27 Dec 2016

How to travel alone; a girl's tips

Bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
I've travelled by myself a number of times. I love the independence, the ability to think freely, the flexibility and the thrill when you figure something out by yourself. For these reasons, I prefer to do my explorations on my own. But as a girl, this comes with many safety risks.
I'm not saying that guys don't have to be careful, but as a girl, you are unarguably perceived as more vulnerable especially when you're on your own.

You can manage risks 3 ways: eliminate, mitigate or isolate. But let's not make an engineering report (haha) and instead I'll tell you how I planned, what I did and how I would do things differently next time.
Exploring Santa Monica and Venice Beach on a cruiser
These are some tips from my recent 3 week lone adventure in California. I had never been to America on my own, I knew nobody and planned to spend most of the time exploring on my own. These are just general guidelines, a lot of people have done things differently and they had a successful trip, but if you're looking to travel on your own for your first time, these might be a good start...

  • First things first, it might be tempting to announce your itinerary on Facebook, but the less people who know you'll be by yourself, the safer. You don't know who's viewing your posts, who's looking at your friends' News Feed or who's overhearing your conversations. It's best to only let your closest friends and family know.
  • I gave my flight details and the addresses of my AirBnB to my parents, including the hosts' contact details. So they can check things up if I haven't contacted them upon my arrival.
  • It's important to let someone know where you'll be each day (advice from my concerned friend, Jonathan). I did not know anyone at my destination, nor was I meeting anyone, but I stayed in an AirBnB, so I left a note on my bed with my contact number, the place I'm visiting that day and my expected time of return. Not that the hosts are likely to go into my room, but if I went off the radar, the note should be of help.
I loved LA's Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax
  • One of my fears was losing my passport! I had a JP sign a photocopy of my passport and kept that in my suitcase, and I also noted the address and contact number of the NZ embassy in LA. If you're staying in a hotel, use the safety deposit box to securely store your passport. But because I stayed in an AirBnB where there were other guests coming and going and no lock on my door (or no door, for that matter), I took my passport with me. Good news, I didn't lose my passport! I kept it in my bag, separate from my purse, and my bag came with me everywhere I went.
  • This is your social media guide: as I've mentioned, keep details of your lone trip on the downlow and only tell people with the intention of them to keep tabs on you. Unlike my other social media platforms, I know everyone on my Snapchat friends list so I used it to let people know where I am as I go along. I was fortunate enough to get a USA phone plan with heaps of data, so I could use the live updates to my advantage. Everything else (Instagram, YouTube, Facebook) was quiet for a while. You just don't know how people could track you down. I have been able to figure out where some YouTube vloggers lived just by watching their vlogs.
Andy Warhol at San Francisco MoMA
  • This is me being overly cautious, but I didn't want people there to know that I was on my own and had no contacts in the city. Of course, I met people and to make friendly conversations they asked where I'm from (despite me putting on an American accent, sometimes the Kiwi accent would slip in). It's okay to make up a story! I'm meeting my brother later/ I'm staying with my uncle/ I'm waiting for my dad to pick me up... 
True story: I was on the bus on the way to a shopping mall and a guy asked me if I was in LA on my own. I said I was going to the mall by myself because my family didn't want to come with me. He said, "Oh okay, cos I thought you were alone, which would be fine if you were a guy but as a girl..."
Just be wise and wary of who could be listening in.
The irony that I did not have friends with me
  • One of the things I didn't plan very well was night time travel. I loved how the shops stayed open til 10pm but I did not plan how I would get back after that. I took public transport most of the time but I did not feel comfortable taking the train or waiting in a quiet bus stop/ subway at night so I took Uber/ Lyft instead. Although that blew the budget, sometimes the price is worth the peace of mind. Also, did you know there are gangs in East LA?!
  • Which brings me to my next point- know the unsafe places. I asked my friends who had been to the city before to point out the places that I shouldn't go to after dark on my own. And make sure you know where the places are on the map! Tenderloin does not have signs that say "Naive girls, keep out". 
  • The only time I needed someone there was when I was trying to figure out how to pay at a restaurant! I did not know how to tip or how to pay the bill, thank goodness my friends on Facebook were quick to help!
Disadvantages of travelling alone: some selfies are difficult to take

You can be overly-cautious, but don't let this dampen your trip, don't view everyone as a potential threat. Enjoy the moment and the things you discover.
Plan for the worst, expect the best, don't get Taken.

Have an enjoyable time! You'll love travelling by yourself.



