm­less. ‘‘I’m go­ing to the beach to help the kids stay off drugs, uh- huh,’’ he says. ‘‘Be­cause I love Je­sus, I read a lot of bibles. You like gospel rap?’’

This is all be­fore 11am. Nor­mally, I’d be pulling out of my drive in a 2007 Honda, j ust me alone in an air­con­di­tioned cap­sule, join­ing a jostling stream of other cap­sules, lis­ten­ing to pub­lic ra­dio and won­der­ing whether to take the free­way. But not to­day — to­day, I’ve de­cided, af­ter 12 years in this city, to try to get about with­out a car for a change.

LA Tourism has launched a ‘‘Car Free in LA’’ cam­paign pro­mot­ing new bike­ways and tai­lored itin­er­ar­ies to help visi­tors ex­plore var­i­ous neigh­bour­hoods.

I’m set­ting my­self my own test, how­ever. I want to see if I can make a loop around the city via some land­mark spots. I’ve got my recharge­able Tran­sit Ac­cess Pass. I’m ready to go.

So far, I’m lov­ing it. It sounds daft, but the nov­elty of get­ting a 330 bus from the end of my street in Mid-City is kind of thrilling. In LA, the bus is another coun­try — an al­most ex­clu­sively non-white world, mostly His­panic and low in­come, with Span­ish-lan­guage tele­vi­sion up at the front. I’ve only taken it oc­ca­sion­ally and it al­ways feels like an ad­ven­ture — I never know what the fare is or what num­ber to get. While you could ask most New York­ers how to get from Mid­town to Brook­lyn on the sub­way, An­ge­lenos are hope­less. Here, there are pub­lic tran­sit peo­ple and there are driv­ers and, ugly though it sounds, they’re prac­ti­cally split by so­cioe­co­nomics, cul­ture, class and even race.

All those bar­ri­ers that pub­lic trans­port breaks down so ef­fec­tively in other cities are mag­ni­fied here. Buses are prac­ti­cally taboo.

But now that I’m on one again, I re­mem­ber how much I miss them. I came from a car-less life in Shored­itch, east Lon­don, of hop­ping around on pub­lic trans­port. And though I moaned about the de­lays and what have you, I miss rub­bing shoul­ders with my fel­low man, feel­ing closer to the life and mo­tion of a city.

On the buses, there’s ca­ma­raderie. Notic­ing the new­bie flap­ping his bus map, sev­eral pas­sen­gers vol­un­teer to help me out. If only I spoke Span­ish, I’d un­der­stand what they were on about.

And let’s not for­get Deshawn. It has been said that there’s at least one ec­cen­tric on ev­ery bus in LA — some kind of city­wide ini­tia­tive. Well I’m all for it — his rap­ping is mak­ing the jour­ney just zip along.

I get off at Venice Beach, the home of age­ing mus­cle­men, tourist traps and rollerbladers. If you want a view of the wa­ter and beach life, Santa Monica’s the place for that, only a few kilo­me­tres up the coast. So I fig­ure, hey — why not rent a bike from Perry’s rental in Venice, en­joy a touristy ride along the beach and then drop the bike off at Perry’s in Santa Monica?

Be­fore I know it, I’m in a con­voy of tourists ped­alling down the coast, wind in my hair. Oh the beach — I re­ally ought to come out here more of­ten.

My next desti­na­tion, how­ever, is an al­to­gether stiffer chal­lenge, not just phys­i­cally but psy­cho­log­i­cally: Ho­tel Bel-Air. It’s an un­spo­ken as­sump­tion in LA that if you don’t drive it’s be­cause you can’t af­ford it. Andthis hits home in the rich neigh­bour­hoods where buses don’t go and side­walks have dis­ap­peared. Bel-Air is a co­cooned idyll of wealth and bird­song up in the canyons, a few kilo­me­tres from the bus crowd. It takes me two buses and a hum­bling march past all the man­sions in the blaz­ing heat to get there. Of­ten, I’m the only pedes­trian in sight.

The only other peo­ple I see are the oc­ca­sional gar­dener or con­struc­tion worker, who watch be­mused as I trudge past, sweat­ing and huff­ing. ‘‘Hey buddy, need a ride?’’ they call out, laugh­ing.

I ar­rive with aching calves, a cling­ing shirt and a burned neck. You don’t think to pack sun­screen and wa­ter when you’re driv­ing. Never mind, I’m at the Ho­tel Bel-Air now — I must be the only per­son to have ever ar­rived here on foot. Yes, a $30 cock­tail would be lovely, thank you. And a stu­pen­dous meal at Wolf­gang Puck’s. Why, yes, I’ll take the suite tonight. ( And other things that bus pas­sen­gers never say.)

The next morn­ing I re­alise I’ve bit­ten off much more than I can chew. Grif­fith Park is a lovely spot, with ter­rific views, but mur­der to get to with­out wheels. Buses quickly lose their al­lure when you’re wait­ing for eons at one sun­baked bus stop af­ter another. And then I’m hik­ing up hills in the mer­ci­less heat. I do this hike all the time with the dogs, but of course I drive much of the way and I have my sanc­tu­ary wait­ing for me when I’m fin­ished. This time, it’s just me, the canyons and the sound of my wheez­ing.

But a kind of tun­nel vi­sion sets in and I can’t stop. I head to Rat­tlesnake Park, where I’m hop­ing to kayak south on a re­cently opened stretch of the LA River. Alas, my plan is thwarted as the kayak­ing com­pany is shut. Still, it’s all about fin­ish­ing now, mak­ing the loop, just to say I did it.

I bounce back down the hill to jump on the first bus head­ing south. Take me away from th­ese canyons and bil­lion­aire neigh­bour­hoods — I don’t want to trudge through empty streets search­ing for the shade of trees like a stray dog. Take me to the con­crete and skyscrap­ers, the only place in LA where be­ing car-less makes sense.

Fi­nally, I ar­rive Down­town at Union Sta­tion. This gor­geous art deco build­ing is the only travel hub in Los An­ge­les and here at last are swarms of com­muters, pour­ing up and down es­ca­la­tors, flow­ing through var­i­ous tun­nels.

So what if the un­der­ground’s still new and strangely bar­ren with scant ad­ver­tis­ing on the walls? It reminds me in some ways of the Delhi Metro. And I’ll take it. That’s the thing about tun­nels. They’re al­ways in the shade.

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