hg: A Farewell to Cars

-

Car ownership is something most of us strive for. When we turn 17 (in the UK), standard procedure is to take our driving tests as quickly as possible and win our freedom.

And then we grow up, earn more money, and buy more expensive cars. Not only do they get us from A to B faster and in greater comfort, they also serve as handy status symbols.

But do cars actually make sense?

Pros

Convenience. Public transport can be a faff, walking takes ages, driving door to door is usually more appealing.

Sometimes necessary. If you live in the middle of nowhere with no public transport, you probably need a car.

Driving can be fun. Hitting the open road is a great feeling… until you hit a traffic jam.

Some cars are sexy. Like a Honda Jazz or Skoda Yeti.

Cons

Cost. Depreciation, insurance, road tax, repairs, services, petrol. It all adds up. Plus the public money being pumped into road networks - £1.3bn is the latest package announced in the UK.

Admin. Buying (and selling) a car is stressful. And once you do, they come with a lot of paperwork. Keeping on top of things like insurance, road tax, warranties and repairs is just another drain on our mental bandwidth.

Waste of time. Driving requires all your focus. You’re not able to do much except stare at the road. Other forms of transport don’t waste your time. A bus or train journey is free time – you can read, work, eat, watch a film, look at people (until they see you looking and it gets awkward), or perhaps just get lost in your own thoughts. Walking is the best activity for contemplation, conversation, and admiring your environment.

Environmental impact. Emissions of greenhouse gases and other toxins are incredibly damaging, not just to the environment but also to us. Cars and trucks contribute one-fifth of all greenhouse emissions in the US, for example. And as oil becomes more scarce, extraction becomes more damaging. But most troubling is air pollution. London, for example, exceeded it’s annual air pollution target for 2017 in just five days and “road traffic is the biggest culprit.” The mayor’s office estimates air pollution causes the death of 9,400 people per year in London alone.

Health issues. Driving means you are sedentary, often stressed, and breathing exhaust fumes that seep into your car when in traffic. This all creates a very hostile environment and has been linked to numerous health problems. Accidents also happen.

They ruin cities. Is it just me or are pedestrianised areas of cities usually the best bits? The effort to make cities perfect for cars doesn’t make sense. They only bring congestion, noise, smog, danger, and more tarmac. People are what make cities great. The lowly pedestrian and cyclist should be the focus.

They divide us. When I’m on public transport, I enjoy imagining the stories of other passengers. Where are they going and why? As Tim Jackson describes in Prosperity Without Growth, public transport gives us a “shared endeavour.” We are strangers but travel together, bonded by the purpose of getting somewhere. Every bus and train carriage is a tiny community for the duration of its journey. In cars we are alone and often hostile towards other drivers.

Corrupt industry. Remember the emissions scandal?

General hassle. I’m just going to list some things I personally find annoying about cars: Being stuck behind a tractor. Looking for a parking space. Traffic. Getting repairs done. Pretending to know what I’m talking about with mechanics or car salesmen. Putting air in the tyres. Trying not to hit pedestrians. Stalling. Trying to be nonchalant after stalling. Speed cameras. Aggressive drivers. Incompetent drivers.

What does this all show?

We overvalue convenience. Despite all of those cons, we still drive when we could walk, cycle, or take public transport. The impact on our health, bank balances, and environment should be enough to deter any driver.

Obviously some of this list is personal preference – not everyone thinks a Honda Jazz is sexy. But I think it shows we need to move away from cars where possible, certainly in cities, to tackle air pollution and reduce greenhouse emissions. The happy coincidence is that we’d be better off without them. We’d be healthier, have more money and less admin, and we’d be free to make our cities beautiful and harmonious again.

Going car-free

Being car-less will take some getting used to. I’ve always had a car and driven many miles without considering the impacts. Not having that instant option of hopping in and driving straight to my destination will be strange.

I don’t think it will take long for me to forget this short-term convenience and start enjoying the benefits of a car-free life. The relief from selling it is reward enough already. It was a big, heavy lump of metal that I had to look after, administer and pay for – letting it go feels like a weight has been lifted.

What about electric cars?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “What about electric and driverless cars?” Well, getting rid of your car could make your life simpler and healthier in ways any type of car can’t rectify (i.e. saving money, getting more exercise, less admin, improving cities). But these technologies are the future. Cars will always be necessary for some people and driverless electric ones make sense, in theory.

For now, I’m glad to be free of mine and determined to arrange my life so that I don’t need another. And I’m hoping we’ll begin to move away from cars, as a society, with better public transport and cities designed for pedestrians and cyclists.