22 Dec 2016

Exploring LA by public transport; my observations

"Nobody walks in LA." I've heard that statement many times even before I planned on going to LA.

I believe in sustainable methods of transport. Bus, train (and recently, cycling) is my main mode of transport in Auckland. Traveling by public transport in LA was also the perfect chance for 'career development'; widen my view as I enter the transport engineering field.

These are my observations as I took the Metro train, bus and Uber/ Lyft to get to my destinations (mainly museums, galleries, malls and tourist spots):

As it is in Auckland, the car is still first choice and one-person-one-car was common to see. LA is similar to Auckland because it is a large city, with job prospects attracting many people to live there and urban sprawl is very evident; it is one of the main reasons why people choose to drive. The other being public transport's bad reputation; I wanted to find out exactly what is meant by that.

The differences I observed between Auckland and LA that would affect travel options mostly lie in the geography and the climate. LA is flat but when I was there in early October, temperatures were in the 30 celcius range. I was drained and an uncomfortably sweaty mess after walking 10 minutes to the grocery store. This affected my travel decisions right from day one.

The other factor that affected travel was safety, mainly at night. I was by myself and it was my first time the city. For this reason, it was a lot more practical to catch Uber/ Lyft after sunset. I did catch the train and bus a few times in the evening but I felt uncomfortable waiting in the underground station. There weren't a lot of people and the ones there looked scrungy. My wise friend said, "don't do anything the locals don't do." It felt much safer to take an Uber instead.

The first thing my Uber driver told me was that I'll have a memorable time in LA and the only bad thing is the traffic. He said this as we start-and-stop our way out of LAX at 7:30am on a weekday. It was a 13 km ride to my Airbnb and it took 40 minutes. That averages out to be a speed of 20 km/hr.
The LA traffic... It is always a topic of conversation whenever the city is mentioned.
"What do you think would make the traffic situation better?" I asked my driver.
He said more toll lanes. Currently there are dedicated motorway lanes that charges a fee if you drive on it. Basically if you want to get somewhere faster, you pay. The rest of the motorway lanes are free of charge but likely to be more congested.
I did come up with this idea (it was one of those shower thoughts) last year, before I knew it already existed. I emailed someone from Transportblog to ask if it was viable in Auckland. A reply pointed out some issues with this; social fairness (to some, the toll fee may be nothing, but to others staying in the congested lane could be the only option), and taking out one lane out of three in Auckland would cause capacity issues.
How much more time could it save? What would the fee be to make the time savings worth it? What if everyone chooses the toll lane and makes it redundant?

What I loved about travelling in LA (and other parts of California) is the grid street layout. Oh how this made wayfinding SO MUCH EASIER.
"It's on Hollywood and Vine", "Walk about two blocks down", "This bus stops at Sepulveda and National".
Everyone gave directions using intersections. The train stations are named after the intersections. The bus stops were placed close to intersections, so it was very easy to find.
The street names continued for many blocks, so if an address is on Santa Monica Boulevard, it may not necessarily be in Santa Monica, it could be in Beverly Hills or Hollywood. Which is why you could have an address at number 6000 and it was more effective to navigate via intersections. So when I got off the train at Wilshire/ Normandie station, I knew exactly where I was; at the intersection of Wilshire Blvd and Normandie Ave.

wide roads, wide lanes

On the main road near my Airbnb, the footpaths were wide. A girl went past me on her beautiful cruiser bike. She had a cellphone stand mounted on it and was using it to text while waiting to cross (where can I get one of those?). She hopped on the cycle lane on the righthand side of the road next to the parked cars. Or was it a cycle lane? It had a bike and arrow symbol painted on the road but as I watched, cars drove over the symbol. There was no delineation either, it is essentially a 'suggested' bike path. I learnt these are called "sharrows", a shared cycle lane. What a joke! The traffic lanes are wide, three on each side of the road and looked under-utilised the times I observed as I waited for my bus.
I observed the same throughout the next two weeks in LA; wide roads and multiple lanes.

Like the girl on the cruiser bike, a lot of the cyclists I saw were the average guy and girl, no lycra; just shorts and tshirts. No helmet either, it is only mandatory in CA if you are under 18. They took their bikes on the train or stand it on the rack on the nose of the bus.
Buses with cycle racks.
They have buses with bike racks on Waiheke Island, but not in mainland Auckland. I started to daydream about getting to the cycle tracks in Auckland without having to take the bike disassembled in the car.
The trains were less cycle-friendly though, you had to stand with your bike by the door, but that didn't stop a lot of people.

