A few years ago, you might have heard me utter “I’m going to try and get through my life without a car” which somehow became, “I’m never getting in a car again.”
Even reading that back sounds ridiculous. But it’s already been a year since I set foot in a car…and most of my friends and colleagues don’t even know or care about it.
Note: I’m a reasonably normal person
with a steady job and I don’t live in a tree-house.
So how difficult is it for a modern-day Westerner to live completely without a car?
It may sound strange but the real difficulty lies in friendship. Every human, whether they like it or not, has an influence on others around them. When we look out our window, watch television or surf the internet, we are hopelessly and unconsciously at the whim of others’ choices, how they act, the food they eat. Never is this influence as strong as with friends and family. Ever noticed two friends wearing exactly the same outfit? Or that it’s easier to change a habit when someone else is doing it with you? So when all your friends are driving everywhere (often needlessly), we accept this as the norm, and because so many are doing it, we regard it as acceptable – even if it is wrong (and expensive).
Whilst avoiding the car completely I’ve noticed between my friends that the drunken taxi, the lazy taxi, and the friendly lift are amongst the top offenders. I haven’t had to go out my way too much: In a year, I’ve refused around ten lifts from friends and family, five or six drunk taxi rides, and one holiday by car. Well, I still went on the holiday but took the train instead, and met my friends there, and missed the road trip, and yeah they thought I was a bit weird. Cycling or public transport covered the rest. Unfortunately though, there is still a huge number of people needlessly using the car to commute. As someone who never learned to drive, I haven’t had to make the switch, but I’m sure it isn’t easy.
Then, why outright abstention from the beloved motorcar?
The word licence, funnily enough, derives from Latin for freedom. So when I first decided a few years back to try and live without one, I was surprised by the apparent entrapment of my car-owning friends. Despite the alternatives, my friends and family would often opt to drive: wasting time parking, sitting in traffic, or not drinking alcohol that night. Of course, these all seem like small inconveniences compared to that loathsome train, but the root cause of this problem comes with a psychological basis too: social status, sunk-cost fallacy, and the car effect each adding to the appeal of driving the mighty car. Nobody dares to calculate the annual cost of it sitting on the driveway or in the car park, yet that is where it spends most of its life. Distances in petrol/diesel are memorised, but all other costs – tax, insurance, depreciation, tyre changes, maintenance, parking costs blah blah blah – are swept under the ever-growing carpet. It is sometimes not fully appreciated that the car is not the only ticket to freedom, and that another, money, is what you get when you don’t own a car. How do I afford to travel so often? My first answer is, I don’t drive.
This entrapment may not be something that regular drivers acknowledge. But what can’t be ignored is the ever increasing entrapment of people living in cities. Urban dwellers sacrifice so much space for others to sit in 5 seater cars alone, spluttering out poisonous fumes whilst pedestrians are confined to a sliver of pavement – but we have grown accustomed to it. We are used to dodging people and dogs and prams, occasionally walking on the road to avoid each other. We panic when the green man stops flashing and cars start revving, “get off my road,” the engine says, the road which you and I paid for through general taxation. And when I open my window in summer, for it is too hot here in Barcelona to leave it closed from May to September, I smell the fumes when I lie in bed. The traffic in the morning wakes me up before my alarm, but many sleep on – because they have accepted it as normal. This isn’t normal.
This is why I’m giving up the car for good.
Only recently have cities woken up to these problems and begun capitalising on urban space: Paris choosing car-free days; full city-centre bans being implemented by Madrid and Oslo; and a host of other major cities putting people before traffic by constructing new parks, more pedestrianised streets and wider pavements.
Despite my scepticism, there is a growing number of people, albeit reluctantly, renouncing their ties to the car. Although I’m the only person I know avoiding the car completely, I’m not alone in not owning one. People are coming to terms with the pointlessness of many trips and realising that their cars can sit for days without use. Driving is nowhere near as pleasurable as it used to be and a drive within a major European city is currently a massive waste of time. Time you could spend reading or surfing the net on public transport – or keeping fit on a bike – is spent idling in traffic, drumming fingers behind a few months of free holiday.
One of the simplest ways our society can get around switching is to encourage the younger generation not to drive in the first place, or at least not to own a car. For all the reasons I have heard of “needing” a car, nobody needs a car less than a 17 or 18 year old. Yet the trend still exists for people to start driving at this age, just because they can; before they understand any of the reasons mentioned above. More recently however, this age group seems less interested in owning a car and more interested in gadgets, social networking and paying for tuition fees (link) *sigh*.
It is time that councils ban all private vehicles in city centres, limit the number of taxis on the road, and that city residents who still own a car join others in finding alternative ways to commute; instead of clinging to their status symbols and taking up valuable space that could be filled with wider pavements, parks and other social amenities for the rest.