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22 May 2012

Guest Post: Car Diet - Life After the Car by Molly Fletcher

Molly Fletcher
We gave up the family car two years ago, or rather, our car gave us up. It blew up in Chiswick, West London shortly after we’d set off to go camping. The cost of repairing it was more than the car was worth, so for the first time in thirty five years, we became car less. Surprisingly, it has not been a nightmare, and looking back over the last year, being car free has brought numerous benefits. I can trace a definite improvement in our lives that started on that day.

This is an astounding statement. All my adult life I had owned a car. In the beginning it represented independence from my parents, then later it was for carrying my own children around. Having a car gave me choices, rather than relying on lifts or public transport, which was slow, expensive and unreliable. Our culture is now totally geared to car ownership, it is what we aspire to. The car we own shows our status and marks our position in the hierarchy. But something has flipped in the equation. In the real world, cars are now the slow, expensive, stressful ones. They no longer mean freedom, in many ways they imprison us.

Cars have hijacked the idea of ‘the journey’ as a pleasant experience. We sit in endless traffic jams, crammed in our disconnected worlds, pumping out a carbon cocktail. In three minutes, a car burns as much oxygen as a human being uses in a whole day. We are pushed to our limits by the rudeness of other drivers. We are left abandoned at road works, screaming and cursing at the invisible workers on the signs. If we dare to stop and catch our breath, packs of hungry traffic wardens appear from nowhere. And all is overseen by those sinister invisible cameras, watching our every move in case we step out of line.

I thought going on a car diet would be hell, but car cold turkey wasn’t that bad. We are a family of five, with three grown up sons and, living in the middle of a city we are lucky to have plenty of other transport options. We realised that actually we were hardly using the car before it died. It used to sit outside in the street and without moving, silently drain away money in tax, insurance, parking permits and rust. When we did use the car, that little voice was always at the back of our minds, coming up with vital reasons why we just had to drive: it’s raining, I haven’t got time to walk, it’s dangerous not to, I have to carry a feather round the corner, the Big Shop, I’m paying for it anyway, so why not? Our excuses were infinite. Having a car to hop into was the dietary equivalent of having a fresh doughnut stall outside our front door.

After giving up the car, we travelled much more. We started to cycle and walk, we took trains, Tubes, buses and car-shared. Occasionally we used Streetcar when we needed to carry heavy or bulky loads or we had them delivered. Of course there are people who really do need to have a car: old and disabled people, babies, or if it’s late at night or in rural areas where there are no alternatives, the car is king. But we are able-bodied, fully-grown and most of our original car journeys were under two miles, so without a car option, we had to find alternatives.

With all the extra cycling and walking, we became fitter. At first, I thought of two miles as a long cycle but over the year, my fitness and horizons have stretched. Now I think nothing of cycling ten miles – five miles there and five miles back and I really enjoy the cycle. And bikes are fantastically fast. I once cycled 3 miles from our home in NW London to teach in a school behind Buckingham Palace in 22 minutes, yet it took me 50 minutes and £5 on public transport. We also find that Tubes and buses aren’t that reliable, but when we set off on a bike, we know we’re going to get there – punctures are rare, if you’re careful. I reckon making yourself highly visible on a bike means car drivers see you and it considerably reduces the risks. Looking up your route beforehand, you can plan a way that’s back street and cycle-lane rich with light traffic.

When you’re on a car diet, you have to get your act together with different clothing and equipment for different weather. Weather - you remember that stuff? It used to be there when we were children, weather and the Great Outdoors. Do you remember how exiting it was to step outside your front door and feel the wind blowing, the sun shining, the frost in the air? Well, it’s still all out there. The saying ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’ is true. With bikes, you have to get your gear ready to grab and go by the front door. The list is quite extensive: hi viz, wind/rain proof clothing, bike helmet, lock, lights, and keys. Another plus for bikes, is they are like sturdy little pit ponies that can carry huge loads. I regularly carry a £100 pounds worth of shopping on my bike with the help of panniers, a back pack and basket it’s no problem.

