What inspired you to write this book?
There were a couple of things that came together for me. I’ve always had a strong orientation towards transit, had car-free periods of my life, etc. I’d been visiting Southern California a lot, but I had sort of accepted the idea that you had to do it with a car (even though I’d made car-free trips to both San Diego and LA decades ago). But I saw that things were changing–that LA Metro was making huge efforts to improve its system, that the San Diego Trolley was being extended, that even Orange County was trying to improve its system. I saw that, to many people’s surprise, LA was becoming seen as a leader in transit for projects like the Rapid bus program.
When I looked at travel guidebooks, though, I saw that they discouraged traveling by transit anywhere in California outside San Francisco. The guidebooks only seemed to focus on transit in and around big Northeastern cities like New York or Boston. I conceived the idea of writing a statewide guide to traveling by transit. But when I took that to my editor, she said that the whole state was too big, that I had to concentrate on either Northern or Southern California. I had no hesitancy in choosing Southern California–it seemed more interesting, more challenging, more likely to get some attention.
Do we really need another guidebook for Southern California?
Yes! The other guidebooks assume that you’re getting around by driving. They either ignore or ridicule transit, they may or may not say anything about biking for transportation. So there needed to be Car Free Los Angeles and Southern California to guide and encourage the car-free traveler.
It’s unusual for a planner to write a guidebook. Did being a planner help you write this book?
It did. Some of the ideas that planners use are helpful in writing a guidebook, especially one that tries to explain some things like this one,. We’re taught to think about structures and systems, not just individual facilities. We have to do a lot of communicating with our managers, elected officials, the public—which is training in writing. We look at places as they’ve evolved over time and could evolve in the future, which gives a richer sense of them. Planners write some great descriptions of cities and places in unexpected places like history sections of plans.
In this book, I had the double vision of being a lifelong transit rider and a transit planner. I’ve tried to describe both the experience of using transit in different places, and explain how various transit systems are structured. San Diego MTS, for example, has clearly decided to focus its limited resources on operating quality weekday daytime service more frequently, to support work, school, and medical trips.
Is there any hidden message that you want readers to grasp?
The non-hidden part is that Car Free Los Angeles and Southern California is a guidebook, and I want people use it as such. That’s the point of the book.
At the same time, I’d like readers to see that the cities of Southern California are changing, that we’re moving over from the classic automobile/sprawl age to something else. Young people today don’t want to live in sprawling suburbs, they want to live in walkable cities. They want to live in real urban places like Downtown San Diego. This is a “back to the future” thing–San Diego and the cities of Southern California originally grew up around streetcar lines. I don’t think cars are going to disappear next month, but vehicle miles traveled has been going down not up. I think we’re entering a new period. Those ideas are the hope of the book.
Is there anything you found particularly challenging in writing this book?
The biggest challenge was writing the book while working full time and having a family. There was a lot of forbearance for both writing time and traveling time on the part of my wife and daughter. There’s a reason that so many books are written by the young, the old, those paid to write (academics, journalists etc.) and people wealthy enough not to work!
Probably the trickiest thing was that things kept changing as I was writing the book. Transit agencies would change their line numbers, they’d raise (and sometimes lower) their fares. The basic service stays in place. There’s going to be a transit line along University Avenue in San Diego as long as there’s a transit system, but lots of stuff changes around those fundamentals. I started saying that “good news is bad news,” because I’d have to rewrite a section! For example, LA Metro decided to allow bikes on trains at rush hour, which they had previously prohibited–another thing to rewrite! (The San Diego Trolley has always allowed bikes at all times).
Were some cities more challenging to cover than others? Say, those less transit and bike friendly.
I wound up just leaving out the cities that were really difficult to cover. If they were too difficult for me to get around in, they wouldn’t be great places for my readers either. I’d originally thought of including Palm Springs in the book, but it proved to be just too difficult both to get to and to get around in. There are hundreds of places worth visiting in Southern California that are easily transit accessible, so I didn’t worry too much about the small number of places that aren’t.
Laguna Beach is tough to get to (from San Diego it takes an Amtrak train and two Orange County buses) but it’s such a lovely place I couldn’t leave it out. And it’s extremely walkable once you get there, some places in downtown Laguna Beach get a walkscore of 100!
It was really more that some individual places were harder to get to. It was quite a trek to get out to the Safari (Wild Animal) Park, and then even the bus service that I’d taken was cut. Griffith Park Observatory in LA only has transit service on the weekend, so you have to go then. (and it’s a bit of a hill to bike up!).
You’ve shown that it’s possible to get around by transit here, but why should people want to travel car-free?
First, it’s worth noting that not everybody starts with the assumption that visits always involve driving. Many foreign visitors or immigrants in particular (and I suppose you might also include New Yorkers in that category!) either don’t drive or rarely drive and don’t assume they’ll be driving. Some people don’t have drivers’ licenses, or don’t want to drive on the “wrong” side of the road.
In CFLASC I say that traveling car-free is cheaper, calmer, and cleaner. It’s cheaper because you don’t have pay gas, parking charges, and car rental charges and hotel parking fees if you’re coming from out of town. A day pass on MTS–good for unlimited rides–costs only $5, and even less per day if you buy it for multiple days.
Car-free is calmer because you don’t have to deal with traffic. San Diego traffic certainly isn’t as bad as LA’s, but it still can be stressful to drive in it. And of course car-free is cleaner because the Trolley and bus produce way less pollution per person than driving. The amount of carbon monoxide per person from transit is 95% less than from driving.
How did San Diego compare to other cities in Southern CA?
As a city, San Diego is easier to visit and see than Los Angeles. Downtown San Diego is a great place with so much there—hotels, museums, restaurants, the harborfront etc. There’s no single area in LA that’s got as much of the city’s good stuff.. Most of Downtown San Diego is really pleasant to walk around in. Also, there are 11 Trolley stations in the downtown, so the Trolley already serves the function of the locally circulating streetcar that so many cities (including Los Angeles) are chasing.
A lot of the other “sights” in San Diego are close to Downtown. Balboa Park and the zoo are right by there. Most of the areas of visitor interest are within a few miles north or south of downtown, between Pacific Beach on the north and Coronado on the south. In Los Angeles, they’re spread over a much larger area, all the way from Pasadena to Venice. And though I’m not a big cyclist, but San Diego seems like an easier and safer place to bike in.