Contributing writer Tony Pierce took a classic Hollywood tour in a rented EV.
For the longest time, I’ve wanted to try LA's affordable rental EVs. And ever since I hosted LA tour guide Brian Donnelly on my podcast in 2021, I’ve wanted to join him on one of his celebrated driving tours of Hollywood. Recently, I got to do both things at once.
BlueLA, an EV rental service, has forty locations around Los Angeles. You’ve likely seen their distinctively-marked white-and-blue Chevy Bolts at curbside charging stations. They’re practically everywhere — on busy streets, side streets, next to schools, and near grocery stores.
BlueLA was launched in 2018, after the City of LA received a grant from California Climate Investments and partnered with Blink Mobility to roll out the electric vehicle car-sharing pilot program in low-income communities like downtown, Boyle Heights, Echo Park, Chinatown, Koreatown, and Westlake.
Renting one of the vehicles is relatively easy, but it can take several days to become a member (which is required). First, you download the app and take a photo of your driver's license and the credit card that will be billed.
Membership is just $5 a month. However, if you can show that you are of low income (eg: someone living alone making under $41,000 or receiving Medicaid or Food Stamps), that monthly rate drops down to $1 a month.
Once your membership is approved, the rates are 20 cents a minute with a minimum of fifteen minutes. Or, you can choose plans of $20 for the first three hours or $33 for the first five hours. If you exceed the time you have committed to, fret not: it's just 20 cents a minute thereafter. Super affordable.
Now it's time to find your car. Using the app, you can reserve a vehicle by finding the nearest available one on the map. Once you get to it, it's very easy to unlock the car via a button on the app.
Next, you are instructed to take photos of the car. This protects you from any damage the previous renters might have caused. My car, for example, smelled of cigarettes and had a giant stain on the back seat. I was relieved to see there are comment fields in the app where I could note these things so I wouldn't get charged for them. Once you've completed these steps, you press the button on the car's ignition and you're off. It's that simple.
The Bolt has been in the news recently because in April Chevy announced that it will be discontinuing the peppy EV so it can spend more time producing electric trucks. This sent shockwaves around social media, and fans mourned, because at below $30,000, the Bolt was the lowest-priced EV to qualify for the federal $7,500 rebate. And, as I soon learned, it's a heck of a car.
Despite looking small from afar, inside it's spacious, and the pickup is impressively responsive. The only thing Chevy seemed to skimp on is the dashboard, which was serviceable but lacked the space-agey zing you find in a Tesla and its peers. Fine with me. This car was the obvious choice for the BlueLA fleet due to its low cost, its comfort, and its 200 mile range — which is really all the range one would need for tooling around the city for a few hours.
I drove to the center of Hollywood to pick up Brian Donnelly, perhaps the city’s most celebrated tour conductor. Los Angeles magazine once said of this Hawaiian-shirted guide, “Of the scores of tour drivers who ply their trade in Hollywood, he’s widely acknowledged as the best, the one who combines an encyclopedic knowledge with an irresistible patter.”
Our first stop was the corner of Gower and Yucca, at a complex called The Princess Grace Apartments.
“It used to be called the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel,” Brian noted as we easily slipped into a small parking spot that could accommodate only a compact vehicle like this Bolt. “The Everly Brothers and other musicians used to stay here. The brothers had a piano player named Warren Zevon who wrote a song about the hotel called Desperados Under the Eaves that came out in 1976.”
I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel.
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lyin’
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles, I’m gonna drink ‘em up
And if California slides into the ocean like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill.
Zevon's prediction was spot on: decades later, it's still standing.
Driving south down Wilcox, we stopped by a huge, fading mural where dozens of Hollywood celebrities of years past are immortalized. Thanks to the Bolt’s nimble steering and tight turning radius, we were able to make a quick U-turn in the middle of the street to nab a good picture.
“This mural is called ‘You Are The Star,'” Brian informed me. When he gets going, it's nonstop facts, dates, names, and enthusiasm. He loves telling his stories so much that sometimes tears well up in his eyes. Given the years he’s worked for the likes of Starline and Dearly Departed Tours, you'd think he'd be over it. He's not.
“If you’ve seen the movie La La Land, this is one of the murals Emma Stone's character, Mia, walks past,” he noted. “She passes the likenesses of Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, W.C. Fields, and James Dean. In the movie the colors are enhanced. But this is the mural.”
We made a left on Ivar and drove north up a steep hill where Brian made me stop near an apartment at the top of the hill. The Bolt may be the lowest priced EV on the market, but it didn’t strain ascending the hill, which was a delight.
“That's the apartment from Sunset Boulevard,” he explained, referencing the 1950 film. “Remember the beginning?” And then he recited the narration:
I was living in an apartment house above Franklin and Ivar. Things were tough at the moment. I hadn't worked in a studio for a long time.
So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week. Only I seemed to have lost my touch.
Maybe they weren't original enough?
Maybe they were too original?
All I know is, they didn't sell.
“This is Joe Gillis — where he lived at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard,” he continued. “So when you pull up here, you're gonna see the archway. And his apartment is the second window above it. The camera goes right into the window. Sunset Boulevard, in my opinion, is one of the best movies.”
After a while, we found ourselves crossing the actual Sunset Boulevard, heading south to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Without the convenience of a traffic light, we had to zip across several lanes of traffic when there was an opening, and the Bolt lived up to its name and scooted us across safely.
Nestled between Santa Monica Boulevard and Paramount Studios, the cemetery is home to many actors, writers, rock stars and regular folk. Cats and peacocks patrol the sixty-two-acre resting place that first opened in 1899.
On the east lawn, a few feet away from Douglas Fairbanks' crypt, the cemetery hosts concerts and movie screenings on summer nights. Hollywood Forever's Día de Los Muertos festival is so popular that traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard usually slows to a crawl the October weekend it's held.
Once inside, Brian showed me the headstone of cartoon voice legend Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble, Woody Woodpecker), on which, above his name, it reads, “That's All Folks.”
Unlike in most cars that use gasoline, in this one, when we slowly drove around the grounds, we were as silent as the souls. Not even the squirrels seemed to notice us.
We saw the glorious statue of Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone next to the cemetery’s small lake. Nearby, Brian pointed to the simple gravestone for Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, adorned with little trinkets and bunches of flowers fans had laid around it.
Not far from those gentlemen, with a small Ukrainian flag next to it, a black stone read “Halyna Hutchins.” Halyna is the cinematographer who was accidentally killed on the set of Rust, when Alec Baldwin shot what he thought were blanks,” Brian explained.
“You can get maps of where everyone is buried online,” he said, holding up his phone, “and people should when they visit, because there are so many interesting people here. Up here on your right, you see where those flowers are on the corner? Okay, that's Holly Woodlawn.”
And then Brian sang the opening lines from the Lou Reed classic, “Walk The Wild Side.”
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she.
She says, “Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side”
“That's Holly,” he told me.
After our tour was over and I drove Brian to his home, I circled back to where I originally picked up the car. As instructed on the app, I took pictures to show I hadn't damaged it, inserted the charging cord to the car's charging port, clicked the app a few times to close out my rental, and it was done.
Not only was the car a dream to drive around the city, but also, renting it had been easy. No keys, no paperwork, no waiting in line, no insurance to bother with, and no worry about refueling the vehicle. My grand total for having the car for a little over 4 hours was $33.00.
And seeing Hollywood through Brian’s eyes was priceless.