Sometimes, there is no way round it and we need a car for work or to transport elderly relatives. This is where sharing a car with a friend comes in. We live close to each other and she still needs a car for her work and taxiing children around. So paying part of her annual insurance and having us use the car sometimes, helps her to not use it so often. It’s encouraged her back into cycling, something she was very nervous about initially, but she has really taken to it now. Sharing a car with her has also strengthened our friendship, in the same way sharing child care does with other parents from the same school. Car sharing means you have to be on your best behaviour. You can’t slob out and leave your apple cores and old sweet wrappers on the floor, as you would in your own car. You must leave the same amount of fuel in the tank as when you picked it up. It seems a small price to pay for what seems to us now, the luxurious privilege of driving a car.

Walking is also fast, it’s easy to walk 3 or 4 miles an hour which is the average speed of a car in London, so you might as well be walking and getting free exercise at the same time. You also see more, you start to notice the seasons changing, the buds exploding, the leaves turning and the birds singing. Walking rather than driving, has made us connect more with our local area. We have joined our residents association and our Transition Town group (transition from high carbon to low carbon). Our residents association have achieved a lot. We have got rubbish cleared, more police on the beat so the crime rate has dropped, graffiti cleaned up and trees planted, and we had a very jolly street party.

We have become born again train lovers. It feels so relaxing to be driven safely, in comfort by someone else with total responsibility. People say trains are too expensive and slow compared to the car but we have found it to be the opposite. We booked ahead last year for a friend’s New Years Eve party and got to Cumbria by train in 3 1/2 hours, half the time our car would’ve taken and for a fraction of the petrol costs. We went to Berlin by train, leaving our house at 7am and arrived in the centre of Berlin by 7pm. If you take into account travel time out to and from the airport, check in time, security checks and waiting for baggage the other end, there’s not a lot in it. Speeding smoothly along, you can see wonderful scenery out of picture windows, rather than the dreary motorway hard shoulders in a car or tiny cramped aircraft windows. We have also been to Spain, Switzerland and France by train, none of which we would have attempted by car. On a train, you can read, walk about, stretch your legs, go to the loo when you want, or go get a cup of tea. Instead of dreading long journeys as an ordeal, now I really look forward to blissful hours of reading.

Train travel means having to get much more disciplined about time keeping. Cars appear to give you more choice, but not having to decide where you’re going until the last minute, is actually more stressful. It’s false choice in the same way supermarkets appear to give you a huge range of fruit and veg from all over the planet, but they’re often unripe, tasteless and disappointing. The way cars allow you to plan multi stop offs in a day, is also an illusion of freedom. What it actually means, is that you only dip in to each, keeping an eye on the clock, rather than fully experiencing just one. Before giving up the car, we found it difficult to leave the house and so were frequently late. Now we have to decide, book the tickets and commit to an arrangement in advance. Coming by train we are able to let people know when we will be arriving and when we will be leaving. Then we don’t have to think about it again until the moment we grab a few things and leave the house to go to the station.

Luggage is much simpler without a car. When you have to carry what you take, you soon learn to whittle it down to a few bare essentials. These only take a few minutes to pack/unpack into a small bag that fits easily onto the rack above in the carriage. Trains are supposed to be unreliable but over one year, we’ve only had one journey where the train was delayed for an hour because a suicide on the tracks in a far off part of the system, ground the whole of the West country to a halt. Otherwise the trains have been on time to the minute and connections, seamless.

Another benefit of leaving car world, is we have rejoined the human race. We used to go from our house box, to our car box without a nod to the neighbours but sharing transport with strangers has made us less anti-social. People are so diverse, they have different faces and hairstyles, they dress differently, they’re all ages, shapes and sizes and different cultures. Other people are not as scary as they appear when looking out from inside a small metal box. They are often surprisingly kind and polite. When occasionally they’re not, I carry earplugs with me at all times. We always used to argue in the car, it seemed to be a flash point. We’d argue about whose route would have been better and whose music at what volume to have, we’d argue about arguing. In public, you can’t argue, so we have learnt to behave.

So being car free has made us fitter, more sociable, better behaved, less stressed and we enjoy travelling now. Our present culture revolves around the car and the burden of its escalating demands on our space, air and fuel. It’s time we shook ourselves free and taking Basil Faulty’s lead, we need to show the car who’s boss. Step away from your car, there’s an all singing, all dancing Technicolor show going on out here and it’s really very lovely.

This article was written by Molly Fletcher in 2011, a resident of Kensal Green whom I met during the recent elections. I offered to post it here and she happily agreed.

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