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Going Car Free In L.A.

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Photo by Flickr user aldenjewell

In Los Angeles, when you mention that you don't have a car, many people shoot you the same glance you might receive if you revealed your puppy was terminally ill, or you'd just been evicted. (Or that you had a rare allergy to laughter.) It's a look of extreme pity mixed with a dash of incredulity.

But as LA's car- and ride-sharing community blossoms, more and more people are giving up their beloved wheels. Reasons vary -- from environmental to financial, or even logistical (couples who decide to share one car when parking becomes too much like a competitive sport).

I've been carless in L.A. since last Thanksgiving, when my second car accident in less than 12 months rendered my car permanently unroadworthy. "I'll save so much money on car payments, gas, insurance, and parking," I thought. And, living in downtown L.A. means that public transport is right at my doorstep. "I'll get more exercise, live greener, and maybe even discover new parts of the city."

Despite many people's skepticism, it is becoming increasingly possible to survive in this car-centric city without your own vehicle. L.A.'s public transport system often gets a bad rap, but after moving downtown a couple of years ago, I discovered that the Metro subway system can get me to a surprising number of places. Sure, the almost-mythical "Subway to the Sea" is still a way off, but the new Metro Expo Line does now extend to Culver City, and is an affordable way to travel at least part way through the westside. Sure, I've encountered some interesting characters on the bus and at train stations. But I usually wind up with a quirky story to tell my friends upon arrival. On Amtrak, I can plug in my laptop, access the free wi-fi and even buy a drink. And when armed with a good book or a device loaded with music or podcasts, jumping on the train or taking a Metro Rapid bus can be a heck of a lot less stressful than sitting in L.A.'s infamous gridlock.

But sometimes a gal does need a car to get from A to B in a hurry, or needs to arrive fresh-faced at a meeting, appointment, or spontaneous social gathering. Sometimes I really miss my car. Thank goodness I discovered car- and ride-sharing services like Zipcar and Lyft.

Zipcar's tagline is "Wheels when you want them," and Lyft's is "Your friend with a car." And that's exactly what they deliver. Zipcar is a car-sharing service that allows members access to vehicles in their area (for an annual, monthly and/or hourly fee, depending on your level of membership). It has had a presence on Los Angeles area college campuses (where the concept first got started) since 2006, and the company opened an L.A. office in 2011. According to Zipcar Los Angeles General Manager Jeff Shields, it's a thriving community. "Los Angeles is a very strong market with many passionate users. A huge part of Zipcar's success, especially here in L.A., has been that our members feel that they are part of something larger than themselves, and contribute to a more sustainable world by being a member."

The Zipcar brand may have been built on a vision of fewer cars, less congestion and less pollution. But it's not just about sustainability, says Shields, it's about on-demand access. Zipcar offers users "the convenience of car ownership without the hassle and cost associated with it," Shields states. "Consumers are increasingly moving away from purchasing and owning goods. Rather, they are leveraging technology, social networks and innovative new business models to give them on-demand access for things," he says.

Zipcar's fleet of around 200 vehicles in more than 60 locations in the greater L.A. area appeals to a wide range of people, says Shields. "Some are students that don't have a car with them at school, some are occasional urban drivers looking for an alternative to the high costs and hassles of owning a car in the city, and others are single car households who would sometimes like access to a second car."

While Zipcar is great for short-term errands or appointments, ride-sharing services such as Lyft are more on a par with taking a taxi. But, ride-sharing helps out two different groups of people: carless folks like myself who don't want to shell out for taxis but are tired of mooching rides off loved ones, and car owners who want to offset their expenses.

Estimated to be 20 to 30 percent cheaper than a taxi, Lyft's "Your friend with a car" tagline is well-deserved. Drivers are regular folks -- carefully screened private citizens with a clean driving history and no criminal record. Riders are encouraged to sit shotgun with their driver, drives begin with a friendly fist-bump, and Lyft drivers always have bottled water, breath mints, phone chargers, and sometimes even cookies or candy, on hand for passengers. Users sign up using Facebook and a credit card, so no cash ever changes hands.

Lyft, which launched in Los Angeles in early in 2013, was the brainchild of L.A.-born and -raised Logan Green. (Green initially co-founded the ride-sharing service Zimride in 2007, which quickly became popular on college campuses.) While Zimride is for longer road trips, Lyft is a real-time ride-sharing service that delivers on-demand rides with just a couple of taps via an app, currently available for iPhone and Android users. Similar services include Sidecar, and UBER's new UBERx which recently launched in beta mode.

After a successful San Francisco launch in September 2012, Green and his team set their sights on Los Angeles. Lyft vehicles, with the company's instantly recognizable bright pink furry mustaches affixed to the front bumper, seem to be a hit. "L.A.'s been received incredibly well, and it's growing faster than it grew in San Francisco," says Green. "It's been easier to find drivers in LA." Their formula fits a city where so many people have cars and don't mind sharing their ride to make a little extra cash. "Because L.A. has such a car culture, our drivers have nicer cars, and we have a cool group of drivers in L.A. -- actors and comedians and musicians, a lot of really interesting, creative folks that have found Lyft and are doing this to make a little bit of money on the side."

For those who can't afford fancier car services like UBER, or regular cabs, options like this may not be as cheap as taking the bus, but, as Green states, they are providing another viable alternative for those who don't drive. "Lyft is helping to make it possible for someone without a car to still lead a really active life, to be able to get around town, to have another option on their menu," says Green. "For someone who bikes or takes the bus, now they can also use a Zipcar, or use Lyft," says Green. "If they have an important meeting to get to, or they need to get somewhere quickly, we wanted to create a really efficient, fast on-demand type of service, but put it at the most affordable price-point."

Do I still miss my car? On occasion, sure. But services like this make getting around this freeway-filled town a little more convenient and a lot more friendly.

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