Car lessons from along the Arroyo Seco Parkway

The entrance of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, aka the 110.

Tess Vigeland: Our first stop is just a short drive up the 110 freeway to the beginning of the Arroyo Parkway. It opened back in 1940. At the time, the Auto Club of Southern California hailed it as saving each driver six cents per trip over driving on surface streets from downtown to Pasadena. Now, it carries more than 122,000 cars every day. And all right here were are at Lacy Street Park.

We're here to meet up with Dexter Ford, automotive writer for the New York Times, based here in L.A. And Steve Mazor of the aforementioned Auto Club of Southern California.

Dexter Ford: Thanks Tess.

Steve Mazor: Glad to be here, thanks.

Vigeland: So, let me start with you Dexter. You've been writing about cars and Los Angeles for many years now. What is it about the Arroyo Parkway that kinda screams L.A. and L.A. drivers?

Ford: It's a wonderful, ancient parkway. It opened in 1940 and it was the first freeway, it was the first limited-access highway in Los Angeles. So it was built with a 45-mile-an-hour speed limit and built for 1940 automobiles. It's a wonderful experience. Now, it's very twisty and turny. It's kinda like a roller coaster ride, but you have to steer.

Vigeland: And it symbolic of today's Los Angeles in any way?

Ford: It's the primordial freeway, and L.A.'s one big freeway, so the whole culture of being in your car and your being a real central part of your life kinda began on the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

Vigeland: Well, Steve, speaking of the car being a central part of our lives, it certainly takes up an enormous part chunk of many budgets in this country. We brought you in, because AAA does an annual survey of what are cars cost us (PDF). Tell us what you found this year.

Mazor: The cost of operating a car seem to continue to go up and we all see that these days with gas prices nearing new highs again. But in reality, the price of fuel is not the most expensive thing that we pay for with cars. It's the car itself. When you buy it, it costs a lot of money and then as you use it, the value of that car goes down. And when you're done with it, it's almost worth nothing. So depreciation is the number one highest cost, but that's really fixed. When you buy the car, that's what it is.

Vigeland: Float some numbers to us from this survey of what we in America are paying to own our cars these days.

Mazor: If you drive the typical, 15,000 miles per year, it's around 58 to 59 cents per mile, when you consider insurance, registration, taxes, that depreciation, fuel, maintenance and tires, and with gas going up as we speak.

Vigeland: Yeah.

Mazor: But the enjoyment and the use that we get out of them are worth it to us, as we need to be able to get where we're going and the car is the most efficient way to do that and that's just the cost of living.

Vigeland: Well, Dexter, let me pick up on that and ask you as we stand here alongside the first freeway on Los Angeles -- and this is a question that we're asking throughout the show today: Why are we so willing to spend so much money on our cars?

Ford: Well, our cars are part of our personalities. They're part of the brand of who we are. They're as much a part of you as your clothes or your shoes, and especially so in Los Angeles, where so many people spend so much time on their cars, it's a part of the culture. With the suburbs being spread out and needing to get different places, now the world is built so that you need a car to get around in it.

Vigeland: Do we place too much, not enough, just right importance on what our car says about us?

Ford: Well, I review cars for a living, so no! Rationally, sure. Look at all the people driving on the 405 freeway in beautiful BMWs and Mercedes and Bentleys. A Toyota Camry is pretty much just as good a car for 99 percent of the things that they're going to do with it. And the people who have the crazy turbo Porsches and the wonderful Ferraris almost never go out onto country roads or go up on the mountains and actually drive them the way they're meant to be driven. And even if they did, a better driver in a worse car, in an average car is going to go faster than a bad driver in a great car every time.

Vigeland: What are a couple of really big mistakes that we make when it comes to our cars and our finances?

Ford: Thinking that you have to have a new car all the time is a big mistake. You can easily beat the depreciation problem by buying a 10-year-old car. So there are ways around it. You have to reconcile the fact that you're going to be the person with the old-looking car. You can't let fashion, you can't let emotions drive the equation.

Mazor: People often buy cars that have more than what they really need. Look around here, you're gonna see four-wheel drive SUVs and pick-ups on a vehicle that has never seen snow or dirt. You need the right-size car for the use.

Vigeland: All right, a couple of great lessons there. And we'll be repeating those as we go through this program today. Dexter Ford of the New York Times, thank you so much for joining us here along highway 110, the Arroyo Parkway.

Ford Thanks Tess, great to be here.

Vigeland: And Steve Mazor of AAA here in southern California, thank you as well.

Mazor: I'm glad to be here, thank you.

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