I’ve been without a car now for more than a year. After I discovered that the new catalytic converter needed to make my ageing Chrysler PT Cruiser roadworthy again would cost more than the vehicle was worth, I decided it was time the old charger was put out to grass. I’m glad it went to a good home – a nice chap from Wanstead who converts them into customised off-road rally cars – rather than a breaker’s yard.
I thought about getting a replacement, but as the weeks turned to months, I realised I was managing perfectly well without one. I had rarely driven into central London, as parking – if you can find a place – is prohibitively expensive, and as of 8 April, my car would have been subject to the new emissions levy, in addition to the congestion charge.
Most of my car journeys were short local runs that I could have made on foot or by public transport. And if I need a motor for a weekend jaunt, I can rent one for less that it used to cost me to park outside our house for a year.
Of course I miss the car occasionally, especially waiting for a bus on a cold, rainy night. The sense of movement within a space that’s your own, the power of the 2-litre engine, the lights glowing on the dashboard, the radio, the comfortable seat with the armrest down…
But there are compensating benefits. You can’t read while driving, as you can on public transport. Walking, or travelling by bus, you notice things you wouldn’t from behind the wheel; snatches of conversation, street markets, curious architectural details, ghost advertisements fading on walls, small signs of the changing seasons…
And then there is the financial saving: insurance, road tax, MOT, servicing, repairs, AA membership, petrol and parking permits added up to something in the region of £2000 a year. That was a significant burden lifted.
Nor could I ignore the environmental impact of driving: the carbon emissions, the air pollution, the contamination of soil and groundwater by fuel and particulates, the flooding caused by people paving over front gardens to create off-street parking, and the hideous mess that traffic congestion has made of our towns.
To escape from the computer, get some exercise in the open air, and do something to help the environment, I volunteer once a week at a local nature reserve. I could hardly be unaware of the irony of driving the 4km there and back.
Now I get the train. It’s just two stops, and takes only five minutes, followed by a pleasant 1km walk through the woods from the station to the containers where the volunteers meet, so I’m getting some exercise before I even start work.
Of course, it is easy to manage without a car if you live in a major city with decent public transport. A fascinating map posted on Twitter by David Ottewell, head of data journalism at Reach, shows the proportion of commuters across the UK who drive to work compared to those who walk, cycle or use public transport. It’s very revealing: outside the big cities, most people drive.
They don’t really have much choice. Public transport in rural areas, and on the margins of our smaller towns and cities, is sparse, infrequent and unreliable. If we want to persuade people to be less dependent on cars, we need to provide viable alternatives.