Would You Give Up Your Car?
I was 37 before I owned my first car. Now I’m reluctant to let it go
I was 37 before I owned my first car.
It happened sooner than I expected. I thought I’d make it until at least my mid-40s before succumbing to the conveniences of my own set of wheels.
My first car came about by chance really: it was an old Ford that used to belong to my partner. A rapid succession of breakdowns and hindrances (flat tyre, flat battery, knavish servicing) left her exasperated, so the rusty workhorse was handed down to me and suddenly I had a whole new set of choices on my plate (or driveway).
I wasn’t sure how to receive this new spring of freedom. Probably the first thing I should have done was to drive my friends and family around for as long as they wanted in order to repay them for the many thousands of lifts I’d taken from them over the decades.
Instead I did what most people do with a new car, which was to drive everywhere. I enjoyed to sensation of self-sufficiency, of turning up the radio and imagining I might just drive off into the night.
Without doubt, distances that I had grown deeply attuned to from walking were suddenly truncated, and new personal challenges, like road-rage, were being discovered like new pockets in an old coat.
Life without a car
I was a slow starter when it came to driving lessons, beginning my first round of coaching aged around 24. I doubt I have drive more than 1,000 miles in the intervening years.
What always put me off is the simple fact, one which seems self-evident to me, that cars lead onto more cars. Once you are a car owner it’s very difficult to turn the clock back. Intentionally or not, you adopt habits and aspects that fix as you expand your territorial range. You get a job that is a half-hour drive away and suddenly a car is no longer a freedom but a precondition.
My fear has always been of locking myself into the necessity of car ownership, so that I couldn’t exist without a car even if I wanted to. I wonder how many other crutches I have let in without noticing? Coffee, catch up TV, Wikipedia?
Life with a car
Now that I have a car of my own, all this is indeed happening. I used to walk to the train station in the morning — which is how I get to my nearest city — but now I drive most of the way to save 15 minutes. I like having those 15 minutes to eat my breakfast more slowly; I wouldn’t want to give them up now.
On the other hand, I am now able to visit my friends and family with much more spontaneity than ever before. What used to be half-day excursions are now possible to fit into a lunchtime or early evening. This is a bind I am happy to be in, one I wouldn’t want to give up now either.
And so what I feared most has happened to me: I am reliant on my car. Am I happier for it? I don’t know.
Self-driving cars and climate change
A few days ago I woke up and found my car wouldn’t start. I turned over the engine: it purred, choked and then stopped. I turned the ignition again and nothing happened. The battery was flat, and since I had a work meeting to get to I had to make a dash for it.
It hasn’t escaped my notice that a new future is on the horizon, and that owning a car may soon be on the wrong side of fashion. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, all of us will need to look at our lifestyle choices and potentially adjust our expectations of what we can expect from a “comfortable” life. In fact, I see this as the great moral and social challenge of the next 75 years.
As far as local travel goes, self-driving electric vehicles seem to make sense. Environmentally, the benefits could be enormous. And roads should be faster too, as each pod is separated by no more than a few yards, which means less aerodynamic drag and a smoother ride at junctions.
The dream of autonomous taxis has a sort of utopian aspect to it: nobody owns a car anymore, we all travel in cheaply-priced self-driving pods summoned through our smartphones. There would be need for parking spaces so vast swathes of city centres would be turned into green parks!
But only if we’re willing to give up on our own privately owned vehicles. And that means getting used to sharing rides with other people and relinquishing the dream of the freewheeling wayfarer with their hands on the wheel. Or just pulling on a good pair of shoes and walking.
My own car it still sitting on the drive with a flat battery. Maybe I’ll just leave it there.