Public Transport
LA's main public transport system is run by Metro. I downloaded the LA Metro app but found Google Maps more adequate and reliable for journey planning. I purchased a Tap card with multi-day passes. These were available for purchase at machines at the train stations, the bus driver or Tap vendors.
The fee for Metro buses and trains is a flat rate of $1.75 (about $2.45 NZD with the current exchange rate), and varies with other bus operators like Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and Culver City Buses, which have their own fare structure. I made sure I had exact change for those buses, since drivers do not give change.
Because of this flat rate fee, there is no need to tap off. Still, with this low fare, there is still fare evasion. Sherrifs patrol the train stations occassionally (whom, may I add, carry guns) and I witnessed a man getting kicked off for not being able to display his Tap card.

Grade separated train station

My main method of transport was by rail. It was more convenient and better than start-and-stop journey by bus.
Although there were no real time displays at the stations, the trains come frequent enough for me not to worry about missing a departure. The displays that I noticed however, were suicide prevention posters at the station and zero tolerance for harrassment posters inside the trains.

I missed the cleanliness of the <2 year old electric carriages in Auckland. I also missed the open continuous carriages for crime prevention reasons. Dirty, smelly carriages (and people) make you feel uncomfortable. There is something to be said about well-kept public spaces. More CPTED is needed in LA.

The bus stop near my Airbnb smelled like urine. Out of the corner of my eye I saw what I thought was a rubbish bag move. It was a homeless person.
In general did not have a pleasant time taking LA public transport, no matter how easy it was to find the bus or how frequently the trains arrived. The comfort that is found in Auckland's clean seats was sorely missed.
However, I did appreciate the automatic announcements on the bus for upcoming stops. This was not a feature found in trains so I had to pay attention and keep looking out for signs.
I did not have to walk far to transfer between buses. But I did mind waiting in the hot sun! With no real time displays, even a 10 minute wait in the scorching sun felt too long.
On a side note, I felt dumb after waiting awhile for the back door of the bus to open and let me out. I was not aware it was a "touch and exit" door until someone behind me pushed it open.

I was lucky enough to not experience the infamous "LA traffic" during my 2 week stay, due to my relaxed travel itinerary. Except for one weekday, 5:30 pm in Downtown LA. I had to get off the bus because it was not moving. I walked and got to the museum earlier than the bus.
Traffic in DTLA

Ever since I took CIVIL360 Transportation Engineering 1 in my third year at uni, my thoughts as I walk and drive consist of analysing road elements.
There was something physically different about the roads in LA. Are they a lighter grey?? They have very minimal lane markings, the roads looked simple and wide. I did not see any NSAAT lines nor flush medians. Upon further observation I found that the curbs are painted red to mark "no parking" zones.
Green paint used to mark 30 minute parking limit.
Profound. Why do we not do this in New Zealand? (Not a rhetorical question, if you do know please tell me.)

Another profound observation is that I saw no roundabouts. New Zealand is full of them. We like them for their efficiency and low maintenance costs. But during the 3 weeks that I was in California (San Francisco and San Jose included), I saw none.

What I did see was 4 way intersections which are controlled by STOP signs. They are first-come, first-go basis, not by turning hierarchy. So you have to remember who arrived at the intersection before you.

This one time I took Uber, the driver turned right when the traffic light was clearly red. I almost gave him 1 star for the ride before I found out that it was actually legal. Right turns on red are essentially slip lanes. As long as there are no oncoming cars or pedestrians crossings, you are free to turn right (the NZ equivalent of turning left).

Being a pedestrian
I did a lot of walking in LA. It is better to take photos on foot, but truth is I got off at the wrong bus stop a few times.
The main thing I noticed is that the crosswalks don't buzz. So when you're waiting to cross the road, pay attention, or you'll look silly waiting for the next green!
The reason the crosswalks in NZ buzz and have a vibrating button when the symbol flashes green, is to cater for people who have hearing and sight difficulties. Which makes me wonder how they cater for those disabilities in LA.

I loved LA. I love the grid layout of the streets, I love the proximity of PT services to the tourist attractions. I love the endlessly sunny days. I got to explore Santa Monica and Venice Beach by rented bike and it was the highlight of the trip. There are issues to be dealt with that go with every big city; homelessness, crime, traffic jams. But if I went to LA again, I'd do it all by PT. It was doable with my relaxed itinerary and much less stressful than figuring out 4 way intersections.
I saw a lot of promising construction going on, mainly the extension of the purple Metro line and the Crenshaw to LAX rail line, which will significantly reduce travel times to and from the airport.
Improvement, it looks like, is on its way.