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Love on the bus: Can carless be sexy in a changing LA?

FILE: A Los Angeles Metro bus, an unlikely scene for romance.
LA Metro
FILE: A Los Angeles Metro bus may be an unlikely setting for romance, but could attitudes be changing?

Going carless in Los Angeles has never been easier, with ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, hipster bikes and expanding public transit options like the new Gold and Expo lines. 

Studies, including one report this month from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, show many millennials are forgoing drivers licenses and cars, and some middle-aged and older Americans are also opting out of driving.

So with Valentine's Day around the corner, we wondered: could a societal shift away from the private automobile be having a beneficial effect on the love lives of the carless, those who may have a hard time dating in a vehicle-loving city like L.A.?

Take Ben Manoochehri. Although he grew up in the Los Angeles area, he moved to San Francisco for college and never learned to drive. Now that he's back in L.A., his carless status had become a dreaded topic of conversation.

"It's the second hurdle," he said. "You have to tell someone, 'Hey, I like you,' and see if you're rejected and then a couple weeks later say, 'I don't have a car,' and then see if you're rejected again."

Manoochehri's taken hours-long bus rides to dates to avoid asking for a ride. He's endured strandings when things went wrong and he's been openly mocked on occasion.

"Not having a car in the dating context is a red flag for people," said Julie Spira, a dating guru who advises singles in L.A.

She's used to hearing from women that they won't date guys without cars, particularly in Southern California where she said, "relationships can be made or broken based on the number of freeways that divide the two of you."

The bias goes beyond logistical issues, though, and taps into deeply-held ideas about gender norms and attractiveness.

"Cars serve as a form of peacocking — in the same way the peacock uses its tail to impress the hens, cars are used as signals of social status," said Gad Saad, a professor and expert on evolutionary psychology at Concordia University in Montreal.

He points to research that has demonstrated how strongly women correlate male attractiveness with cars. In one study, women rated the same man differently on attractiveness based on the car he was pictured with. The automobiles had no effect on men's perception of women.

In the evolutionary context, females have sought mates with resources and status to feed and protect offspring. Even in modern times, cars impart an elevated social status, something that sleek vehicle commercials regularly exploit.

But as attitudes change, it's not impossible that a carless lifestyle could be considered attractive, according to Saad.

"To be green is itself a form of sexual signal," he said, noting there is growing understanding that a choice to remain carless might signify attractive qualities: concern for the environment and health, or a fun, urban lifestyle.

And that seems to have improved things for Manoochehri, our carless dude. He's now dating Christina Chase, a fellow carless Angeleno who is a law student at UCLA.

She gave up her car about a year ago and rides a bike or public transit to get around. When she learned Manoochehri also rolled without a car, her first instinct wasn't critical, but quizzical.

"How did two people in L.A. without cars end up dating?" she said. "The odds of that happening I feel are slim."

Chase didn't have to take a big leap to view Manoochehri's lack of a car as a positive.

"I mean, I'm carless. So it's — as far as I'm concerned — already sexy," she said.