Los Angeles without a car

They'll look at you like you're mad, but Jenifer Duncan gave it a go

Every travel guide warned me that Los Angeles without a car was near to impossible. One book even went so far as to say that a car was sometimes necessary to cross the street. Eventually, I found a guide that said it was possible to travel around LA quite satisfactorily on public transport. The city has a good bus and metro system, the book declared. A visitor could manage without a car. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, and booked plane tickets for a preliminary holiday to the city which I was later to live in.

Every travel guide warned me that Los Angeles without a car was near to impossible. One book even went so far as to say that a car was sometimes necessary to cross the street. Eventually, I found a guide that said it was possible to travel around LA quite satisfactorily on public transport. The city has a good bus and metro system, the book declared. A visitor could manage without a car. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, and booked plane tickets for a preliminary holiday to the city which I was later to live in.

I have never learnt to drive. Owning a car is expensive in the UK, parking hard to find in the city. Besides, I get satisfaction from the fact that public transport is kinder to the environment. So, it was a relief to find one book confirming that a car is not essential in LA. It is said that the only people who walk in LA are English people and hookers ­ still, I was determined to try.

When I arrived at LA airport there were lots of taxis lined up. A polite driver took our luggage. This was in stark contrast to a driver we had recently encountered in New York, who declared he had hurt his back and could not lift anything, smoked throughout the journey, and spat out of the open window. Or the enormous, burly coach driver at Niagara Falls who insisted on every passenger loading their own baggage into the hold. So the LA taxi driver created a favourable impression, and got us quickly and easily to our destination.

Our accommodation was in Brentwood, on the edge of Wilshire Boulevard, a relatively small road for LA, but with three lanes each way, almost a motorway by British standards. The first day, I stood by the traffic lights, waiting for the signal to cross. When it came, the journey felt like crossing the Sahara. Yes, it was hot, but it was the loneliness that struck me most ­ one small human being in a desert of tarmac. To my horror, when I was only half-way across, the walk sign began flashing. Panic. I ran the rest of the way, reaching the kerb as a roar of 100 engines blasted behind me. I felt exhausted already.

After two or three days of venturing no further than to the next-door shop, I decided to take the plunge and call the free public transport information line. This would give me details of bus and underground connections to my destinations. When I dialled 1-800-commute, an answering machine replied, and asked questions. Eventually, I was connected to another answering machine which told me the waiting time for assistance was 35 minutes. I gave up.

After a week or so, I got through and asked directions to Huntington Gardens in San Marino. To my dismay, I found out that the journey would take nearly two and a half hours, and that I would need to make three complicated-sounding bus changes. I decided to leave that trip until later, and went instead to downtown LA. This involved a journey by bus and the underground Metro system, taking about an hour and a quarter.

The manager of the building where we were staying widened her eyes when we said we were going to take a bus. "Well, some people say it's safe, but I wouldn't do it," she said. "Mind you, a friend of mine has been taking the bus to Beverly Hills. She says the people are okay, just working people. Dress down, though."

We got on a No 320 along Wilshire Boulevard, standing-room only. The passengers were almost exclusively Latino American. Many of those sitting were asleep.

I turned my attention to the view. The high rises of Westwood Village gave way to the villas of Beverly Hills and their gardens of orange and lemon trees and bougainvillaea. Within moments we were among the exclusive shops and restaurants of the city of Beverly Hills. At this time, a middle-aged white woman was telling a friend of her frustration that she had been turned down for a job as a movie extra. Very LA.

The bus jerked on. A man sitting by the window to our left said: "Excuse me", then fumbled with a carrier bag. The poor man began to vomit into the bag. This continued for five minutes or so. The odour filled the bus. Outside, we could see the famous Hollywood sign, far up on the hills to the north.

A lot further on, we got off the bus at a Red Metro stop called Western. The underground station was cavernous and new. We did not have long to wait before the train glided into the station. Everyone had a seat. A young man rushed on to the train, just before the doors slid shut. He seated himself across the aisle from us, humming a song. At the next stop, there was a commotion. Suddenly the carriage was full of armed police. The man put his hands in the air, and was escorted off the train.

