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Do I Need A Car To Visit California?

Published on Wed, Nov 7, 2018

By: Bill Wright

Visiting California without a car… Is that really doable? Contrary to popular belief, for a young couple visiting from Europe, it turned out to be a breeze.

Like most folks my age (old, born ‘53, driver’s license ‘69) I remember Driver’s Ed in High School and waiting for the DMV to open on my 16th birthday so I could get my license. I realize that I share these experiences with a LOT of people, but the next part of my story has to be viewed from the perspective that I am a Car Guy …

I live in Europe, specifically, Sweden, in a suburb of Stockholm. The first time that I came to Sweden, in 1980, I met a few people in my age group who did not have a driver’s license. I found that interesting, but not that unusual, because I knew people that had lived their entire lives in Manhattan that did not drive either.

If we fast forward 38 years or so to 2018, the number of people (of any age) that I know who do not have a driver’s license has shrunk, (although that cadre is growing in the 18-30 age group, like everywhere else in the industrialised world as we move towards driverless vehicles).

Keep all of the preceding in mind as we move forward …

My wife and I are friends with a young couple from the UK. They were planning a trip to California and Las Vegas and wanted to discuss it with us. Our home is a good place to do that sort of thing as we have a wall-size map of California in the office/workroom (granted, it is a little dated … some of the freeways are marked with the ‘old’ numbers). As we are standing there looking at the map and our guests are explaining that they will fly into LAX and out from SFO, I make the comment, “that’s a good plan, were you able to book a one-way car rental without having to pay a ruinous ‘drop charge’?” After noticing that the couple had exchanged a confused glance, I dove right in and asked, “I know that you don’t have a car, but do either of you have a driver’s license?” It turned out that he did not, and she did, but in the intervening years she guessed that she could count her time behind the wheel in hours, and not too many at that.

Our evening together had taken an unexpected turn because it never occurred to me that someone would approach being a tourist in California (The Ground Zero of Car Culture) without even entertaining the idea of using a car to get around. In retrospect, I see how incredibly narrow I was in my thinking.

After they came back from the trip we met up with them again and I learned a few things about getting around in the Golden State. They started out in SoCal (Southern California) and made good use of the bus systems, which is something that normal middle-class residents avoid like the plague, “‘cause that’s for poor people …” (or smart people who understand the concept of sunk costs …). They also enjoyed the subway system in LA and the light rail system. From Los Angeles, they travelled to Las Vegas on Greyhound (which even I am familiar with, but it has been about 45 years). Using public transportation in Las Vegas is fairly easy, but I have to admit that in all my visits there, I never have. They flew down to San Diego from Las Vegas and quickly discovered that public transportation (buses, light rail) works very well in San Diego, with the bonus being that San Diego is a great town to walk in. We had told them to take the train back to L.A. because it provides marvellous views of the ocean that you just don’t get in a car. After spending a few days walking around Santa Monica they made the transfer up to the Bay Area (NorCal, Northern California) via a mode that I was totally unfamiliar with; Cabin Bus. On this bus, everyone has a sleeping pod (size small, like those pod hotels in Japanese train stations for Salary Men that miss the last train, for whatever reason. Cabin Bus left Santa Monica late at night and arrived in the Bay Area in the morning.

I knew that they wouldn’t have much problem getting around in San Francisco and the East Bay, because there are a lot of subway, light rail and bus options, the kind of things you would find in the UK and in Sweden.

So what did I learn about travelling around California without a car? It isn’t so much that I have had some sort of epiphany and I want to ditch the car the next time I’m in California, it’s more that I knew that these modes of transport exist (with the exception of Cabin Bus), I just never knew anyone that used them to this extent.

Story by Bill Wright

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