When I braved the buses a few times more, to Santa Monica, Malibu and Hollywood, I realised I had a serious problem. Unlike Britain, with its clearly allocated shopping areas, LA's shops were often spread out all over the place, sometimes miles from one another. A supermarket may be miles from a post office, a specialist food or boutique situated in a no man's land beside a freeway. Tourist attractions, theatres, galleries ­ all were miles apart. Even the supermarket next door to our apartment was a long walk.

On an early afternoon bus journey from downtown to Pasadena, we tried to ignore a shaven-headed teenager who was using a knife on the backs of our seats. Gazing out of the window at the city, scattered across the valleys like broken glass, with spiky palms towering above the buildings, and a haze obscuring the mountains, I wondered if I should tell the driver. We said nothing and got off the bus safely.

Pasadena lies about 15 miles north of downtown LA, in a valley by the stunning 9,000ft San Gabriel mountains. Its name, from Chippewa Indian, means "crown of the valley". Elegant hotels, attractive villas, beautiful gardens, and tree-lined avenues of exclusive boutiques characterise this area.

This particular day, though, when we stepped off the bus in the afternoon heat, a man was lying on the ground, apparently unconscious. His face was purple. He had a friend with him, who shouted out: "It's okay, he's all right." The man hesitated, and staggered a little towards us: "You couldn't spare a dollar to buy him something to eat?"

But Pasadena is easier for pedestrians than most parts of LA, although downtown and Hollywood have the best bus and rail connections. In Pasadena, there is even a free "Arts Bus" that circles the main shopping areas, museums and tourist attractions. But it does not go as far as Huntington Botanical Gardens and Art Galleries, one of the most spectacular sites in LA. It can be reached only by car, taxi or a long, sun-drenched walk. Staff are happy to call taxis for visitors, but we waited an hour for ours.

Typical. Once, when I rang the taxi company for a cab to the airport for my parents, I specifically requested a driver who knew how to get from Pasadena to LAX, as it is known. The woman who took the booking reassured me that the driver would know the way. The driver got lost. He explained that it was his first day, the company had given him an old car, and that he had never been to the airport before. A nightmare of a journey followed, with the driver yelling out of the window at other motorists, asking the way to the airport, as the taxi hurtled through a maze of concrete freeways and underpasses, in a derelict and crumbling neighbourhood. Miraculously, my parents did not miss their flight.

As far as LA public transport is concerned, for me the last straw came when I had a crucial meeting in West LA and booked a taxi. Taking no risks, I asked for directions, plotted the route on a map, and gave this information to the taxi driver. I allowed an hour and a half for the journey, despite being advised it would take no more than 45 minutes. The taxi driver spoke poor English, but he nodded: "Yes, yes, yes, no problem, no problem."

I got into the taxi, and sat back, watching the murky early morning traffic, the pink buildings, the various sizes and shapes of palms. Before I came to LA, I thought all palm trees were the same. I never realised the great variety ­ nearly 4,000 species. But that morning I would have been better occupied looking at a map.

After about 40 minutes, we left the west-bound Santa Monica freeway at the Beverly Hills exit. Then, the driver took a wrong turn and turned east, up Wilshire Boulevard. I already knew the area well enough to guess that he was going the wrong way. "No problem," he said, brushing me aside with his hand. At half past ten , the taxi was still circling blindly somewhere in Culver City, not the best part of town. He was blaming the instructions I had been given. I was pointing out that he went in the wrong direction at Beverly Hills. I directed him back to Beverly Hills and paid $100. I missed my meeting and the chance of a lucrative contract.

Next day, I made a life-changing decision. I signed up for driving lessons. For the first time in my life, I feel motivated to drive. What a sense of freedom to glide down wide freeways, drive up the spectacular Californian coastline, to the mountains, the desert, the local wholefoods store. Yes it is possible to survive in LA without a car, but it is certainly not desirable.

Getting there

Return flights from London to Los Angeles are available from Virgin Atlantic from £347.

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